Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, November 30, 2007

This Week in Publishing 11/30/07

About yesterday. I totally MEANT to post. But I was really, really busy. Sorry. Please don't be mad. Why are you mad? What did you think I did? I swear I wasn't watching bad TV. There's no evidence. Someone was standing in front of the camera.


Anyway, the week in publishing went on while I put in 27 hour days, and here's what happened:

The LA Times discovered that books are graying along with the graying boomers who read them. Great. I sure can't wait to read a slew of novels about those darned Internet computer problems and how terrible popular culture is these days but oh my goodness how groovy is Dancing With the Stars I just love that host honey will you pass the merlot?

The New York Times released its top 10 books of the year. And of those I've read exactly.... well, they're on my to-read list anyway.

In other New York Times news, friend of the blog Sean Lindsay from 101 Reasons to Stop Writing was featured on THE OFFICIAL NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW BLOG! Wow. We'll all say we knew him when we were still writing.

Via Publishers Lunch, the future is being invented... now. E-ink, which really looks like ink on paper only it involves neither, is moving into color and quickly improving. They're working on making bendable displays and it will even soon be able to render video. The future is coming, and don't say I didn't warn you!

And finally, Norman Mailer posthumously won this year's Bad Sex in Fiction Award for a "winning" passage which, according to the Washington Post, involved the allegedly incestuous encounter between Hitler's parents. You just can't make this stuff up. Although I'm sure the only reason anyone had the guts to give Mailer this award is that they don't have to worry that someday he'd kick their ass. RIP, Champ!

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

When Will E-books Take Over?

First of all, my apologies for being a day late with my rundown of a rare (these days) non-coma-inducing The Hills episode that not only featured a she-Spencer (!) but also included Justin Bobby.... uh... well, they said he kissed someone who wasn't Audrina. It mostly looked like someone stepped in front of the camera. And Audrina was SO MAD that she HUGGED HIM and WAS TOTALLY NICE TO HIM and GAVE HIM A RIDE HOME and THIS TIME IT'S KINDA SORTA POSSIBLY MAYBE OVER. (Clearly you don't mess with Audrina.)

Justin Bobby was forced to employ his ultimate secret weapon: saying nonsensical catch phrases with his head cocked to one side. I know I'm powerless in the face of phrases like "What do you think I did?" and "You're on hallucinogenics" and "Your friends don't fathom me."

The Hills is back, ladies and gentlemen.

Anyway, lots of people have opinions about the Kindle and with apologies to the people who like to smell their books and turn the pages, I am of the opinion that at some point in the near or distant future the e-books will take over and while sure, some people will always read books on paper (in the way that some people still use typewriters), and illustrated books and heavy-photography books will probably still exist, I feel like the convenience, affordability, readability, environmental friendliness, and eventual ease of e-books will outweigh the residual nostalgia for reading printed books. In my opinion, someday e-books will comprise the majority of book sales.

In this e-book world of the tomorrow:
- bookstores could be largely a thing of the past (much like video rental stores) -- people would browse online and download directly to their cell phone/reader/organizer/thingamajig and find out about books through word of mouth, TV, and the Internet.
- people would have instant access to just about every single book ever published, anywhere, anytime (Google Book Search is helping make this happen). This part is seriously incredible to me
- thousands of trees would thank you
- big publishers would lose one of their major advantages in the marketplace (namely distribution) and would have to adapt to stay relevant
- there will always be literary agents to help authors navigate this increasingly complex landscape and to make sure they are fairly compensated for their content
- authors will be better able to control their own sales destiny, and if they can ride the wave of word of mouth, unknowns could capitalize in a big way because they're not dependant upon traditional distribution

This doesn't scare me! Honestly I think it's amazing and incredible and a major leap forward in human history. Literally the biggest thing in publishing since the printing press. And I'm not the only one who thinks this: just read Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt's post entitled "Why Traditional Books Will Eventually Die."

My question to you is: When will this happen? When will e-books take over? Or will they? Is it coming 5 years from now? 10? 50? Never?

You tell me!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Kindle Kindle Burning Bright?

First off, a housecleaning matter -- if you e-mailed me between Thursday and Sunday and you haven't yet heard from me, please e-mail me again. Our servers were down and your e-mail has been eaten by the server monsters and is now in e-mail heaven (or e-mail hell if it started with a rhetorical question). But we're back up to speed now.

As promised, here's a post on all things Kindle. In case you haven't heard the news, Amazon has released its own e-reading device, which it is calling a Kindle, and which has sparked (I'm officially the 10,000th person to use this pun) quite a lot of interest, speculation, scorn, praise... you name it.

