Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Example of a Good Query Letter II

You wanted it you got it. Below you'll find an example of a query that tickles the old partial-requesting region of my brain, the very powerful section of gray matter that manages to overrule the part of my brain that says, "But you already have 12 partials and 2 fulls in your inbox!! What are you trying to do to me??"

First I'm going to just print the letter so you can get a sense of the flow, and then I'll point out some of the parts that I thought were particularly effective. Thanks very much to author for agreeing to participate! As always, please be exceedingly polite in the comments section if you're providing feedback or disagreeing with something, because otherwise I might just have to activate the part of my brain that deletes impolite commnets.

Here goes!

I have been reading your blog since (the dearly departed) Miss Snark mentioned it, and I have enjoyed and learned a lot from your posts. I like your straightforward style, and I hope you will be interested in my novel.

When her husband leaves for a month-long overseas charity project, Candice Warburton is facing a possible cancer diagnosis and grieving the recent and unexpected deaths of her much-loved in-laws. The last thing she needs is the man who broke her heart ten years ago as the new client at work. Unfortunately, that's exactly what she gets.

My 85,000 word women's fiction novel, LIFE, LOVE, AND A POLAR BEAR TATTOO, explores how a tiny crack in a marriage can widen into a devastating split, and how honesty, however painful, is always worth the price.

Several of my several short stories have been published, most recently in Dark Cloud Press's THOU SHALT NOT anthology. My co-written entry in the 2005 Three Day Novel contest ( was honored with a short-listed finish.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my submission.

The thing I like most about this query is that it flows extremely well. A good flow is perhaps the most important aspect of any good query. Whenever I come across an awkward turn of phrase (like "I've written a 100,000 word historical fiction.") or extended passive voice ("the main character was betrayed and has decided to not be a sucker anymore"), or if there's a poor word choice where it's clear it's not a typo, 99% of the time I reach for the rejection button. Professional writers just don't make mistakes like this -- the sentences wouldn't look right to them. This author, on the other hand, doesn't have a misplaced word in the entire query.

The second thing I like about this query letter is that there is very good conflict. The main character is clearly reaching a crisis point in her life, but rather than being explicitly told she's reaching a crisis, we're shown: She may have cancer, her in-laws have passed, and then there's the hook -- an old flame has resurfaced at the worst possible time. It's a very solid opening. Both ingredients of the hook are present and accounted for: Quest (overcoming cancer and grief), conflict (arrival of old flame).

The third thing I like is that there are really subtle details that go a long way toward establishing a sense of who these people are in a very short space, which, as everyone knows, is one of the hardest things to do in the short form of the query letter. In just the first paragraph we learn that her husband is spending a month on a charity mission (good person), just as she learns she might have cancer (she needs him) and as she's grieving the loss of her in-laws (she was close with them). All of these things heighten the tension for the impending arrival of the old-flame (danger!). This isn't a typical story of a woman-done-wrong-by-bad-husband-who-falls-into-bed-with-high-school-sweetheart, you get the sense that this is a good human whose life just got extremely complicated and who might make a human mistake in a weak moment. All of that conveyed in just a couple of sentences. Very tough to do, but very well done.

Then in the third paragraph she brings it home by giving a nice sense of the themes. At this point I wouldn't even have needed the writerly qualifications in the fourth paragraph, but that's just icing on the cake. It's also an appropriate length, and she gets extra points for mentioning the blog.

So there you have it. Quite a strong query letter.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What's Your Favorite Gem of a Book?

(cue ominous preview music and voice-of-god narrator):

In a world where agents receive thousands of query letters. In a time when authors dream of having their books published. The search for a good query letter continues. Tune in tomorrow for... ANATOMY OF A GOOD QUERY LETTER PART II: The authors strike back. (dun dun dun)...

Ahem. And now for your regularly scheduled You Tell Me:

As I'm sure you've heard by now, some guy in some state in the middle of the country put a match to a pile of books, supposedly to raise awareness about society's diminished appreciation for the written word. Yes, because as we all know taking books out of circulation through fire is the best way to get people to read. Well done. I shan't provide a link to the story about this individual, because if we know his name then the book burners have already won.

Now, maybe this extremely smart individual didn't catch this week's New York Magazine, which had some great articles in its summer reading issue, including one that asked reviewers to name their favorite underrated books. This is just the tip of the iceberg of incredible books that are published every year and don't get their fair due.

Well, TWO can play that game (actually anyone can play). So you tell me: What is your favorite gem of a book published in the last few years that others might not have heard about?

Mine is (Curtis Brown Ltd. books excluded) GENTLEMEN OF SPACE by Ira Sher, about an imaginative young boy whose father is chosen to be the first civilian astronaut in space in 1976. It's fascinating, with great moments and an original style.

What's yours?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Query Critique and a Few Clarifications

Hope everyone had a lovely and fulfilling Memorial Day weekend. Speaking of fulfilled, you should see my Inbox! (I know, I know -- forgive me, I'm rusty.)

I managed to spark a lot of confusion regarding my offer to critique queries after I've passed on them, namely, why did I offer to critique queries and then not critique a query? Well, you see, I'm going to do things a little differently. This is going to be more free-form. If someone asks to have their query reviewed, I might look past the query and try and elucidate why the premise of the novel didn't work for me. Or something else. So I actually was offering advice in that post to the person who asked the question even though I didn't critique the query.

