Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Talk to Your Agent

As many of you know I have been answering questions over at the Absolute Write message board, and some of the most common questions, public and private, come from authors who have agents and want to know if their agent is normal (the answer to that question is probably no -- I mean, we are agents after all, but that's not really what they were asking). They want to know if it's normal for their agent to take four months to get back to them, if it's normal for them to be vague about where they are submitting the author's work or if it's normal for their agent to tell them that they wouldn't even use their current work in progress for kitty litter for fear of making the cat dumber.

I really respect these questions -- when the only current depiction of agents in pop culture that I know of is Entourage's Ari Gold (hilarious, but certainly not normal), it can be hard to know whether an agent is just being an agent or whether said agent isn't looking out for the author's best interest and/or is shady. Throw in a manuscript that the author is emotionally invested in and it is a veritable powderkeg. When it gets dire people then want to know if they should leave their agent.

I really can't answer these questions, and instead I ask a question in return (riddle me this!) Have you talked to your agent about it?

Don't be scared of your agent! Your agent is not a delicate flower that only blooms once a year and will be scared back into the ground if you whisper in its direction. If you are uncomfortable, talk to your agent. If you are unhappy, talk to your agent. Now, you don't want to go overboard, and keep in mind that you should be calm and mature and cool and receptive (I'm blessed with clients who fit all of these criteria), but trust me, your agent will greatly appreciate the opportunity to have a discussion with you and possibly make some changes before things spiral out of control.

Now, if you try to talk to your agent and you don't hear back and/or things aren't resolved to your satisfaction? Well, then you have to make a decision. But you owe it to your agent to give them a shot at resolving differences and/or clearing up confusion before you start fishing for those other agents in the sea.

Talk to your agent. We may not be normal, but we're human beings. Well, most of us.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Query Critique

Hope you all had a lovely weekend! Just a reminder to people querying me -- if you receive a non-request missive from me (I'm still trying to think of the best euphemism for "rejection," which is just so uncouth), and you would like to offer up your query for a critique on the blog, please send me a follow-up e-mail. Unfortunately I can't critique every query, but if your query sparks some ideas for a blog I may take you up on that offer.

Here's a query I received from a saintly soul who offered her work up so that all could learn. Thank you so much for that. And please, whenever you're discussing someone's work in the comments section please be as exceedingly polite as you possibly can. Because for some reason the Internet makes people MEAN and I'm instituting the Internet golden rule -- Don't say unto others what you wouldn't say to their face. (can I copyright that?) Impolite comments shall be dealt with swiftly and with no mercy.

Here goes:

Since discovering your blog, I have appreciated your candid insights concerning fiction and the publishing industry. Although there are many wonderful blogs written by agents, I immediately related to yours when I noted that many of the books you have represented or admired are sitting on my own bookshelf. I am writing to you now in hopes that you will consider representing my novel, MOONBEAM IN A MASON JAR, which is literary fiction with a commercial bent.

When a renowned theater director's carefully constructed world begins to plummet out of control, his impulsive reaction seems to be a detrimental detour from all he has worked to achieve. But as his path intertwines with the lives of strangers and repercussions of an unresolved relationship arise, a startling design emerges - he is forced to confront his own past culpability and to decide if the future will be one of regret or redemption.

Michael Roth is accustomed to calling the shots; he has spent the last twenty years directing hit plays and crafting his personal life in New York City. But when his wife abruptly leaves him after confessing a long-term affair, he is suddenly unsure of his past decisions and of his next step. In an effort to gain distance enough from Pat to alleviate the pain of her betrayal and to refocus his goals, he makes the spontaneous decision to move to his hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But back in the familiar southern community, his reprieve is destroyed when his first love reemerges and he is again blindsided by the far-reaching consequences of an abandoned heart. As he tries to deal with resurrected regrets, he begins to develop unexpected relationships that alter his perceptions of his circumstances. A recently widowed doctor unveils truths from Michael's adolescence, a young mother's addictions mirror his own thirst for hope, and a student in his theatre discovers that she may share more with him than just an interest in the stage. However, when Pat is diagnosed with a difficult disease, once more it becomes all too clear that leaving the past behind will not be as easy as Michael had hoped. As a devastating accident further pulls him into the lives of those around him and Pat makes a shocking decision, he must find a way to reconcile the life he hopes to create with the one he left behind.

I studied English at UNC - Chapel Hill and I continue to live in North Carolina, currently raising two children and working on my second novel. I am the author of three short stories published in InFuze Magazine , one of which was chosen for their 2006 anthology. MOONBEAM IN A MASON JAR, my first novel, is complete at eighty thousand words and is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration.

My reaction? This query is fine. It's a little long and I think the plot description could probably use some tightening, but overall it's fine.

But that's kind of the problem. It's fine.

There are a lot of things to like about this query. I really like the title MOONBEAM IN A MASON JAR, it's personalized, it's a blog reader, I think there are interesting conflicts at the heart of the story and it sounds like there's a good climax. There are good elements here.

But I'm afraid it just wasn't enough. The plot description? Fine. But it's a somewhat boilerplate plot (man suffers tragedy, moves home and has to face past), and I just didn't get a sense of a unique enough spin on that plot to compel me. The main character? Fine. He's a famous theater director. But although there's a quick description that he's used to having control, his personality isn't really infused into the query and he wasn't exactly memorable. It's all fine. I think she's a good writer.

I receive a lot of queries at this level - they're good, but when I'm reading so many queries, something really has to jump out at me. Maybe it's a character that grabs me or a plot that grabs me or someone's unique style of writing that grabs me. Something original and fresh and new and unexpected, even if it's a fresh take on a standard trope.

Bottom line is that fine is something to be proud of, I think this query is good. I hope this writer is encouraged to strive for that next level. Because I'm afraid fine isn't enough.

Friday, July 27, 2007

This Week in Publishing 7/27/07

This week in the publishing.

I'm going to attempt this week's This Week in Publishing without referencing Harry Potter. Let's see if I succeed.