Here's the dime tour: basically it utilizes similar e-Ink technology used by the Sony Reader, so the screen really does look like ink on paper, doesn't use a lot of power, and the device is cool to the touch and can last a really long time between charges.

Best of all, and the reason the Kindle is attracting a certain degree of breathlessness: it uses cellular wireless technology so you can download e-books anywhere in cell phone range, at approximately $9.99 a pop. No plugs, no chords, no hassle (in theory). There are a whole lot of titles available (about 90,000, including most-but-not-all-bestsellers), and you can also pay (!) to subscribe to newspapers and blogs that you normally read for free on the Internet. Opinions regarding the appearance of the device have ranged from "functional" to less-than-flattering comparisons to the Commodore 64. The price? $399.

And no, is not available for subscription on the Kindle, although if you actually wanted to pay to read this blog, God help you. Save it for the psychiatry bills, sweetheart!

Here are some reactions to the news around the Internet and blogosphere sites I frequent: Newsweek, New York Times, Slate, Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt, The Millions, Maya Reynolds, and of course GalleyCat (and here, here, here, here, and here).

Big disclaimer: I haven't used a Kindle yet. But naturally I have an opinion (which is completely my own, btw -- you can share it but no one but me is responsible for it).

It seems to me that the publishing industry has wondered if/when e-books were coming ever since the dot com boom. During that span we've all seen the explosion of mp3s taking over the world of music, and in the book world digital audiobooks have seen significant growth. Everyone has been wondering when we'd see the iPod of books. So when will e-books take over?

My opinion? When they're better than books.

Consider the iPod -- it represents a significant advancement in the experience of listening to music. It doesn't skip like CD players, it doesn't require lugging around tons of CDs, it allows the shuffle function so you can use it like your own personal radio (impossible with CDs), it's small and portable... basically it improves every single aspect of listening to music, except possibly the ability to show off your impeccable music taste to people who visit your apartment. Forget about the fact that it looks cool (which it does) -- it's just a major leap forward for the experience of listening music.

But books are tough to beat as a technological device. They're portable, they're easy to read, they're (relatively) cheap, they're durable, you can pass them on to friends, people enjoy the tactile experience of turning pages... they're extremely tough to improve upon.

So far, although they're now as easy to read as books, which was one of the major early stumbling blocks, e-readers are still only handily beating books in one area: convenience. The Kindle can hold many books (but not an unlimited amount) so you don't have to lug around multiple books, and you can get a new book almost instantaneously. They're convenient. But you can't really share your books, you don't have the experience of turning the pages (and in fact on e-readers there's a bit of an annoying delay while the screen wipes), and you'd have to buy a whole lot of discounted $9.99 e-books to make up for the initial $400 investment.

If my math is right, assuming you save roughly $10 per e-book over buying a print edition, you'd have to spend $800 ($400 + 40 e-books) just to break even.

The decision to buy an e-reader, then, seems to me to come down to one question: is the convenience of the Kindle worth $400 to you?

To some people, yes, it would seem so. Since I read a boatload of books and manuscripts every year I'm one of those people, and I want an e-reader for Christmas so I don't have to constantly print out and carry around manuscripts.

But even setting aside all of the nostalgic element of turning the printed page, until e-readers handily beat books in terms of the economics, portability and reading experience, it seems to me that they will continue to be a niche device for people who need and can afford to pay for the convenience.

In my opinion there will never be a widely used iPod of books, a device that people buy specifically for books -- e-books will take off when they can be easily downloaded and easily read on a device like a larger iPhone-of-the-future, something people already have, which evens out the economics since you don't have to plop down a significant chunk of money before you even buy a book. This would give e-books the decisive edge in economics, which might just tip the world of books toward e-books. Until then? Printed page for most of us.

I was going to make a You Tell Me tomorrow about the Kindle, but judging from yesterday's comment section I know people are itching to share their opinions. So let's hear it: what do you think of the Kindle?

Monday, November 26, 2007

I'm Back

OK, what did I miss?

Well, I received approximately 7 million queries over the holiday weekend and my inbox is so full I can hardly bear to look at it. People, look. I don't really believe in timing your queries and normally I'd say fire away, but I received MORE queries than usual in the past week. If you want your prospective agent to read your query while they're not in a turkey induced food coma or, alternately, if you want to avoid giving your prospective agent a post holiday heart attack when they come in on Monday and look at their inbox I'd suggest avoiding the major holidays.