As I outlined in a recent post, by the time many authors reach the query stage it's often too late. Agent blogs often detail the nuances of query letters, when really a query letter should be treated as an afterthought - if a novel is not built on a solid, marketable, original idea, it doesn't really matter whether the query is well-written or not. Conversely, if you just finished writing a wonderful book, it's almost impossible to write a bad query letter. So I'm going to try and offer some info on what types of things catch my eye in a good and bad way in the hopes of making your next project succeed.

Now. That said, to further confuse matters I'm going to critique a query today.

Here goes:

The News Clown tells the story of Thor, a young news agency reporter, as he struggles to advance in the Bay City news industry. It is a fast-paced tale about the news biz, studded with sex, humor and tragedy.

Though ennui surely crops up from time to time, it is overwhelmingly a novel of action. The story submerges the reader in Thor's news world of shootings and murders, car crashes and suicides, drug busts and fires. . . . It follows him through his shattering love affair with the ambitious lawyer Chrissy, the death of Heather, and his tangled relationship with the lonely editor Kate. . . .

In between, we encounter the antics of the war-launching, cross-dressing President Wolfgang G. Mnung . . . the suicide of rock star Christ Sunbeam . . . the execution of serial killer Stephen "Tex" Walker . . . the Lunabear Mind, Body & Spirit Expo in Colorado . . . and the Feed World Hunger Benefit with top Hollywood stars. . . .

And yes, much more. Above all, though, it is extremely well written. It has a style that combines the profane and the sublime, that mixes horror with the absurd. The result, I have been told, is a tasty and unusual -- and very readable -- elixir.

I invite you to consider representing me and this work. In the right hands, I think this book has a great chance of success.

This query fits into the mold of what I like to call the "Ingredients Query." Ingredients Queries are extremely common. They provide a list of what's in the book. Sometimes, like in this one, there are interesting parts of the book listed, other times it's just a bare bones description.

But here's the problem with Ingredients Queries: Sugar, butter, egg, baking soda, salt, flour, vanilla. Does that make you want to eat a cookie?

Ingredients Queries don't tell the story. The story is what I'm looking for.

Friday, May 25, 2007

This Week in Publishing 5/25/07

It's Memorial Day weekend, which means that if you're reading this in your office you probably don't work in publishing. Oh, I kid, people in publishing LOVE working on Fridays before holidays. It's their favoritist thing. (for the record I'm in my office)

More and more on Out of Print-gate. Simon & Schuster sent out a strongly worded defense of its position, in which it accused the Authors Guild of "perpetrat[ing] serious misinformation," then went on to describe its position.... without actually contradicting anything in the Authors Guild's letter. Just this morning, the Authors Guild struck back with a followup letter in which they categorically state "We stand by every word of our previous statement," and also provide this nugget:

"Agents reported to us that Simon & Schuster had slipped the change into its contracts without alerting agents to the alteration, which was quite subtle and easily missed. Agents also reported that when they discovered the change and questioned the publisher about it, Simon & Schuster played hardball, saying the clause was non-negotiable and wouldn’t be discussed."

The Authors Guild concludes: "We welcome and will take Simon & Schuster up on its offer to discuss this matter. We hope to report soon that it has rejoined the ranks of publishers who behave as responsible stewards of their authors’ copyrights."

As Omar from The Wire would say, "Oh inDEED."

Meanwhile, S&S forces in the UK are mobilizing to follow the lead of S&S US, and plan on instituting the same changes in the UK. I imagine this will be roughly as popular in England as calling football "soccer."

In other parts of the publishing world, agent Jonathan Lyons of the eponymous agency has some very good advice on whether you should copyright your work before you start submitting it. You can tell Jonathan has a law degree because he begins his post with a disclaimer that prevents you from suing him.

BEA is coming up (there's a handy countdown clock on the BEA website: 5 days 14:57:53 hours to go!). As previously mentioned, I'm not attending. If you are going, if you could please send me back a postcard, a bagel from Bagels on the Park, a pizza from DiFara, and a bottle of that humid, dank subway air, I'd be eternally grateful.

And finally, in a very innnnteresting move, Amazon bought independent audio publisher Brilliance Audio, marking the first time they've acquired a company that licenses intellectual content. Harriet Klausner is typing a review of Brilliance Audio as we speak.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Too Controversial?

One of the very most common questions I receive is about whether agents are rejecting a work because it's "too controversial." I'm always a bit mystified by this question. Since when is controversy a bad thing? Controversy = attention = curiosity = sales = have I told you lately that I love word math? Controversy can help a book rise up above the thousands of other books out there.

But most of the time when I'm asked this question, the author has either written a polemic or, very commonly, a speculative fiction novel that draws a straight line from the present to a horrific future. So, for instance, you have the post-global warming novel, the totalitarian president novel, the modern theocracy novel, the moral degradation novel, etc. These books are political (both right and left wing) and they express their politics very very clearly.

Here's the thing. Setting aside from the fact that an intensely political novel is turning off half of its potential audience, the problem isn't that these types of novels are controversial, it's that they're not controversial at all. If you read the newspaper you'll see plenty of doomsday scenarios about global warming, moral degradation, a powerful executive branch, etc. etc. etc. You'll see op-eds on both sides. We're gotten very used to these sorts of scary situations and inured to just about every political belief, and thus they're not at all controversial.