It was a dark and stormy night, and Sean Lindsey from 101 Reasons to Stop Writing, taking a break from using DNA lifted from the Shroud of Turin to clone Jesus Christ while being pursued by an evil albino, celebrated Clichepalooza this week. Do yourself a favor and read the post, which is as good as a tough guy with a heart of gold (and add your favorite cliche in the comments section!)

Faithful reader Bryan D. Catherman is hosting a contest to name George W. Bush's memoir, which he will then use to query me. Judging from the current list of entries, I will soon be added to some sort of watch list and will be forced to fly without shoes between two surly air marshals.

In other contest news, blogger Jason Evans is hosting a short-short fiction contest (250 words or less) and is even offering prize money! Prize money, my goodness. He's making my Ultimate Book Title Contest look less than ultimate.

Former colleague and current blogger Jonathan Lyons at Lyons Literary is starting a Word(s) of the Week feature where he provides very helpful definitions of publishing terms. Best be checking that out. My vote for future Word(s) of the Week: barnacles. It has nothing to do with publishing, but I would appreciate Jonathan's thorough analysis.

International bestselling author Jeff Abbott is constructing a new writing space -- tell him about your space and how you constructed a spot for inspired writing! It's not often one has the chance to offer a bestselling writer home decorating tips.

And finally, Harry Potter sold a reported... er... whoops. Couldn't do it.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

What Does a Prospective Agent Owe You?

Those of you who regularly follow the blog know that I try to be an affable individual and aspire to help out the up-and-coming authors in need. However, there comes a time when, as someone trying to appear cool on a reality TV show might say, it's time to keep it real. So brace yourself, because I'm going to keep it real today. Quite real. So real reality will look like a CARTOON.

Last week the always-astute Jessica Faust at BookEnds posted about how much feedback you should expect from an agent when you've sent them a query or even a full. I'll give you a hint in case you are link-averse: the answer is less than 1 and more than negative 1.

Here's my two pennies on the matter. Authors who have spent months years or years on a manuscript and who are going through the ordeal of trying to find an agent and who are emotionally invested in their work tend to feel like they are OWED a personalized, detailed response from a prospective agent, even if it's just a query. I get lots of angry e-mails because authors feel like I OWED them more than what I gave them in response. But since this is keeping-it-real day, I have to tell you -- unless you're a client, a prospective agent doesn't owe you anything. Our responsibility is to our clients.

Now, politeness and good-faith dictates that agents will usually respond to your submissions, will usually personalize a response to a partial, and will usually try and offer some sort of feedback on a full. This is because most agents want people to continue to submit to them, and thus will try to be as polite as possible. But not always. And not because they owe it to the prospective clients. Rejecting manuscripts is not how we make our living. We make our living selling books. And keep in mind -- the time we spend rejecting manuscripts is actually time when we are not selling books.

Here's the good news - if you submit to me, I have different rules! If you send me a personalized query and/or mention the blog I'll try and give you a personalized response (emphasis on try). I also try and give some feedback on partials and fulls, and I blog and answer questions over at Absolute Write. This is because (1) I am a young agent actively building my list and want to receive as many queries as possible and want to be the first person people think of when they are sending their first query (queries welcome!) and (2) because I have an acute sense of guilt about rejecting 10,000 people's life's work every year (the nightmares!). But ultimately my responsibility is to my clients.

So please keep this in mind -- if you're going to keep up a smidgen of sanity during the submissions process, in my humble opinion the first thing you should do is drop the notion that you're owed something from prospective agents. You're not. If you receive a personalized response it's because an agent took time away from their busy schedule to try and help you out. If you receive a form rejection or even no rejection at all it's not because the agent is a horrible person and who broke some inviolable rule. It's because they're busy and a "no" is a "no" whether it comes with feedback or without feedback.

And that's keeping it real.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

What Was Your Favorite Book as a Child?

Thanks to everyone for their own unique take on Pottermania. I agree with Heather's comment -- it's amazing to see how many different opinions there are on one book and one writer. If you need any reminder regarding the subjectivity of the reading experience, just take a gander at the wide variety of opinions on a book that just sold, according to my exclusive and completely verifiable accounting, 78 bazillion copies in the last 72 hours.

Now lots of kids (of all ages) have officially grown up on Harry Potter, and as we all know, the books you read as a kid can have a profound effect on young and impressionable minds (children's book writers everywhere just uttered a collective "Bwa ha ha!!"). Books open up new worlds to children and make some of them want to go on to become writers.

Little Nathan Bransford's favorite books tended to involve a child living on their own or at war. I don't know what that says about Little Nathan Bransford (or his grown up version). So my favorites included ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS by Scott O'Dell, RIFLES FOR WATIE by Harold Keith and especially MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN by Jean Craighead George (who is a longtime Curtis Brown client, and who I actually had the honor and pleasure of working with when I was an assistant in New York. There's nothing quite like talking with someone you idolized as a child!)

So you tell me -- what was your favorite book as a child?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter and the Literary Agent

As we all know, the new Harry Potter book came out this past Saturday and it sold 17 bazillion copies the first day (give or take a few kajillion), but I will admit -- I am not one of those 17 bazillion who marked off this weekend in a red pen as "Harry time."

I read the first Harry Potter when I was in remote Alaska one summer long before I became a literary agent. What's interesting about this is 1) I read it mostly between the hours of 11:00 pm and 1:00 am BY DAYLIGHT (take that, electricity), and 2) even then I was wondering if I would have been able to read that book in manuscript form and have said, "Yup. This one is going to sell five gazillion copies."

I mean, I definitely liked it. It sort of reminded me of a sweeter Roald Dahl without that sinister edge. But even though I always meant to get to the sequels, I haven't read any since, and given that I just requested seven partials and a full yesterday I don't think Harry is in my immediate future.

So -- what's your take on Potter mania? I'm so curious about what fuels this phenomenon. For the die-hards, what is it that gets you to the bookstore at midnight the day it's released? Is it the books? The characters? Knowing you'll have something to discuss with strangers on a plane? And for the skeptics, why aren't you at the bookstore at midnight the day it's released?

Monday, July 23, 2007

More Query Stats

Hello all, the blog is happy to return with some query stats. Hope you survived the reruns! I'm digging out from quite the full inbox, so this post will be short on analysis. Just the facts.