Meanwhile, in TV news, the Bachelor didn't choose ANYONE, which shattered my belief in the possibility of finding true love on a reality TV show that involves dating multiple people at the same time. Just a stunning turn of events.

In other reality TV love news, Spencer and Heidi from The Hills were unengaged for 24 hours AND THE WORLD STOPPED TURNING ON ITS AXIS. Oh wait. No it didn't. Whew.

And in big publishing news, Amazon unveiled the curiously named e-reader Kindle (because, uh, books and fire go together so well?), which I will blog about more tomorrow. And the next day. And possibly the day after that. Maybe forever. WHO KNOWS.

Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday, and in the spirit the season please feel free to share your hilarious Thanksgiving stories in the comments section.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving Leftovers: Anatomy of a Really Bad Query Letter

In honor of Thanksgiving week I'm joining the television networks and offering up some re-runs. Gobble gobble!

Now, you probably read the title of this post and assumed that I'm about to be mean to some poor author who was unfortunate enough to send me a letter. But never fear! No authors were harmed in the making of this blog. I wrote this really bad query letter myself. I know, I know. You can save your applause until the end.

I thought it might be helpful to post a letter that includes some of the common mistakes people make in query letters so you can avoid them. Don't do as this poor, hapless writer did. Er, I mean don't do as I did. Do as I don't.

rip pffffffffffffffffffffff cough cough cough cough oh god get it out of here [Since I can't include smellovision in my blog posts, that is my reenactment of the experience of opening a query letter that smells like old, stale cigarette smoke. Let's just say it's not a happy smell.]

Dear Miss Snark, [As much as I enjoy seeing which agent you queried before me, it's probably not the best strategy to forget to change the salutation.]

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if there was a race a heartless zombies who ate, nay enjoyed, human flesh? [Mayday mayday. My epic war against query letters beginning with rhetorical questions is not going well. Please send reinforcements.] In my 250,000 word novel, the first of a million word trilogy, a race of homicidal zombies target literary agents, gleefully spilling their vile literary agent blood all over their computers, enacting revenge on behalf of mankind for all of the query letters they have rejected over the years. [250,000 words is waaaay too long. Also you might want to avoid plot lines that involve literary agents dying at the hands of crazed zombies. I'm just saying.]

Drew Diggler was born in Denver, Colorado. His best friend was named Charlie. His dog was named Fred. He once had a crush on a girl named Susan. Susan dumped him. Then he went to high school. In high school he had a dream about zombies. But he didn't meet any actual zombies until much later. He went to college. In college he saw a movie about zombies. Then after he graduated from college he actually met a zombie. The zombie told him it was his mission in life to stab every literary agent in the world with their staplers. [Too much information. Where is the plot? Also, I'm not a big fan of excessive gore. Especially gore that involves literary agents.]

Meanwhile, Drew Diggler realizes that he hates his corporate soul-sucking job, he has grown weary of his wife and their two children, he hates like, his existence, man, so he quits his job/travels around the world/goes on a homicidal killing spree. [The whole man-suffering-crushing-ennui-and-subsequent-mid-life crisis plot is just a tad played out. Also, what happened to the zombie? He was kind of growing on me.]

And then after he quits his job/travels around the world/goes on a homicidal killing spree, he discovers Jesus' DNA and decides to clone him while uncovering a centuries old plot that is protecting the hidden meaning of life just as he stumbles upon a government conspiracy concealing the existence of extraterrestrial life, all the while being chased by the bad guy, who is an evil albino. [You might want to avoid these plotlines as well. And this letter is going on too long.]

This is just one of seventeen unpublished projects I would like you to represent, all attached here. [Writes about more than one project, attaches a file]. I'm so so so so so so sorry I'm a first time writer, I know I'm not qualified, I genuflect before you, but see, at least I know the word genuflect so that has to count for something, right? I know there are better qualified writers out there than me, but I hope you will please give me a chance. Please? Will you? I hope you will. [Don't apologize for being a first time writer -- I like first time writers! They have that new author smell.]

My book is kind of like THE DA VINCI CODE mixed with THE LOVELY BONES meets THE HISTORIAN mixed with a dash of HARRY POTTER and ERAGON. Oh, and it's also like FANCY NANCY and THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN. Now that I think about it it's exactly like a lot of other bestselling books out there, so it is guaranteed to be a #1 New York Times Bestseller. [Don't compare your book to a bunch of other bestselling books -- it's ok to reference other books, but you probably want to avoid big bestsellers]. I did not include a SASE in my letter, nor did I include an e-mail address, in fact I'm also not going to include a phone number, just so you cannot possibly get in touch with me. [This actually happens -- I have a file full of letters with absolutely no contact information. Sadly I was not even able to reach the authors using telepathy.]