The great speculative fiction novels that express a deep fear about the present (ORYX AND CRAKE, 1984, BRAVE NEW WORLD) or use a real doomsday scenario as a plot device (THE HOT ZONE, THE ROAD, PARIS HILTON'S CONFESSIONS OF AN HEIRESS) don't come right out with their politics. They craft a wholly new world that centers the real fears and anxieties of characters, whatever their political inclinations. They make the worlds complex and nuanced and not at all straightforward.

Sure, ORYX AND CRAKE has implications about wealth disparity and environmental degradation, 1984 has implications about totalitarian governments and BRAVE NEW WORLD about drug dependency and eugenics. But all of these themes lurk beneath the surface and impact the lives of the characters, and the politics are secondary to the story. The authors tackle the issues in unexpected, counterintuitive and completely new ways.

So if you're wondering if your novel is too controversial, you might to ask yourself the opposite question - is it original and thought-provoking enough to be controversial?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Infinite Copyright vs. Public Domain?

Earlier this week the NY Times featured an editorial by Mark Helprin which argued for infinite copyright -- if you write a book, the rights will stay with you and your heirs until your list of begats is longer than the Book of Genesis. (Ah, Bible humor.... Never all that funny.)

Helprin notes that if you own a house it's yours forever, but write a novel and your ownership is limited:

"Were I tomorrow to write the great American novel (again?), 70 years after my death the rights to it, though taxed at inheritance, would be stripped from my children and grandchildren. To the claim that this provision strikes malefactors of great wealth, one might ask, first, where the heirs of Sylvia Plath berth their 200-foot yachts. And, second, why, when such a stiff penalty is not applied to the owners of Rockefeller Center or Wal-Mart, it is brought to bear against legions of harmless drudges who, other than a handful of literary plutocrats (manufacturers, really), are destined by the nature of things to be no more financially secure than a seal in the Central Park Zoo."

I thought the article was interesting, and immediatley I started tabulating a list pros and cons.

To wit:

You wrote it you own it, right? Shouldn't your heirs benefit from your life's work rather than the companies who suddenly have the right to print up your work for free?

Here's another argument for longer copyright, and for this I need to tell an anecdote: I was trying to sell an out of print work by a great and very dead 20th Century writer, and a publisher was all lined up and ready to go. But then we discovered that the work was in the public domain, and because they didn't have exclusivity in the marketplace (there was a cheap pamphlet of the work for sale on Amazon) they didn't think it was economically viable to proceed. So the book went from potentially being promoted and sold in bookstores by a reputable publisher to languishing out there in a corner of the Internet waiting to be discovered.

Without the financial incentive of exclusivity, publishers may determine that it isn't economically viable to produce and promote some more obscure works, and works in the "public domain" may actually end up being no more available to the public than they would be if they were under copyright. So one could argue that the public doesn't always benefit from public domain.

Do you really want to try and track down the heirs of someone who died 400 years ago in order to secure permission to use a passage of their work? Also, public domain is great for classics because publishers have to compete to produce the best edition, which has resulted in some awesome scholarly editions of old books. We all benefit from having thousands of editions of Shakespeare's plays, right?

And then there's Google. Google is in the process of digitizing pretty much every work in the public domain ever published, and now it will be easier than ever to find published books that up until now were collecting dust and keeping that creepy guy in the library stacks company. The public domain is going to be more accessible than ever.

So you tell me: should there be a time limit on intellectual property, and if so, what should that limit be?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

How to Craft a Great Hook

First of all, allow me to express my shock that Bachelor Andy Baldwin chose Tessa over Bevin, who was so into our favorite officer/gentlemen I think she was a few one on one dates away from starting an Andy-based religion. Don't get me wrong, I like Tessa just fine, she seems like she'd be a fine person to go bowling with, but towards the end she kind of looked like a caged animal searching for an escape route. She tried just about everything to get herself eliminated short of assaulting Andy and demanding that he pick someone else, although honestly, I'm not sure even that would have worked because it seemed like she was pretty much the coolest person that Andy had ever dated and he was stunned by the mere experience of being in her presence.

So.... wow.

Anyway, one thing you always hear agents talk about and is repeated over and over on writing message boards is the necessity of a great hook. People always say you need a great hook for a novel. Hook hook hook, all anyone talks about is hooks. Well, let me add my two cents on the matter: you need a great hook.

A hook is what will attract an agent to your project, and, later on, a reader to your book. It's that magnet that draws people to the story and makes them want to read more. It's really essential. But what, really, is a hook?

Let's think of some great hooks in literature:

A man goes into the jungle to search for a missing general (HEART OF DARKNESS)**
A reclusive chocolateer opens up his factory to the lucky children who find golden tickets (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY)
A monomaniacal sea captain forces his crew to search for an elusive white whale (MOBY DICK)
A train engine thinks it can make it up a hill (THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD)

What do those have in common?

In order to describe what makes a great hook, let's start with what a novel really is, which is a quest. Whether it's a quest in the mind, through the jungle, through space, or through the mystical land of unpronounceable consonants (the land of unpronounceable consonants is inevitably filled with dragons and orcs), every novel is a quest that starts in one place and ends in another. And every quest needs a first step, where the character makes a decision that will change his/her life. In STORY, Robert McKee calls this the "inciting incident" -- it's the moment that propels the story forward. Ishmael joins a ship that searches for the white whale. The little engine decides that it thinks it can.