I received a whopping 158 queries last week, which seemed a bit more average than the previous week where I kept track of queries. 158 times 52 equals 8,216, plus the five or so I receive a day in the mail, so that translates to about 10,000 queries a year. Great googly moogly.

Here's the breakdown by genre:

Suspense/thriller/mystery: 21
Fantasy: 20
Literary fiction: 19
Young Adult: 15
How-to/Self-Help: 13
Historical fiction: 11
Science fiction: 10
Women's Fiction: 7
Picture book: 7
Memoir: 6
Religion/New Age: 5
Male Ennui: 5
Middle grade: 3
Horror/Occult: 3
Narrative nonfiction: 3
Politics/Current Events: 2
Travel memoir: 2
Poetry: 1
No freaking idea: 5

And now for some random categories:

Queries beginning with rhetorical questions: 11 (sigh)
Personalized queries: 23
Spelled my name wrong: 2 (a good week!)
Addressed to "Mr. Brown": 1
Queries that were obviously mass-mailed to a thousand agents (often with every agent's e-mail address included so we can all see where it was sent): 9
Angry e-mails from writers I had previously rejected: 2
And, finally, evil albinos: 0 (I'm as shocked as you are)

So how many partials did I request out of those 158? 7! Not bad, folks. Not bad at all. I'm looking forward to reading them once my inbox is normal.

See you tomorrow, same blog, new material.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Summer Rerun: An Ex Publishing Insider Talks About What Editors Really Do

This week I'm mining the archives while the blog is on hiatus. I'll be back on July 23rd with query stats.

March 8, 2007 and March 12, 2007

Are you excited by the very long title of this post? Well, you're in for a big ole treat, because an ex-editor at a big New York publishing house has been kind enough to give you the scoop on what editors really do. The long nights. The paper stock decisions. The coffee stains on manuscripts. Oh, what a glamorous life they live.

Please note that the views and opinions of Ex Publishing Insider are her own, and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Nathan Bransford blog or its corporate partners. Ha, I've always wanted to say that.


What Does An Editor Do

By Ex Publishing Insider

Well the bar has been set awfully high by Nathan Bransford, Literary Agent, for a post that is both witty and informative. I’m excited to have this opportunity to guest blog, but also sort of chewing my nails down to the quick. Take it easy on me, Bran Fans!

After graduating from school, I got into my head the wacky idea that I might want to work in the New York book publishing world. Eventually I talked my way into a job in the editorial department at a big publishing company. I worked there for four years, and slowly became an editor who bought and edited her own books, thus learning the answer to at least one of life’s great questions: What do editors do?

Editors do edit. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Why don’t we follow one book through its entire publishing process to show what the editor does? And because editors seem to do an awful lot, this will be a two-part series.

1) Herbert Smith is an aspiring writer. It’s all he’s ever dreamed of doing, and if he does dream of something else at night, he promptly wakes up in the morning and chastises himself. He sweats blood and tears for many years and finally writes the great American novel. Somehow through a connection and prayers to a god no one has ever heard of, he finds a literary agent and at last the ball is moving. He will get an editor!

2) But wait, Herbert. Not so fast. First your literary agent is requesting significant changes to your manuscript. Herbert mutters something about “I thought this was the editor’s job” but makes the changes anyway. Finally, after an additional six months, the agent is sending out Herbert’s book!

3) Herbert’s book is sent out to a bunch of editors around the country that Herbert’s agent thinks might like the work. This critical step is probably the most important thing an editor does. An editor buys books. Let that sink in. An editor buys books. In any given day, a high-ranking editor will receive between 3 and 10 agented manuscripts (if she works in fiction) or 3 and 10 agented proposals and partial manuscripts (if in nonfiction). The editor then uses her assistant to screen out any obvious Nos, like a book outside of the editor’s specialty, a book that is positively crazy, a book that is unfortunately exactly like another book they just bought, etc. Meanwhile, Herbert waits and yells abusive things at his cat and thinks of firing his agent because this is just taking way too long.

4) Jane Bookworm is an editor at a big publishing house, and her assistant has just plopped today’s selection of agented manuscripts on her desk. Each one has a little slip of paper called a reader’s report, which the assistant may or may not have written from the agent’s letter, depending on if the assistant is loving this very underpaid job or just biding time until law school. Jane flips through the stack and something about Herbert’s novel catches her eye. Perhaps she’s been thinking that zombies are the next big thing, perhaps it was something she ate for breakfast, perhaps she’s crazy, but she takes a chunk home with her to Brooklyn that night. Meanwhile, people in Herbert’s family are thinking of staging an intervention.

5) Jane reads a chunk of the book that night and actually loves it. She’s surprised (as you always are) and makes a mental note to read more the following day. But then Jane’s week is taken up by a battery of very necessary meetings for the books she’s actually publishing at this very moment, and so she doesn’t get back to the book for a month.

6) Finally Herbert’s agent calls Jane and asks about her children and tells her he admires the latest book she edited and then asks how it’s going with Herbert’s manuscript. Jane says something vague, but she is reminded that she needs to finish it. She finishes the manuscript that day and is excited. She wants to make an offer. But back in Texas, Herbert vows never to write again and tries to take up a new hobby, like stamp collecting maybe.

7) The next day, Jane goes on the campaign trail for Herbert’s book. While buying a book is important, it also costs a lot of money and is a serious gamble for the company and thus a consensus must be reached among some of the editors that this book is “good.” She starts talking it up to editors within her division that she thinks will like it and passes out pieces of it.

8) A week later, several editors have said that they like the book at one of the board meetings. The Editor in Chief has given Jane permission to offer a small amount of money to the agent. Jane is excited.

9) When Herbert gets the call he at first believes it to be a prank from his ne’er-do-well nephew. But after a few weeks of back and forth, Jane and Herbert’s agent come to a deal, and Herbert is hospitalized for nearly dying of happiness.

10) Jane has her assistant begin drafting the contract and writes Herbert a warm note. Two years from now, he’ll be a publishing writer. Wait, what? Yes, two years.

11) For a few months nothing happens while Jane must tend to other books she needs to buy and the books she’s currently publishing. There are author parties to attend, marketing and publicity plans to approve, and various authors and agents that must be kept happy. Oh yes, and she has a husband and a family that she’s neglecting.