Let's make some money together. [Whenever people say this I always imagine that we're starting a used car dealership.]

Nathan Bransford, Author

Hmmm..... on second thought, maybe there is a market for literary agent hunting zombies. I'm going to request a partial from myself.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thanksgiving Leftovers: The Art of Reading Rejection Letters

In honor of Thanksgiving week I'm joining the television networks and offering up some re-runs. Gobble gobble!

Aside from making great wallpaper, kindling, and kitty litter, believe it or not rejection letters do serve a purpose. You can make yourself a better and more successful writer if you analyze them properly. But here's the problem with rejection letters -- it's practically impossible to make sense of a form letter that maybe includes one little teensy tiny bit of individualized advice. Plus, they can be completely contradictory -- one rejection letter could say "needs more monkeys" (mine) and the other letter could say "too many monkeys" (some lesser agent). What's a writer to do??

Here's the secret to understanding these maddening missives: rejection letters are pretty much worthless by themselves. Unless a rejection letter happens to be incredibly detailed and specific and you completely trust the person's reaction (sort of like the holy grail of rejections), you're really not going to learn too much. And you're going to learn even less if you analyze a rejection letter for hidden meaning (you're also going to rack up the psychiatry bills). One letter by itself isn't much help. BUT. When you start accumulating rejections you can start to make more sense of them by analyzing the trends.

So let's say you received twenty-five rejections from agents on the query to your new novel. If you didn't get any requests for partials at all, and you only got form letters in return (i.e. a rejection that didn't specifically mention an aspect of your work), something's wrong. It could be that your project isn't marketable, your query letter wasn't good, you queried the wrong agents... something that is preventing you from getting in the door. It doesn't necessarily mean you're a bad writer, it just means that you're in for a reevaluation of your project and your approach.

If, however, you're getting requests for partials (hooray for you!) and fulls (even better!), but you're not getting an agent to bite, it may mean that you're close but that something isn't quite right, and maybe you can make some changes that will make your project better. This is where an accumulation of a some non-form rejection letters can actually be helpful.

Spread those bad boys out on the table. Avoid the temptation to set fire to said table. And start to analyze the common threads. Don't go nuts with this, you aren't looking to crack the Da Vinci code here (holding them up to mirrors will not be helpful, trust me), just see if there are a few common things that you can pick out. Maybe a few people said that your project isn't marketable. Or maybe a few had similar problems with characters or plot lines.

Here's the next most important step: if you are hearing the same thing again and again, listen. Don't say, "Oh, well, my work is what it is, they're just STUPID." We're not stupid. Most of the time. Make that change. Try again. And keep changing until something works.

Lastly, when you receive a rejection, avoid the temptation of sending back an aggressive missive that questions an agent's intelligence/savvy/heart in order to exact one small bitter piece of revenge. This is a small industry. You may need to query me again down the line. I really don't like receiving these types of letters, and my memory is as long as the day... uh, is long.

And tomorrow... in an all new This Week in Publishing. Secrets will be revealed! "Damnit Kate run!" Lives will be changed. "Where is Meredith?" And stay tuned for a shocking escalation in The Great Scrotum Debate*. Tomorrow... in This Week in Publishing.

UPDATE 11/20/07: The reference to The Great Scrotum Debate sounds extremely strange out of context, but if you'd like to learn more about it, click here. (I promise the link is not X rated).

Monday, November 19, 2007

Thanksgiving Leftovers: Writing Advice From Some Old Guys At My Gym

In honor of Thanksgiving week I'm joining the television networks and offering up some re-runs. Gobble gobble!

I did not expect to receive writing advice at the gym. I'm not the sociable gym type who knows everyone and asks about their various pets, I like to get in, get out, and go home to complain about how sore I'm going to be the next day.

But there I was, doing my core exercises with one of those exercise orbs (which always ends up making you look rather ridiculous) and I overheard this conversation between two of the gym old timers. Oh, and the conversation is PG-13, so the young and/or faint at heart should go peruse the Sesame Street website for a while (just don't click on the trash can. Seriously, don.... why did you have to click on the trash can???). And for the record, I don't watch the Sopranos.