But there's more to a quest than a mere decision to embark out into the land of unpronounceable consonants. There are orcs and wraiths and demons, oh my! One of the more subtle aspects of a great hook is that it also provides the central conflict. Every character on a quest encounters obstacles along the way. The biggest conflict, whether it's between the protagonist and a villain or the protagonist and a scary world or the protagonist and himself, forms the second component of the hook. To take the hook of MOBY DICK, for instance, there's conflict between Ahab and his crew and between Ahab in the whale. And of course there's conflict between the train and the hill and the train and its self-confidence in THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD.

So essentially, a hook is the quest and the central conflict, described as succinctly as possible, designed to make someone want to read more.

Keep in mind that either the quest or the conflict may be implied in a great hook. For example, "snakes on a plane" is a hook that describes the conflict (snakes vs. people), and the implied quest is to get the mother****** snakes off of the mother****** plane. It can also work the other way. "Southern family moves to France" describes the quest in FRENCH BY HEART (moving to France), and since we know there's a big difference between the American South and France, there's an implied conflict there. But whether it's implied or stated, every hook has quest and conflict.

There you have it! Sure there's a whole lot more to the story, and a hook shouldn't be confused with a plot. A hook is a premise, it's a starting point, and it's up to you to keep the reader reading once they've opened up the book.

**UPDATE: This is a wildly inaccurate description of HEART OF DARKNESS. Whoops! Conflated in my memory with Apocalypse Now.

Monday, May 21, 2007

On Ennui

As I'm sure you know by now, Miss Snark has announced her retirement from blogging, and I'd like to extend my own appreciation of her talents and service to the publishing community. Miss Snark singlehandedly transformed this blog from a dusty Internet watering hole into a slightly less dusty Internet watering hole with a mere passing mention, and the resulting epic deluge of queries sapped all of my free time for two months. She will be missed.

So now you're probably feeling the bitter taste of ennui, you've lost a friend, your sense of disillusionment with the world has been piqued, and your color palette is trending toward blue. Life sucks, man. (That is, until you remember that the Bachelor finale is tonight). If you're feeling on the down and outs, I have a message for you: write about it at your own risk.

Perhaps the single most common query I receive is for what I call the ennui novel: a protagonist, usually a man, is stuck in a boring job, upset with the world, realizing that he's not going to be a movie star/rock star/literary star, and fed up with his life. So he either a) goes on a crazy road trip, b) engages in some CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES-style lunacy or c) stays in his state of ennui and broods until he is shaken out of his stupor by a quirky but utterly charming female character who falls for him despite the fact that he has no prospects and is pissed off a lot (think Natalie Portman in... well, pretty much every role she's ever played).

If this sounds like your novel...... don't give up hope! (Ha, tricked you. Also, this is totally awesome, but there are footprints on just about every ceiling. No, serious, you'd be surprised how many times you'll see footprints on ceilings. Ha! Tricked you again!!) The ennui novel is the source of some of the greatest works in literature, and will continue to be a source of great inspiration. ULYSSES, THE SUN ALSO RISES, CATCHER IN THE RYE, FIGHT CLUB... you name it. There are some pissed off, depressed men out there, and darn it if they don't make good protagonists.

But here's the thing about ennui novels -- they are common (at least in my inbox), they tend toward the boring, and they are often used as a vehicle to explore the vagaries and eccentricity of life, man. In other words, they tend to be plotless.

Starting with someone who is feeling a deep sense of ennui is not a plot. You have to find a completely unique spin on the genre, and let me tell you, you're up against a whoooooolllle lot of competition. There's even more pressure to come up with something really really good, and really really unique. Like a fight club. But that one's taken.

So yeah, write about ennui at your own risk. And while you're at it, you might want to get to work cleaning those footprints off of your ceiling.

Friday, May 18, 2007

This Week in Publishing 5/18/07

BIG week in publishing.

First, some background information. Typically in publishing contracts, when an author's work goes out of print there is a mechanism in place for the author to ask for those rights back so they can try and place the rights elsewhere. Which makes a lot of sense. If a publisher isn't actively selling your book, the author should have the right to find someone who will sell the book. Even if it's just that mom and pop publisher on your block with the nice cat.

Well. Things have gotten a bit more gray areaish in the era of ebooks and print on demand. Whereas before a publisher really had to be actively selling and printing your book, the new technology makes it much easier to technically keep a work "in print" even if it isn't really being actively sold -- it could theoretically just be stashed on a website somewhere and the publisher has the rights to your book in perpetuity. In response to the new technology, agents negotiated sales or royalty thresholds to define "in print" -- if a publisher is not actively selling your book, the author can get those rights back to find someone who will. Copacetic right?

Actually, no. Simon & Schuster recently decided to change their boilerplate to eliminate the out of print threshold so that basically POD and/or e-book technology would keep a book under S&S's control, well, pretty much as long as the copyright is in effect. Let's just say robots will take over the world and install a toaster as king before you'd get those rights back.

It's SO on.

The Authors Guild fired back with a rather awesome letter, Kristin Nelson used an even awesomer Death Star metaphor in her response, and even the New York Times is all over this one.

According to GalleyCat, S&S spokesman Adam Rothberg called The Authors Guild's response an "overreaction."

Oh, it's just been broughten.

Stay tuned.