12) Then Jane edits Herbert’s book. She rips out the first two chapters that are dull and beside the point and suggests completely cutting “Sophie,” who is a sex maniac and two-dimensional, also known as Herbert’s favorite character. She suggests speeding up certain sections, and slowing down others. She hates the ending, and most importantly the title has to go. Herbert receives the news and calls his agent to complain. The agent works overtime to calm him down.

13) Over the next year, Herbert and Jane go through three drafts together. It’s practically not even the same book anymore. True, Herbert did all of the writing, but without Jane’s guidance…it would be half the book it is now. Herbert learns that writing is a much more collaborative process than he thought. And he’s even learning to love the new title that Jane came up with.

14) Jane announces she is finally happy with the book, but Herbert is a little confused, as he knows it is still rife with typos. This is when Jane explains that the book is about to be sent to the copyediting department.

15) Months later, Herbert gets a printed copy of his manuscript littered with tiny red marks. It turns out that copyeditors are grammar ninjas and even people who think they have flawless grammar are woefully mistaken.

16) For the next few months, Herbert is working with everyone at the publishing house BUT Jane. A publicist calls. The marketing team emails. The copyeditors are hounding him. But Jane is nowhere to be seen. What Herbert can’t see though is that Jane is in-house approving every single step made for the book. She is writing his cover copy, she is tweaking the marketing plan, she is throwing out cover art sketches and demanding new ones. She is talking it up at cocktail parties. Jane has her hands in every aspect of the book at this point, and the final approval on everything. It’s a good thing for Herbert that Jane knows what she is doing.

17) At long last, Herbert’s publication date is approaching. Most of the people in his family have forgiven him for being so moody for that past two years because they’re all hoping that they’re in the book. Jane sends him a congratulation and crosses her fingers that Publishers Weekly appreciates the book. Meanwhile, her new assistant (the last one left to go to law school) has just plunked down a huge stack of manuscripts on her desk and one has just caught her eye. Who knows why? Maybe it was something she ate.

(This is Nathan again: thanks very much to Ex Publishing Insider for taking the time to guest blog!)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Summer Rerun: Starting Before the Beginning

This week I'm mining the archives while the blog is on hiatus. I'll be back on July 23rd with query stats.

April 3, 2007:

So, regular readers know I am a bit obsessed with basketball. We had some wonderful friends in town last night and so I DVR'd the game and then set about trying to block out the outside world throughout dinner. I turned off my cell phone. I put my computer in an out of reach place. I had my girlfriend scout out the downstairs of the restaurant for TVs before I ventured down to the restroom (yes, she's wonderful. Also understanding.) And it worked..... until we were walking around outside and I looked into a bar and happened to see a bigscreen TV showing Billy Donovan with a net around his neck. A;LKDJF;LAKJF I about fainted on the sidewalk. Nooooooooo!! Anyway, congrats to the Gators, even if I didn't get to be surprised by the win. I still watched the game when I got home.

Anyway, the advice given in this blog has been mostly devoted to the art of the query letter, but really, that is putting the cart before the donkey. Aspiring writers agonize over query letters, they strive to make publishing contacts, they pour their time and energy into getting their book published. But actually, the absolute most crucial decision you can make as a writer happens before you take out your pen and write down, "Once upon a time in Borneo." The most important decision happens when you decide what you're going to write about.

Too many people assume that good writing is all you need, and believe what you write about isn't so important as how you write. Such thinking results not only in meandering 200,000 treatises on the peculiarity of our contemporary mores, but also in more mundane and unoriginal plots that aren't well thought through and thus, no matter how good the writing is, they are a tough prospect to sell. To put it short: You need a good idea.

When you're considering what to write about, you have to start with the assumption that everyone you're up against in the slush pile can write -- it's your idea that will set you apart. This may seem like really obvious advice, but an unoriginal or not-good-enough book idea is the basis for approximately 90% of my rejections. In a story-saturated world where it seems like every original idea is already taken, really great story ideas are very rare and precious. I find it much more agonizing to reject someone with a really great idea where the writing isn't there than I do passing on a project with great writing where there isn't a solid enough idea. I think this is because it's so hard to find a great idea. They're as rare as an intelligent conversation on The Hills.

So what can you do? One way to test your idea before you start writing is to tell it to someone out loud. If, after a short description, someone genuinely, involuntarily responds, "Wow, that's a great idea," you're onto something. If you have to include the caveat, "Well, anyway, it sounds boring but really, it's all about the writing," you might want to add some monkeys to the plot.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Summer Rerun: What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?

This week I'm mining the archives while the blog is on hiatus. I'll be back on July 23rd with query stats.

February 26, 2007

Well, I would post something about the Oscars, only I'm pretty sure nothing at all happened during the seventeen hour broadcast. Was there even an Oscars? I watched every minute and I can't be sure. I know some awards were given and some bad dresses worn, but wow.

The book industry really needs an Oscars, because let's be honest, the best part of the Oscars is the horrendous fashion choices, and the publishing industry does horrendous fashion better than anyone. One spin around a publishing function and the fashion police would lock down the venue and declare martial law. Also it would be great to see Ryan Seacrest with famous writers on the red carpet saying, "We're here live on the red carpet with.... uh... a.. great writer......... Who are you again?" A good time would be had by all.

On a completely different and entirely unrelated note, one of the most common questions I hear from authors and at writing conferences is this: How can you tell the difference between commercial and literary fiction?

This very question was addressed at a panel at the San Francisco Writer's Conference, and everyone had a different answer. Some people feel that commercial fiction emphasizes plot whereas literary fiction emphasizes characters. Others feel that literary fiction emphasizes unique prose whereas commercial fiction is more straightforward. Still others stick to the "I know it when I see it" defense, and then of course there's the "literary fiction is that which does not sell" definition. Complicating any delineation are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, who write genre fiction and have plot heavy books but are considered literary. What, dare I ask, are we to make of all of this?