Old Timer #1: So, how about the Sopranos? Who do you think is gonna get whacked next week?
Old Timer #2: I hope it's the kid. I hate that kid. He's a waste of space.
Old Timer #1: Whaddya mean he's a waste of space?
Old Timer #2: He's got no balls.
Old Timer #1: No balls? Whaddya mean he's got no balls? He's leaving that world behind. He doesn't like the violence. He's going his own way.
Old Timer #2: That's because he's got no balls.
Old Timer #1: So the only way to have balls is to be a violent sociopath?
Old Timer #2: No. But if you don't have balls it's not a choice. If you got no balls you're just a wuss. In order to make a real choice you have to have it in you, only you turn your back. He's just got no balls.

Imagine my surprise.*

The gist of what Old Timer #2 is saying is that in order for a character to make a real choice, he/she has to have the capacity to make both choices he/she is presented with. This is really good writing advice!

One of the best ways to reveal character in a novel is to have the character make a choice because it reveals the character's core values. We all have this innate curiosity about what makes people tick, and when a character makes a decision under pressure when they're faced with a difficult choice, we learn about their priorities and values. Does the character value his pride or his life? Does the character love the girl enough to risk his own neck? Etc. etc.

But in order for this to work, a character has to have the capacity to make both choices. Otherwise your reader will sniff out a false choice a mile a way. So I can see Old Timer #2's point -- if the kid from the Sopranos doesn't follow his father's footsteps it doesn't necessarily mean that his value system is different, he just might not (forgive me) have balls. A more interesting dilemma would be if we got the sense that he DID have courage, but then decided to go his own way. Then it would mean that he was rejecting his father's value system in a real way.

There you have it. Writing advice from the gym.

*The words "imagine my surprise" are an inside joke between me, my fiancee, and the wonderful patrons of San Francisco's greatest bar, John Barleycorn. Larry, the amazing bartender and owner, was working the bar when a homeless man stumbled in with a mysterious paper bag. He walked slowly up to the bar and things got quiet as everyone was wondering what the guy was going to do. Then he opened the bag to reveal a wine bottle with a cork instead of a screw top. He looked up at Larry and said, "Imagine my surprise."

UPDATE 11/19/07: I'm extremely depressed to tell you that John Barleycorn has been closed. Please check out this site for a sense of the history and San Francisco lore that has been lost. Very sad.

Friday, November 16, 2007

This Week in Publishing 11/16/07

NEXT week in Publishing is Thanksgiving week, and in honor of the festivities I will be running a series of posts called "Thanksgiving Leftovers!"

Yes, these are just re-runs of old posts AND YOU'RE GOING TO LIKE IT.

Ahhh, nothing like a lot of yelling to make everyone know they're around family. Pass the sweet potatoes.

Anyway, this week in publishing there was some really big publishing news. One story in particular. And if you think I'm touching it with a one million foot pole in this blog you're crazy.

Ken Follett's PILLARS OF THE EARTH was chosen as Oprah's latest book club pick. MJ Rose, Jason Pinter and GalleyCat weigh in. My thoughts? Read it, loved it, bought the t-shirt.

Congratulations to Robert Hass, Sherman Alexie, Denis Johnson and Tim Weiner, YOU are this year's National Book Award winners. Denis Johnson had his wife read a letter in lieu of an acceptance speech because he's in Iraq on a writing assignment. Also Denis Johnson could totally take Chuck Norris.

Paperback Writer wrote a devastatingly awesome post on whether you are writing McNovel. You should get over there and McCheck it out before you send me a McQuery.

And finally, I don't often fill you in on my correspondence with aspiring authors (and I don't usually mess with aspiring authors), but I just couldn't help it this time and I feel it is in the public good for me to share this because people saying they're including a SASE in e-mailed queries has become shockingly common. (Author's reply is adapted/fictitious/possibly pulled out of thin air. As far as you know.)

Author: ...I have enclosed a SASE for your reply.
Nathan: Hey, I didn't get the SASE in your e-mailed query. Could you send that to me?
Author: I don't think it would work to include a SASE in an e-mail
Nathan: Exactly.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Literary Agent Book Club

In lieu of a coherent blog post (seriously, you've come to the wrong place), I thought I would tell you about a few books I've read recently that I really, really liked.

First up is newly minted National Book Award Winner Sherman Alexie! Mr. Alexie wrote a fantastic YA novel called THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, which is about the travails and adventures of a Native American high schooler as he goes to school at a distant, whiter, richer school. It's seriously funny, touching, amazing, etc., but what I think is most impressive about the book is the voice. The voice just literally crackles and jumps off the page -- it's so unique and interesting, providing a great sense of character while sounding like the voice of a teenager.