In other publishing news (yes, there actually is some), GalleyCat discovered some tantalizing clues about the next Oprah pick, and promptly started the guessing game. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: guess the Oprah pick. Your clue: it's a Picador paperback. Michael Chabon denies it's KAVALIER AND CLAY. My guess is Marilynne Robinson's GILEAD, mostly because it's super amazing and incredible. But I swear I have no inside info. What's your best guess?

Over at Bookends LLC, Jessica Faust, who in my humble opinion provides some of the very best writing/agent advice on all of the internets, is doing query critiques. Best be checking that out.

And finally, BEA is coming up soon, and Shelf Awareness is all over the most important issue that faces the thousands of people who will be attending: where to find the best bagels. I would have to agree with Robin K. Blum's recommendation of Bagels On The Park on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens. This place was literally on my block when I lived in Brooklyn, and I've never had better. Oh to be young again and to eat amazing bagels on the weekend!!! Where hath the wonders of my youth gone?? (I know, I'm still young, but still.)

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Guest Blogger: Jack Lopez on Inspiration and Fiction

My wonderful client Jack Lopez has been kind enough to agree to guest blog. Jack is the author of the YA novel IN THE BREAK (now out in paperback), which tells the story of three high school surfing friends, Juan, Jamie and Amber. After Jamie beats up his stepdad, the trio steals Juan's mom's car and head for Mexico, where they have adventures, fall in love, and search for the perfect wave. IN THE BREAK is an incredible coming of age story filled with the excitement and lyricism of surfing, and tragedy as well.

Jack is a creative writing instructor at CSU Northridge (not to mention an accomplished surfer), and his post is about the intersection of real life and literature. Enjoy!

The genesis for the novel In The Break came from a number of events that happened in and around my neighborhood when I was in high school. Some of this appears in an interview with California Readers. After that interview, I realized that I had left out a main component. Here's the gist of what I told Bonnie O'Brian for the interview and what appears on their website: When I was in high school two brothers who lived a few blocks over from me met up with some runaway girls, and they went to the mountains, broke in a cabin, and stayed there a few days. When caught, they got in a lot of trouble. When I was in high school a kid's mother shot his father while he slept. The kid's mother used the battered wife syndrome as her defense, and was acquitted. When I was in high school one of my friends had a father who was abusive. Many years later I found out that his stepfather and my friend fought when he was sixteen. Sixteen was the important detail because that was the age my friend beat up his stepfather and was no longer hit by him. The biggest influence for the writing of the book was the fact that when I was in high school, my friends and I found this bay way down in Baja California where the waves were really large and the water was full of dolphins.

Yet I somehow forgot about and left out of that interview a major component that influenced the writing of the book. On the last day of school when I was in the eleventh grade--which was a half day--I went surfing at a surf spot called Trestles with my good friend. He was a senior, I was a junior. We surfed a glorious June afternoon. In those days Trestles was part of the base at Camp Pendleton, and access was restricted; therefore there were no other surfers in the water. That same night there was a big party to celebrate the end of school, and I met up with my friend. He had a motorcycle, a 250cc Scrambler, and a station wagon in which we could take our surfboards. That night he was riding his motorcycle. Before I left the party, I told him I'd call in the morning, as we were going to surf the next day. I went home, slept, and when I awoke, I called my friend so that we could go surfing. His mother answered the phone. She was weeping. She somehow conveyed the information that my friend, her son, was dead. Run down on the Pacific Coast Highway in the early morning hours as he rode his motorcycle home from the party.

You don't ever get over a shock like that. Expecting to surf with your friend only to find out that he's no longer on this earth. As a teen, of course, I didn't know how to process it. How do you process such a thing? I know I didn't cry about it for well over a year. I just buried it deep in my psyche, where it floated then submerged and finally surfaced, becoming a part of who I am.

During my high school years two friends and one acquaintance were killed on the Pacific Coast Highway, one as a pedestrian, two on motorcycles. The character Jamie, Juan's best friend in In The Break, is, I suppose, a belated tribute to my high school friend.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

How Could the Publishing Industry Become More Scentific?

As you know from Monday's post, the New York Times recently published an article that stated that the publishing industry does not devote as many resources to market research as other industries, and implicitly connected this to the fact that there is an incredible amount of uncertainty and guesswork in publishing. So this got me to thinking (watch out). Let's say the publishing industry DID do extensive market research and reader surveys and the like. What do you think they should research?

Please forgive me for a moment as I speak in the second person.

You're the CEO of a large publishing company (congrats, btw). Your company spends a great deal of money on advances for a whole bunch of books, but at the end of the day no one really knows what makes a book a bestseller. You have a young whippersnapper researching/analysis team and a substantial budget. Your goal is to remove as much uncertainty and guesswork from the publishing process as possible and, of course, increase profits.

What do you tell your young whippersnapper researching/analysis team to do?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Perils of Overconfidence

As anyone who has watched a reality television show knows, there is one sure-fire no-doubt-about-it way to tell if someone is going to get voted off the island or "auf"ed by Heidi Klum: overconfidence. When a reality tv, uh, person looks the camera in the eye, talks about how great they are and how confident they are in their alliance, before you can say Jeff Probst, poof, they've been blindsided and voted off the island. Works like a charm.

Just. Like. Writing.

Let me first start in opposite land and stress how important confidence is to a writer. Every writer, from the rankest amateur to biggest bestseller, experiences the type of rejection that would make Vlad the Impaler tear up and beg for mercy. Writers sometimes don't even have the confidence of their friends and family, it's hard work, and it takes some series intestinal fortitude to stick with it and keep on writing (that or alcohol).