First off, I'd like to bust one of the myths about literary fiction -- that it doesn't have a plot. Sooooooooo much literary fiction I get in the old query inbox is plotless. It's just a character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence. The prose is lush, the character detailed, but one problem -- absolutely nothing is happening and thus it's (forgive me) extremely boring. Good literary fiction has a plot. It starts in one place and ends in another. The characters face challenges and evolve. Even in quiet books like GILEAD (a seriously amazing book, btw), things happen. A literary novel might not end in a shootout or with the death of an albino, but there's a plot there.

Before I get to my own definition, I think I need a caveat paragraph: I love both genre novels and literary novels, so I'm not trying to express a preference here. Also there are a bazillion exceptions to every rule in literature, so of course there are going to be exceptions to my definition.

With the caveats out of the way, here's my own delineation of the difference between commercial and literary fiction. Are you ready? With all this buildup it's not going to be very exciting. So dial down your expectations. I swear, it's kind of mundane. Should I get to the point? Ok, fine, I'll get to the point. In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.

Here's what I mean.

Most genre fiction involves a character propelling themselves through a world. The character is an active protagonist who goes out into a world, experiences the challenges of that world, and emerges either triumphant or defeated. Think about every genre novel you've ever read: sci-fi, westerns, romances chick lit, thrillers.... They are all about a character with a certain level of mastery over the world in which they are in bumping up against the challenges of that world and trying to achieve their goal. Sure, the character might have an inner struggle and be a richly rendered character, but for the most part genre novels are about the exterior -- they are about how a character navigates a unique world.

So the plot in a genre novel usually involves things happening -- action sequences, love sequences, chases, shootouts.... The best genre novels fold these action sequences with the inner life of a character, but make no mistake: genre novels are really about how a character interacts with the outer world. The things that happen are pretty much on the surface, and thus the reader can sit back and watch and see what happens.

Now consider literary fiction. In literary fiction the plot usually happens beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them. The plot may be buried to such a degree (like GILEAD) that if you have to describe the book in a short sentence it seems plotless -- an old man writes a letter to his young son and reflects on his life. There doesn't seem to be a plot there. But there is a plot in GILEAD. It is about how the protagonist comes to terms with his life and how he reconciles his desire to leave something behind for his son with his impending mortality. GILEAD has all the ups and downs of a genre novel, but the plot points all relate to the inner mind, and the climaxes and nadirs are almost hidden in quiet moments and small-but-powerful revelations.

Even when the prose is straightforward, literary fiction is more challenging to read than genre fiction because it requires the reader to infer a great deal of the plot rather than simply sitting back and watching the plot unfold. It requires empathy to relate to characters as humans and to deduce the hidden motivations and desires that lurk beneath their actions. The reader has to recognize the small turning points and the low points and the high points based on what they know of the character and about human nature. And there's a reason very few literary novels end with a shootout (er, except for THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG) -- what happens out in the world isn't as important in literary novels as what happens within the minds of the characters, and thus the climax might be something as small as a decision or a new conviction.

So there's a reason there are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, as well as the hybrid genre of commercial literary fiction. These novels tend to be told with more straightforward prose and are accessible, but they have a deeper emotional complexity. They fuse the out-in-the-world plotting of genre fiction with the in-the-mind plotting of literary fiction. The novels have traditional climaxes that also resolve the inner battles of their characters.

I will devote another post sometime to my obsession with plot, but what you see here is my belief that a literary novel should be as finely plotted as a genre novel, and anyone who ignores plot does so at their extreme peril. Just because the plot in literary fiction is harder to spot doesn't mean it's not there.

What do you think? What makes a literary novel literary?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Summer Rerun: Trendspotting

This week I'm mining the archives while the blog is on hiatus. I'll be back on July 23rd with query stats.

February 20, 2007:

One of the most popular pasttimes at Writer's Conferences (besides the free alcohol) is discussing the latest trends in publishing. People want to know what genres are hot, what's not, and who should be arrested by the book police. Of course we agents answer the question dutifully -- we do, after all, want to appear like we know what in the heck we're doing. But here's the thing about "what's hot/what's not" trends in the publishing industry: they're kind of pointless to worry about.

Let's say, for instance, that today you looked at Publisher's Marketplace and saw that lots of books have been sold about monkeys. Monkey fiction, monkey nonfiction, monkey memoir and, of course, monkey romance. You go to a Writer's Conference and hear an agent say, "I'm looking for historical fiction, narrative nonfiction.. oh, and monkeys are really hot at the moment, so if you have a great monkey book come talk to me." You think to yourself, "Hey! I should write a book about monkeys!"

So you sit down to write the book and a year later you have a finished monkey manuscript. Then you try and find an agent, and that takes six months. Then your agent sends around your monkey manuscript to publishers, and that takes another couple of months. Your book comes out a year later. That's THREE YEARS from when you first heard monkeys are hot. Three years for people to get really really tired of monkeys. And, wouldn't you know it, by the time your book comes out monkeys are like so totally over and everyone wants books about jackrabbits.

If you try and write your book according to trends you're playing a risky game. It could be that the industry has moved on to the next thing by the time you've even completed your manuscript. So don't worry about the fads and don't follow the trends. You know certain genres are going to be around for a while -- science fiction as a whole isn't going anywhere, spies and thrillers are going to be around, fantasy will be around. Within those genres though, and when you're choosing plots and characters, don't take your cue from the hot new thing of the moment. Be original, write what you love. Who knows, maybe you'll have the book that starts the next new trend. A monkey trend.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Summer Rerun: Dude Looks Like a YA

This week I'm mining the archives while the blog is on hiatus. I'll be back on July 23rd with query stats.

February 6, 2007:

Maybe it's because basketball season is in full swing (and my Sacramento Kings, sadly, are stinking up Arco Arena), but I have been seeing a lot of crossover novels lately. Get it?? Get it?? Crossover? Basketball? (I know, it's my lamest opening ever. Just stick with me here.)

After everyone saw how books like HARRY POTTER and ERAGON sent kids and adults alike scurrying to the bookstores in droves, crossover became the new thing all over again. Everyone has seen how successful books that are enjoyed by both children and adults can be, and the massive sales.. ahem, I mean the thrill of having your work read by as many people as possible means I now get a lot of crossover novels in the query inbox.