I highly recommend it (and so do the people who decide who gets National Book Awards).

The second novel that I would like to rave about is Hugo award winner Robert Charles Wilson's Science Fiction novel SPIN. SPIN starts with the stars and moon disappearing from the sky (but not, oddly and importantly, the sun) and proceeds to spin (pun intended) an epic tale of Earth coming to terms and fighting against its mortality, centered around three riveting characters.

This book BLEW. MY. MIND.

This is one of those novels where you are reading it and don't even believe it's possible that there are people smart enough in the world to write books like this. I mean, Robert Charles Wilson has to be at least Einstein level to pull off this book off, and he can write the dickens out of a scene too.

So you know when you were a teenager and you're lying out under the stars and you say to your friend, "We don't even, like, know why we're HERE, man! You know? I mean, look at the stars man. The STARS. We're just like dust, man." (maybe I'm confessing a little too much). Anyway, this book invokes that somewhat creepy/wondrous amazement about life, the universe and everything. Seriously awesome.

And the last (but definitely not least) book in the spontaneous Nathan Bransford book club is one of my favorite books of all time, which I recently re-read, and which is the perfect capper to this e-mail because it's YA and Science Fiction and a National Book Award winner: Nancy Farmer's THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, which is about a young clone who may or may not be the heir to a somewhat evil feudal drug lord.

It just gets more awesome from there.

This is another book that challenges you to think about what it means to be human and what makes people good and bad, but all of those hard philosophical questions are submerged in a wholly unique world that is just so compelling and lush and which is populated by compelling characters. Truly one of the best books I've read.

Anyway, that concludes the Nathan Bransford book club. Now, in true book club fashion, let's all enjoy our cucumber sandwiches and gossip about the people who aren't here!!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Who's Reading the YA Novels?

Way back in the dark ages of March 2007, I had a post that linked to an article about the rise of Young Adult literature (YA for the acronymically gifted) and how the doom and gloom forecasts about how the kids aren't reading are a little gloomier than the situation warrants (Sure kids don't read. Except for HARRY POTTER. And Lemony Snicket. And TWILIGHT. And...)

So I was really feeling good about the land of Kidbookdom. But then in last week's You Tell Me I asked people what they were writing, and Holy Tyra there are a lot of people writing YA!!! Like, a lot a lot a lot of people. More than I could even count. (I didn't actually try to count).

Presumably if you're writing YA you read YA. Clearly there are a lot of adults reading young adult literature (including me).

This week's You Tell Me: is the YA boom driven by adults reading (and buying) kids books? Or are the kids really reading more?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Spoiler Alert: Don't Worry About Spilling the Ending

Maybe I'm in a self-reflective mood lately or maybe I'm collapsing in on myself like a character in a Zola novel (that oh-so-literary name-drop just earned me 5 future The Hills references), but I've been thinking a lot about how agents read. One thing that people sometimes ask me, especially with regard to synopses: should I worry about spoiling the ending? Doesn't the agent want to be surprised?

I can only speak for myself personally ("I know myself... but that is all," - F. Scott Fitzgerald -- watch out, we're up to 10 future The Hills references and a Bachelor breakdown), but I wouldn't worry too much about spoiling the ending. I don't read books like a normal person, where I'm waiting to see what happens next and where I need the element of surprise.

By the time I shop around a manuscript I've probably read it at least three or four times, sometimes more. I'm not going to be surprised every time, and I have to be able to see a work "fresh" even if I've read it before. It's a strange process where I basically dislocate my brain and think, "Even though I read this before, would this surprise me if I had read it the first time?"

In other words, no matter how many times I've read something, I'm looking for "what works."

Trying to figure out "what works" is sort of a reading style that I think everyone in publishing develops over time. When you're in college, you read to find hidden meaning. When you're reading for fun, you're reading for pleasure. When you're an agent, you're sort of like an architect searching for design flaws -- it doesn't matter what the building is going to look like in the end if the structure is unsound -- while still keeping the big picture in mind. (BTW, you know what's not "working" these days? THE HILLS)

So when an agent asks you for a synopsis: spill the ending. If they don't want to hear the ending they won't read it. Don't sweat that part. Instead, in the immortal words of Tim Gunn, MAKE IT WORK.

Monday, November 12, 2007

1st Person Narratives: Conversational, yes. Chatty, like ohmigod no.

Confession time: when I was a kid I really didn't like books written in the first person. Little Nathan Bransford was quite the literal fellow, and he just didn't get the whole first person thing (also he was very short and the girls in his second grade class patted him on the head and called him "El Chiquito" which was HUMILIATING).