Confidence = good. Confidence = important. (I heart word math)

But in my line of work I'm in contact with quite a few aspiring and unpublished writers whose confidence... well, let's just say their confidence in their writing sometimes exceeds their ability. Here's a general rule I've discovered among the unpublished: the people who are most unwilling to heed sound constructive criticism and the ones who most need to heed said constructive criticism are the ones who are most convinced of their own genius.

There's good reason for this rule to apply -- one of the absolute most important attributes of any successful writer is the ability to scrutinize their own work in order to improve it and make it better. The minute a writer starts thinking what they write is genius is the moment they stop scrutinizing their work for places where it can be improved upon, changed, or, most importantly of all, removed. A healthy skepticism is an essential tool in a writer's arsenal. Also bourbon.

So let's all learn a lesson from the hilariously inept Four Horseman alliance from this season of Survivor, who were stunned to find out that their genius plans were foiled by a formerly homeless guy named Dreamz. Overconfidence will not only get you voted off the island by someone who pluralizes his own nickname with a "z," it might just interfere with your writing as well.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Secret Formula of Bestsellers

Another day another newspaper article that slyly (or not so slyly) questions the sanity of the publishing industry. Today's entrant into this very crowded pantheon: the New York Times Business Section, who published a Sunday article (now the most e-mailed article on the NY Times website) about how the publishing industry sometimes has surprise successes and sometimes whiffs on big bets. (Just like, you know, ALL BUSINESSES.)

Among the many salvos is this one, that the publishing industry does not pay enough attention to reader input. The NY Times writes:

The answer is that no one really knows. “It’s an accidental profession, most of the time,” said William Strachan, editor in chief at Carroll & Graf Publishers. “If you had the key, you’d be very wealthy. Nobody has the key.”

The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.
A part of me wants to agree with the underlying argument. We should know our readers, it would be wonderful to inject as much science as possible into the art of selling books, and there have been wonderful advances in market research. As anyone who has watched the Apprentice knows, if you are going to try and sell some Domino's pizzas on the street you had better interview people about what toppings they like.

But then, I tried thinking about what this would entail. This isn't the movie industry, with a couple of hundred movies produced every year, nor is it even cable TV, which has a couple of hundred choices. I mean, on any given weekend a bunch of extremely smart people are estimating the grosses at the box office of a handful of movies, and they are fairly regularly caught off guard by the occasional sleeper like 300. Meanwhile, there are thousands upon thousands of books published every year, not to mention all of the books currently in print, not to mention all of the books that fill used bookstores and bookshelves. There are millions and millions of books out there. How could you begin to predict what kind of success a book will have in such a vast sea of choices?

So sure, some more market research would probably be nice -- information is always good. Publishers might be able to respond more quickly to trends, and readers might have their tastes more accurately responded to. They might be able to more effectively focus marketing campaigns and take some of the guesswork out of which books get a big push.

But let's not forget this is art we're talking about. It's subjective. An industry that markets a subjective product is always going to be based on hunches and guesses. Market research could tell you that people want a dog memoir, but it's not going to give you MARLEY AND ME. It could tell you that people like fantasy, but it's not going to give you HARRY POTTER. At the end of the day, science might make publishers more efficient, but the formula that makes a book a bestseller will always be a mystery.

Friday, May 11, 2007

This Week in Publishing 5/11/07

In a major upset, neither Cormac McCarthy nor Lawrence Wright won a James Beard award for THE ROAD or THE LOOMING TOWER, respectively, although to be fair to those exceedingly well-decorated authors, it might have had something to do with the fact that the James Beard awards honor chefs and cookbooks.

There is some actual big-time publishing news in This Week in Publishing - earlier in the year Perseus purchased the Avalon Publishing Group, and now word has come down that Perseus is closing down the Carroll & Graf and Thunder's Mouth imprints. Perseus will incorporate some of Avalon's staff in its Park Avenue headquarters, and will close Avalon's offices. The Publisher's Weekly article is here.

In related news, former Avalon head and PGW founder Charlie Winton will be spinning off the Counterpoint imprint from Perseus and will start a new publishing venture called Counterpoint LLC.

And finally, I would be remiss if I did not send you over to this post courtsey of Sean Lindsay over at 101 Reasons to Stop Writing. Reason #14: Youre Spelling is Atrowshous.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Guest Blogger: Rebecca Ramsey On Juggling Writing and Family

My wonderful client Rebecca Ramsey, author of the now-in-stores-you-should-read-it-it's-amazing-and-heartwarming FRENCH BY HEART was kind enough to agree to fill in for a day while I'm on the mend. She provides a glimpse into how one author juggles writing and having a family. Becky will be around to answer questions in the comments section as time permits (as you can see below she's very busy). Enjoy!

Since Nathan has taken to his bed, hopefully watching reruns of America’s Top Model, I’m going to take a deep breath and post in his place. As a former high school teacher, I’ve seen what classes can do to substitutes, so I’m praying that y’all will be kind to me. I think I’ll model myself after Mrs. Longbottom, my favorite substitute from my own high school days, who loved her seventeen cats so much that she used to give slide shows of them, no matter the lesson plan. Hopefully my chosen topic will be of some use to some of you, and you won’t start shooting spitballs at me.