But here's the problem with crossover novels: there's no crossover publisher, only children's publishers and adult publishers, and there's no crossover section of the bookstore, only the children's side and the adult side. Sure there are big publishers with both children and adult divisions, but cooperation on a crossover novel would mean taking the elevator down a few floors, and come on, who can be bothered to do that???

So this raises an interesting question for the aspiring crossover novelist -- how can you tell if your novel is a YA (young adult) novel that might appeal to adults or an Adult novel that might appeal to a younger audience?

As an example, let's take two (very good) novels about troubled high schoolers: KL Going's FAT KID RULES THE WORLD, and Michelle Tea's ROSE OF NO MAN'S LAND. FAT KID RULES THE WORLD opens with an overweight teenager contemplating suicide before he befriends a homeless high schooler and joins a band, ROSE OF NO MAN'S LAND is about a troubled teenager who befriends/sort of falls in love with a wild teenager who distracts her from her troubled home life. Somewhat similar themes, right? But FAT KID RULES THE WORLD is a YA novel and ROSE OF NO MAN'S LAND is an Adult novel. What accounts for the split?

To me the separation between YA and Adult is not necessarily thematic, it has more to do with pacing and presentation. When you read a YA novel the pace tends to be quicker, the books tend to be shorter, and things happen in a more straightforward fashion. While of course there is a ton of variation and exceptions, things tend to unfold on the surface to keep a younger reader interested and engaged. In an adult novel, even an adult novel about high schoolers, things unfold more slowly, there tends to be more subtlety and ambiguity. Things happen beneath the surface and they can be more challenging. In other words, I think the YA/Adult split is more about the telling than the characters and the themes.

All of this is a long way to say that I think you need to write and pitch your novel as one or the other, because agents don't usually handle both adult and YA, and it's virtually impossible to pitch a "crossover" book. You also want to really make it one or the other to avoid ending up with a novel that is too adult for children and too juvenile for adults, which happens a lot. Books do indeed cross over, and you can mention that your book has crossover potential, but at least initially I think you have to go one way or another -- hopefully this will serve as a rough guide of which direction you should go.

Just. Like. Basketball.

(Worst metaphor ever.)

Friday, July 13, 2007

This Week in Publishing 7/13/07

Well, it's summer, which means lots of re-runs on TV, and I'm afraid the blog is no exception from the summer programming schedule. As a result, the blog is going on another week-long hiatus next week, except instead of a week of sad, sad silence I'm going to re-run some of the past posts from the rapidly expanding archives. We can laugh and cry all over again. Sigh.

I'll be back on Monday the 23rd with some query stats.

But first... Publishing! This week!!

Just in case you've been living under a magic rock for the past seven months, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS will come out on July 21st. Seemingly every possible Harry Potter angle has been covered by the media, from profiles of J.K. Rowling to editor Arthur Levine to how bookstores will manage to make zero money on a bestselling book to how the kid who plays Harry Potter in the movies isn't really a kid anymore. Every single angle.... except, you know, a Biblical reading of the most recent Harry Potter movie that compares Harry's battle with Voldemort to a Christian's battle with Satan. Oh wait. (thanks to Shelf Awareness for the tip).

In other news, William Gibson will be jacking in and promoting his new book on Second Life, just 23 years after publishing NEUROMANCER, the seminal cyperbpunk novel, where characters jacked into an alternate world in cyberspace. Consider my mind BLOWN.

Jonathan Lyons urges you to take publishing advice you read on the Internets with a grain of salt. I agree wholeheartedly. A big heaping grain of salt. A grain of salt that would block out the sun. A grain of salt that would cause a singularity in the space-time continuum and would create its own black hole and collapse the entire universe. I think you get the picture.

MJ Rose, she of the fabulous starred PW review for her upcoming novel, gives a rundown of the new site, which aims to connect authors with audiences and ease the headache of setting up speaking appearances.

And finally, author Jim C. Cunningham planned a "clothing optional" book signing to promote his book NUDITY & CHRISTIANITY. I'm not quite sure what to say about this, except that I'm fairly confident that if I attend a "clothing optional" book signing I would opt for the "clothing" option.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

How to Mention a Series in a Query?

I've been receiving a few questions lately from people who are wondering how to pitch a series in a query letter.

Series are a tricky beast. One the one hand, particularly in certain genres, a series can be a great way to build a fan base around a popular character and/or compelling world. It gives an author a chance to really flesh out a world. Series can be extremely successful. On the other hand, it requires a bigger commitment from a publisher, it may pigeonhole an author for that all-important second book, and an agent or editor may want the author to tackle something new and/or branch off in a different direction. It all depends on the genre, the idea, the author, the house, the agent, the editor, the weather, the astrological conditions, and, of course, which side of the bed the respective parties involved woke up on.

So the important thing, in my opinion, when you have an idea for a series is to be flexible. That first book should stand alone, whether or not it's eventually expanded into a series. That way, if your agent or editor thinks it should be a stand-alone, that's cool. If they agree that it would make a killer series, that's cool too.

Think of it as being more Star Wars than Empire Strikes Back. Sure, Darth Vader was flying away at the end of Star Wars, but that was a self-contained movie that didn't leave too many cliffs dangling. In Empire Strikes Back on the other hand, Han Solo was left frozen in FREAKING CARBONITE and I don't think audiences would have been satisfied had that been the end of a stand-alone movie without a sequel in the works. If you write an Empire Strikes Back novel and your agent/editor wants it to be a stand-alone, well, they're not going to love the ending.

Thus, in queries I would suggest to the agent that the idea COULD be expanded into a series, but I wouldn't really convey that you're dead-set on it being a series. That way the door is open for both possibilities, and you're not putting yourself in a box. Or carbonite.

I can understand why people love writing series. Writers grow attached to the worlds they create, those characters become friends, it becomes familiar, and people just keep on writing in that world because they love it. It must be a amazing to flesh out a world in multiple novels. Perfectly understandable. But it's so important to be able to walk away for something new. You created one amazing world, surely you can create another!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Where/How Do You Like to Write?