I really couldn't wrap my head around who was doing the narrating. Was I supposed to believe it was the author? Was the narrator supposed to have written it all down? Was the narrator supposed to be talking to me? What in the heck was going on? What if a 1st Person narrator died in the end? THEN who was supposed to be doing the talking?

Luckily I outgrew both my aversion to 1st Person and the people who called me El Chiquito (who's El Chiquito now, EL CHIQUITA??), but only after I came to accept the essential weirdness of 1st Person. What is 1st Person anyway?

Well, it's a spectrum, obviously. It can be an imitation of someone definitely telling a story to someone else (THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST), it can be someone definitely writing something down (THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO), it can just be a story told from someone's particular point of view (TWILIGHT), or it can be sort of a hybrid (THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN).

But whatever it is, a first person narrative is unique in language. Whatever form the narrative takes (and it should be consistent), it's not like a real person talking or writing. There's no real-life equivalent. It's something else entirely.

Have you seen a transcript of an actual conversation? I have. IT'S BORING. It's confusing. People don't really make sense. They include a whole bunch of "I means" and "Ums" and "likes" and it's quite annoying to see on the page.

Good first person writers crafting a unique voice create the impression that someone is speaking and the illusion that it sounds like the way someone would talk without it actually being real life dialogue or how it would sound if someone were actually telling a story.

So one common mistake writers make with 1st person narratives is an excess of chattiness of the "I mean" and "No, really" and "like" variety, especially when it comes to young adult literature. Yes, that's how people (and kids) talk. It's even how they blog (GUILTY!). But excess chattiness over the course of an entire novel becomes exhausting - would you want to sit and listen to someone tell a story for six hours? Let alone someone who said "like" after every other sentence?

To be sure, the occasional "I mean" and chatty turn of phrase can be used to great effect in the right hands, as both Sherman Alexie and Junot Diaz demonstrate in particular -- a taste of real life can go a long way toward showing what the character is like and infusing a voice with a unique flavor. But only in very, very small doses. It's ok for a 1st person narrator to sound conversational, but not overly chatty.

So as you're writing, keep an eye on those, um, "So"s and "I mean"s and "like"s. Don't write what real life sounds like; write better than real life.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

RIP Norman Mailer

One of the great old-school literary titans, down for the count.

Friday, November 9, 2007

This Week in Publishing 11/9/07

This week in the publishing!

Over at MJ Rose's blog Buzz, Balls & Hype, guest blogger and international bestelling author Barry Eisler, who knows himself some things about the publishing industry, has a series of posts about the future of said industry and especially book distribution of tomorrow. Definitely worth checking out.

The writers are a-striking! I thought about shutting down the blog in solidarity, but then I remembered that I don't actually make money from this blog anyway. Ha! But if you want to keep up to date on how the strike is affecting the publishing industry, keep checking Jonathan Lyons' blog, which is your own one stop shop for all things strike related.

My awesome client Jennifer Hubbard provides some of the absolute best writing advice I've ever seen on the Internet, and she's giving it away for free! Definitely check out her recent post on good and evil in books, and peruse her other posts. It's seriously good advice. Seriously.

What if you had a class action lawsuit and nobody came??? Only 1,729 people signed up for a refund in the class action suit stemming from James Frey's book A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, but Random House will still end up incurring over a million little dollars in costs. Here's a handy breakdown:

Refunds for 1,729 people: $27,348
Legal fees: $783,000
Cost of publicizing suit and settlement: $432,000
Donations to Red Cross, Hazelden and First Book: $180,000

I'll keep my mouth shut for fear of incurring a class action suit of my own.

And finally, just in case you're wondering...

Step 1: Spam every agent in town with your query.
Step 2: End up being mocked on Gawker.

It's really very simple, people.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Things I Don't Blog About

Over the course of the past year of blogging, I've confessed many things about myself and about the strange and rare species literarius agentus (habitat: offices. food: bagels, free lunches. known predators: aspiring writers, bill collectors.)

But there are actually quite a few things about this job that I don't blog about, and thus one might get the impression that what I do all day is 1) read queries, 2) watch bad tv, and 3) blog about both as much as possible.

This is not the case! I watch some good TV too.

But really, there is a whole lot of my day, in fact most of my day, that I don't blog about, don't really talk about or even reference all that much. Some of it is confidential, some of it is mind-numbingly boring, and some of it is a result of the fact that I'm a paranoid person and would never say anything on the blog that could possibly jeopardize myself, my clients, or our nation's national security.