I thought I’d write about how to juggle writing and family.

I should begin by saying that I have not mastered this juggling thing, (just ask my kids!) but maybe I can tell you what has worked for me and what hasn’t.

I’ve tried to write for many years now, have given up a few times and started again, because I couldn’t seem to help myself. I wrote when my children were babies and am still writing now that they’re bigger. I have three kids, each with his/her own social calendar, and a husband who travels all the time with work, so my house is usually a disaster area. And that brings me to my first rule of juggling...


I was one of those lucky children who grew up with a mother who greeted us every day after school with cookies warm from the oven and a spotless house. My friends were always coming over, (who wouldn’t, given the cookies?) the refrigerator was always full, and the dirty clothes my brother and I dropped beside the hamper every night magically reappeared in our dressers the next day, neatly folded and smelling of Tide.

This does not happen in my house.

After several years of self flagellation, I have learned to feel quite comfortable with a different style of mothering. I’ve discovered that children survive amazingly well with an occasional dinner of Cocoa Puffs, and that a daily doling out of Flintstones Vitamins assuages most traces of maternal guilt. I tell my kids never to eat off the kitchen floor (besides, that’s our dog’s job!) and never to let guests open the microwave. Luckily, most of my children’s friends have mothers like me, and the poor kids that don’t are more than welcome to play outside if that makes them feel comfortable. And that’s fine. The weather’s usually real nice in South Carolina!

(By the way, out of desperation, my older ones are learning how to do laundry, which I feel is an important life skill. See how effective my parenting is!)

Rule Two: Stop it with the multi-tasking!

Long ago, when my daughter was a baby, I drove myself crazy trying to write while cooking dinner, doing laundry, and cleaning up spit-up. It made me a nervous wreck and it didn’t work out very well. I don’t do that anymore. When I write, I write.

The minute my kids are out the door, I put on my blinders and march myself over to the computer, bypassing the dirty dishes in the sink and the ringing phone and the piles of laundry. (Okay, so I do stop by the coffee maker for cup #2.) Yes, I could throw the clothes in to wash while I’m working, but I don’t. I treat my writing as my job. I pretend I’m a regular person in a regular office and I concentrate.

When my kids were little and I struggled with writing and working part time or full time jobs, I’d trade babysitting with friends during any mornings off. It was hard to resist the temptation to get errands done without the “help” of whining children, but when I stayed strong and spent time writing instead, it was amazing how much I could get done.

Rule Three: Just say No!
Often PTA moms and dads who’ve heard that I “don’t work” call me up, asking me to head up a committee on this or that, or bake cookies or some such thing. I smile and say No thank you. This was especially hard to do before French By Heart sold, and I felt shy about calling myself a writer, but I made myself do it anyway. I do volunteer, but I only say yes to things that energize me. I’ve found that there are plenty of moms and dads tripping all over themselves to get in line to volunteer at school. And that leads me to Rule #4…

Rule Four: Feed your creative spirit!
I volunteer with old people because they crack me up and because they’re always telling me how young and cute I am! (I’m 42, and I’m not as cute as I used to be!) My daughter and I go look at art, or I read poetry or other books that I love. I also go to church. Sometimes I just need lolling around time, and my husband and I try to give that to each other.

Juggling writing and family isn’t easy, but I’m not giving up. My family is my best fan club there is (and I haven’t even mentioned my mother!) When disappointments come, they’re great at consoling me, and when we have something to celebrate, they’re the first ones with the high fives. And my youngest, Sam, still occasionally says, “Remember that day when Mommy got that email from that random house and wouldn’t stop screaming?” They all laugh and smile. And then they want to know what’s for dinner.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Future of Books

The blog is back, fully medicated and on the mend. I was going to make this week's You Tell Me about whether whisky or the Quil family is the best cold remedy, but this is a family blog, and besides, knowing the people who frequent this blog, whisky would win going away. (Give yourselves a round of applause!)

There's been quite a bit of angst recently about the decline of the newspaper book page and the folding of some stand-alone Book Review sections into other section of the old newspaper. Some see it as a sign of the decline of books' place in culture. On the other hand, blogs and online review sites are thriving, each year sets a new record for number of books published, and the new Harry Potter has pre-sold seven kajillion copies to a new generation of readers (and their kids too!).

So you tell me: will more people read books in the future and will there continue to be more and more books published and sold or will books lose out to competition with other media and see its cultural foothold erode?

Monday, May 7, 2007

Making Yourself Heard

Bring on the Quil family (Ny- and Day-) and warm up the chicken soup, I'm under the weather. This will be a brief post.

If you are not in the habit of checking the New York Times every day you are missing out. Not only did they report recently on the vital new Preppy Club trend, they sometimes provide some reportage about books. Old fashioned, I know.

Today they have an article about the way in which some authors are using audiobooks, and especially digital audio, to publicize their actual forthcoming books, putting the cart before the chicken and the egg. Authors are releasing original audio content to companies like Audible in addition to making their books available, and they're also getting some publicity from it.

One more way of using that newfangled technology to reach some more people. With their ears.

Friday, May 4, 2007

This Week in Publishing 5/4/07

This week in the industry that is Publishing:

Are you sitting down? Well, if you're not, I think you probably should. You're in for quite a shock. The NY Times Book Review just discovered that publishers sometimes cherry-pick reviews for blurbs like "genius" and "suspenseful" when the reviews were actually lukewarm. I KNOW. Consider my youthful naivete and innocence irrevocably shattered. The next thing you know the NY Times Book Review is going to tell me there is no such thing as an Easter Bunny. (Someone put that candy in a basket, and it wasn't me.)