Thanks to everyone who has chimed in during the past few days on the first/third person post and the Holy Grail (so many really smart comments!). The wise crowds have spoken and the crowd says: a Holy Grail that will predict bestsellers is not possible, nor would people really want such a thing to be possible. Sigh. I guess I'm just going to have to go back to relying on gut instinct and hunches. (Let's hope they're better than the hunch that told me it was a really good idea to try one of my dog's chicken treats since it smelled so good.)

On another note, I'm always fascinated by how people write. Superman has his fortress of solitude, Batman his cave, but what about authors? Bestselling author Po Bronson, for instance, writes in a closet. Jack Kerouac typed out ON THE ROAD on one continuous roll of paper. James Joyce wrote in red crayon on huge pices of paper.

So how do you write? Paper and pen, typewriter, laptop? What's your favorite spot? The hammock? The basement?

Spill it!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Holy Grail of Publishing

Much like King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Sir Robin the Not-quite-so-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot, people all over the various entertainment businesses, including publishing, are searching for the holy grail. And, of course, the holy grail of the entertainment industry is....... the blockbuster detector. Our jobs would be, to put it mildly, just a tad easier if we had some computer program, oracle, or witch who would tell us whether a project was going to be a major hit or a major dud. Even something that were just slightly better than the best guess of the best human prognosticators would revolutionize the publishing industry.

Enter the wisdom of crowds. Also James Surowiecki. In an article for the New Yorker in which he modestly does not even take a smidgen of credit for the increasingly common notion that crowds are the best prognosticators despite being the author of a bestselling book that is perhaps most responsible for the fact that said notion is increasingly common (James, seriously, take a bow!), Surowiecki outlines a new program by Simon and Schuster to use the wisdom of crowds (via the website MediaPredict) to help choose projects that S&S will then publish, experimenting with the idea that a huge group of people will be a better predictor of future success than one individual.

This follows an October 2006 article by Malcolm Gladwell about new attempts to predict a formula for a blockbuster movie.

Ever since I started in publishing, and especially when I read MONEYBALL by Michael Lewis, about my favorite baseball team and its boy-wonder general manager, I've been trying to think of what a Sabermetric predictive formula for publishing would look like. What if I could come up with a formula like a publishing OPS that would tell me projects and markets that are undervalued and I could get to them first.

Unfortunately, this isn't baseball. You can analyze a baseball player's performance and possibly predict how he will do next season. But books aren't like that -- there's no clear data before they're published to predict how they'll do except everyone's gut instinct, and then when they're published the investment has already been made. Books don't really play in college before they make the Big Leagues.

And whether the big guess about a book's prospects is from someone off the street, or someone who has spent a lifetime in publishing, or a group of people playing with virtual money on the internet, it's still a guess based on an incredibly complex combination of the plot, the quality, the author, the cover, the cultural waters, the marketplace, marketing, the tastes of some key players in publishing and in bookstores, word of mouth.... how could you begin to quantify all of that?

But I commend Simon & Schuster for trying something new -- anything that can help shed some light on such a mystifying process is fine by me. Now go find me that formula or I shall taunt you a second time.

Monday, July 9, 2007

First Person or Third Person?

First person or third person? Ah, the great debate that begins before a writer types their first "Once upon a time." Thousands of virtual trees have been felled for all of the pages and pages of debates on Internet writing message boards about this very topic. So which should you choose to write that novel??

Only you can answer that. Ha! You probably thought this was going to be easy. Twenty pushups, on your knuckles.

Nevertheless, I do have some thoughts that you might keep in mind as you're both making this decision and then putting it into practice.

The absolute most important thing to keep in mind as you're crafting a first person narrative is that everything that occurs has to be filtered through your narrator's perspective. Everything the reader sees is therefore infused with the narrator's personality and pathos. Things don't just happen in a first person narrative, they happen through the narrator's perspective.

The really compelling first person narrators are the ones where a unique character is giving you their take on something that is happening, and yet it's clear to the reader that it's not the whole story. You're getting a biased look at the world, which is central to the appeal of the first person narrative.

Think about it like this:

reality (the world of the book) >>>>>> || prism || >>>>>> the narrator's perspective and thoughts

One of the great tensions in a first person narrative, then, is between what the narrator is saying and what the reader senses is really happening beyond the narrator's perspective. This doesn't necessarily have to mean that the narrator is unreliable, it just means that we're seeing the world through a very unique character's eyes -- and only through that character's eyes. A protagonist might really convince herself, for instance, that she isn't sad that her mother died, but the reader senses that there's more to the story. Not necessarily unreliable, but it's also not the whole picture.

The other great essential element of a first person narrative is that the narrator has to be compelling and likeable. I may get a lot of grief for the "likeable" part, but hear me out. Nothing will kill a first person narrative quicker than an annoying narrator. Now, this doesn't mean the narrator has to be a good person, and hopefully the narrator is well-rounded enough to be a complex character. But the narrator has to pass the "stuck in an elevator" test. Would you want to be stuck in a room with this person for six hours? Would you want to listen to this person give a speech for six hours? If the answer is no, then you might want to reconsider.

Now for third person.

There are many different ways to craft a third-person narrative, and perhaps the hardest part is deciding how far you want to get inside your characters' heads. Do you want to use that god-like ability to really show the reader every single thought? Or do you want to keep their thoughts slightly hidden?

I tend to believe that the most interesting third person narratives leave some distance between what is happening on the outside and what the characters are thinking. This way, to take the example of a character's mother dying, rather than knowing exactly what the character is thinking, the reader does the work to try and empathize with what the character is feeling in that moment and based upon a character's actions.

Think about it this way. The diagram for first person is reversed for third person:

what the reader sees (reality) >>>>>> || prism || >>>>>> what the characters are thinking

The tension, then, is still between what's really happening and what the reader gets to see, but in this case we're using our reading ability and natural empathy to deduce the character's motivations and feelings based on the god-like narration of what's really happening in the world of the book. In other words, we see the outside world, but the inside is slightly hidden.

One of the very most common mistakes writers make in third person narration is doing too much work for the reader -- using the omniscient perspective to tell the reader what the characters are thinking and how they're reacting, rather than trusting the readers to do that job. Show not tell is the cardinal rule of third person -- show the characters acting upon their emotions rather than telling us how they feel. This keeps up that really fascinating barrier between what we're reading and what we sense is happening behind the prism.