Lawrence Wright will soon have a closet full of awards to even rival literary-award-receiving machine Cormac McCarthy. Wright first won an LA Times Book Prize for THE LOOMING TOWER, then he followed that up with the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award for excellence in journalism. Did I mention that book is awesome? I think I did.

Do you like Spelling Bees except for all the spelling? Well, here's your chance to hear words like "sesquipedalian" without worrying about whether it has a germanic or latin root! Houghton-Mifflin is sponsoring a "Define-a-Thon," which is just as gleefully nerdtastic as it sounds. The Grand Prize Winner will be placed in a trash can by school bullies. (Sesquipedalian of course is used to describe someone who uses excessively long words. Seemed appropriate. I know you are but what am I?)

And finally, Dr. McSteamy wrote a book! Here I was just going through my Publishers Marketplace email when I saw this: "Pediatric specialist Dr. Mark Sloan's BIRTH: The Wonders and Oddities of Life's First Day, combining memoir, history, biology, anthropology and contemporary culture, showing how millions of years of human history are encapsulated in the universal experience of birth, and the first day of life, to Susanna Porter for Ballantine, in a pre-empt, by Sarah Jane Freyman at Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency (world)." But wait, Dr. Sloan is a plastic surgeon! What in the name of Seattle Grace Hospital is going on here??

And finally finally, I would like to apologize to the real Dr. Mark Sloan, who I'm sure was living a completely normal life before the identically named Dr. McSteamy appeared on Grey's Anatomy. I am guessing the universe will seek retribution when a literary agent named Nathan Bransford appears on a television show, wins a define-a-thon, and is placed in the nearest trash can.

Have a great weekend anyone!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

This Is Not a Recording

As I mentioned in another post, I respond quickly to queries, and this has led some people to apparently think that either I have some sort of automated system that detects queries and rejects them automatically or that I, myself, am a machine. Many times people actually "test" whether my responses are real, either by sending a hostile e-mail or by directly accusing me of having an auto-rejecter.

I really really don't like to pick on aspiring writers, I know it's not a easy, it's tough dealing with rejection, and I try to make it as painless as possible for people, hence this blog.


If I could invent a query machine that could reliably detect a query in my inbox, decide whether it's good or bad, send an appropriate response and not inundate everyone who e-mails me with random rejection letters, trust me -- I'd be standing in line at the patent office dreaming of the millions I'll make off of my artificial intelligence super-duper e-mail reader. If I myself were a machine I would be standing in line at the patent office patenting myself.

Step away from the science fiction novel, my friends. This is all real.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

What Is Your Favorite Book of All Time?

One of the reasons I decided to become a literary agent is that books affect me more than any other artistic medium. I love movies, I love television, I love music... but nothing really moves me like a great book.

So this is a simple but extremely difficult You Tell Me: what is your favorite book of all time?

You have to pick one. No lists, no caveats, no subcategories, just one book: your favorite book of all time, by whatever criteria you choose.

Mine: MOBY DICK, the longest book I've ever read three times. I love the expansiveness, the plot, the characters, the way Melville uses the whale to delve into other topics... it has it all.

What's yours??

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

He Said, She Shouted Loudly

I had a question the other day from an author who was hoping I'd settle a debate that wasn't, believe or not, about sports or television, but actually was a question about writing. I was as stunned as you are.

The question had to do with variations of the word "said" and "asked." To rephrase her question, is it ok to use all those other words out there like "whispered," "shouted," "postulated," or, my personal favorite, "enumerated", instead of the word "said"?

So consider this exchange. Which do you prefer, Option A or B?

Option A:
"You two really are cowboys," Iceman said.
"What's your problem, Kazanski?" Maverick asked.
"You're everyone's problem," Iceman said. "That's because every time you go up in the air, you're unsafe. I don't like you because you're dangerous."
"That's right! Ice.... man. I am dangerous."


Option B:
"You two really are cowboys," Iceman scoffed.
"What's your problem, Kazanski?" Maverick asked confrontationally.
"You're everyone's problem," Iceman asserted. "That's because every time you go up in the air, you're unsafe. I don't like you because you're dangerous."
"That's right!" Maverick shouted. "Ice.... man," he said quietly. "I am dangerous."

I'm sure there is a lot of debate about this, and please feel free to register your opinion in the comments section, but put me in the Camp of Said (Option A).

Someone I know who went to creative writing school once told me (I'm paraphrasing here) that when you're writing dialogue it seems repetitive to keep writing "said" all the time, and it's tempting to want to change it up, thinking you're going to annoy a reader with all those "saids." But actually, a reading brain doesn't really register the word "said," and readers only need to be reminded who's talking. It should be apparent from the dialogue and context whether someone is "shouting" or "whispering" or, yes, even "enumerating," and using "said" keeps the reader's attention on the dialogue.

I'm sure there are great writers on both sides of the "said" divide, there is definitely a place for the occasional variation, and so please do not toilet paper my house tonight if you're in the non-said camp. Flip through some books to see how your favorite writers handle this one, and I bet you'll be surprised about how many "saids" you'll see. So let me know what you think on this one, and remember, you can be my wingman anytime.

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