So, to boil all this down:

The tension in first person is between a character's unique perspective and what is actually happening in the outside world.

The tension in third person is between what is happening on the outside world and what is happening from the characters' perspectives.

Now, there are many more distinctions between first and third person, so that's where you come in -- please add your two cents in the comments section. First person or third person? How should we further distinguish them? What are your tips for both?

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Results Are In...

Thank you to everyone who entered the Ultimate Title Challenge. I was really impressed by the quality of the submissions, and the mere idea of choosing a winner sent my stress levels skyrocketing. So I enlisted my fiancee, and together we pored over the THOUSANDS (ok, hundreds) of submissions, compiled our own independent list of favorites, and then compared notes at the end. A consensus was reached. And yes, there is a winner.

BUT FIRST, the runners up, in arbitrarily chosen genres. These people win infinite bragging rights, my undying respect and admiration and... well, that's pretty good, right? Round of applause for the runners up!

Best historical fiction: LET SLIP THE DOGS OF WAR - Kaytie M. Lee

Best nonsensical: A SMOKED CHEESE PIG AND A WHOLE LOT OF NOTHING - brian_ohio

Best science fiction: ALIEN HOOKERS OF 1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE - Scott

Best self-help (or literary fiction? we couldn't decide): THE PERFECT BOOK FOR PEOPLE WHO AREN'T: (NO... YOU AREN'T) - astairesteps

Best home and gardening: NOT IN MY BACKYARD: A SELF-HELP GUIDE TO KEEPING YOUR YARD SQUIRREL-FREE - Have an agent; just entering for fun

Best humor: HOW TO FINISH A THOUGHT: FOR PEOPLE WHO - Stephen Parrish

Best chick lit: THE LYIN' BITCH AND HER WARDROBE - Dwight's Writing Manifesto

Best Nathan Bransford blog parody - WORD MATH FOR DUMMIES - Jamie


Best mystery - SHE NEVER HAS TO KNOW - Fred

And now, for the grand prize winner. I would have to agree with Michelle Moran on this one (Michelle's novel NEFERTITI comes out on Tuesday!!!)

The GRAND PRIZE WINNER, which entitles the author to a personalized query critique, even more infiniter bragging rights, and based on a unanimous decision (between me and my fiancee) is..............


Congratulations, Laurel!! And thanks again for entering everyone.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

How to Respond to a Request for a Partial

Thanks to everyone who has submitted an entry for the Ultimate Title Challenge. Due to the sheer awesomeness of the titles that have been submitted so far, I'm going to extend the contest until tonight. Submit as many entries as you'd like -- enter early and enter often!

Now, on another note, I've been receiving some really great (and personalized!) query letters lately, which means more partial requests. If you receive a partial request, congrats! You've beaten the odds and it's justifiable to celebrate. Go buy yourself that big cigar.

However, you'd be surprised at how many e-mailed partials I get that just say "Here it is" and attach 30 pages with no other info. Which means I have to spend 10 minutes trying to figure out what it is and then search through my e-mail files and, well, I like to be efficient.

So. If you receive a request for a partial, I'd humbly suggest you follow these steps:

- Most importantly: when you e-mail your partial, please please please please please include your original query at the bottom of the e-mail. Otherwise, when I sit down to read your partial a week to two weeks later I have to go hunting through my files to find your original e-mail to refresh my memory, and even though I keep them in one place sometimes they're hard to find, and it takes forever, and makes me Mr. Cranky McCrankyagent, and I'd rather be in a good mood when I'm reading your partial. So please: include the query. Please.
- Sending the partial is a great opportunity to include another very short personalized note. No pressure or anything, but it's another opportunity to present yourself as a very cool, awesome writer who so totally isn't stressing about whether or not I'll ask for a full. (I'm easily fooled)
- I usually ask for the first 30 pages. If a chapter ends at Page 32 I'm not going to kill you if you include 32 pages. Whatever makes for a natural break.
- Send the first 30 pages, not just any ole 30 pages
- Make sure your manuscript is formatted correctly.
- Please keep me apprised of any developments regarding your search for representation. I don't usually ask for an exclusive, which I feel is generous in this world of exclusive everythings, but if someone else offers you representation I'd sure like to hear about it.

That's just about it! In the meantime, keep those awesome titles coming, and we'll be crowning a winner tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Ultimate Book Title Contest

My love of query trends is well-documented, and people are often asking me what I see a lot of (whether they want to avoid or capitalize on trends depends on the person). One thing I'm prepared to declare official: the absolute most common titles include the words GATHERING and RISING. I always joke about how the ultimate title is THE SISTERHOOD OF THE CLUB CODE, but I think we're going to have to change that to THE GATHERING OF THE SISTERHOOD OF THE CLUB CODE RISING.

Anyway, here's an early You Tell Me since we're going to be celebrating America's birthday tomorrow (stay awesome, USA!): You Tell Me a million dollar book title, something that will send people scurrying to the bookstores. And heck, let's just go ahead and make it a contest. It doesn't have to be a parody like THE GATHERING OF THE SISTERHOOD OF THE CLUB CODE RISING, it could be something more straightforward like THE HOMEBOY PHONE (I'd buy that in a second) or THE BLACK SWAN (that one is taken, but is extremely awesome).

The winner (chosen at my sole and completely irrational discretion) will get their own query critique, and, of course, the bragging rights that come with winning a contest on a random blog.

Let the games begin!

Monday, July 2, 2007

Office Space

And the interior of my office was painted (drumroll please)..............

BROWN. Well, one wall at least. The rest is white. WHEW.

I'm so happy. It compliments my big photograph of rice land (my parents are rice farmers) and engravings of Old California. Although when they tried to switch out my old desk and bookshelf for a sleek modular faux wood desk I basically told them they could pry the desk from my cold dead hands. They slowly backed away, and I still have my desk. Everyone wins.

Anyway, between moving back into my office (even more time consuming than moving out) and a very busy day, I'm not going to have time for a normal post. But I will be back tomorrow! Yay brown!

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