So in order to get more of a sense of what being a literary agent is like, I thought it might be helpful for me to talk about the things that I don't talk about.

Here are some:

- Interacting with clients. I don't want my clients (or prospective clients) to feel like they are blog lab rats or feel like they have to be circumspect for fear of landing on the blog. So I never talk about them except when I'm promoting their books or when they're guest blogging. I don't talk about it anonymously or vaguely or tangentially. I just don't talk about it. There's nothing bad here, interacting with clients is one of the most fun things I do and I love them all, but I don't blab about it.

- My deals. I may break this rule from time to time, but for the most part I don't really talk about deals I've completed. I wouldn't want to jeopardize any part of a deal by discussing it publicly, even after the fact, and there are other blogging agents who are more forthcoming about these things so I'll let them give the insight into how deals get done.

- Contracts. This one goes without saying. It's proprietary, fool! But working on contracts takes up a whole lot of my time.

- Interacting with editors. Editors are wonderful and amazing people and there is not a bad apple in the bunch. Seriously. You will never find me saying otherwise.

- Nicole Ritchie. She knows what she did.

- Really bad queries. I really wish I could share these with you. But I can't. It would be too mean (and possibly illegal).

- My thoughts on books I've read and authors who are not my clients. I love every book I have read ever since I've become an agent. They're all amazing. Even the ones that weren't.

- How depressed I am about the sorry state of the Sacramento Kings. If I were to impart even 1% of the sorrow I feel about the Kings you would probably drown in a pool of your own tears. I try and avoid that.

- Follow ups. I spend a whole lot of my day making sure things get done. I have an elaborate system that reminds me of when I need to follow up with someone about a contract, a check, a needed piece of information, an article, a response on a submission, a royalty statement, a reversion request... you name it. I'd say at least half of my day is spent checking to make sure things are getting done. This is a lot of what agents do -- keeping track of things so you don't have to. But I don't really talk about it. Because it's not very interesting, really.

- Um. Other stuff.

Ultimately, when I started blogging, I chose to focus on how to how aspiring authors can find an agent, how best to write a query, how to navigate the process... this is all stuff I can talk about freely and openly. There's nothing secret or proprietary about the query process. But the rest of my job is mostly a closed book for the purposes of the blog.

So if you have any questions about things I do during the day that I don't normally talk about, ask away! I may not be able to answer it honestly, but I promise to give you a really vague, noncommittal response.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

What is Your Current Work In Progress?

As many of you know it's NaNoNuMuKiWhAtEvErThIsAcRoNyMiS... National Novel Writing Month (the Internet tells me it translates to NaNoWriMo), in which writers everywhere try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month, and during which Sean Lindsay from 101 Reasons to Stop Writing nearly dies from cardiac arrest.

While not everyone will be participating in National Stream of Consc... um, Novel Writing Month, I know there are quite a few blog readers out there who are writing SOMETHING.

So you tell me -- what are you writing at the moment? Feel free to write as much ("here's the plot!") or as little ("um, a novel..") as you'd like, but it would be great to see what genres people are working on and what everyone is writing.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Re: Re-Querying

What in the name of Justin Bobby has happened to The Hills?? Last night's drama focused on whether or not Whitney and Lauren's headsets WERE ON THE SAME RADIO FREQUENCY during a fashion show in a church (you heard correctly). Really, The Hills? This is how far we've fallen? We're relying on freaking walkie talkies to provide our entertainment? What's next, Spencer and Brody get into an argument about homeboy phone ring tones??

I'm not over this. Even Justin Bobby was acting vaguely normal last night, even if he apparently has a physical handicap that forces him to turn his head horizontally when he speaks (I'm sending a get-well card). Luckily next week it looks like Lauren Conrad and Heidi are going to throw down over whatever it is they're fighting about, but if this week's episode is any indication they're probably going to argue about which Star Trek movie is the best.

Anyway, lots of people have been asking me about query policies for re-querying an agent and for querying different agents within the same agency. These types of rules vary from agency to agency, so please do your best to first figure out the agency's submission guidelines, and those prevail. But if you're not able to find anything, here's my general rule of thumb (keep in mind this is just my opinion):

Querying Another Agent Within the Same Agency

I would never simultaneously query agents within the same agency -- it's always better to target your agent search as much as possible, which both increases your chances of finding the right match and helps you personalize your queries. But if you receive a "no" from one agent and you feel another agent might be a good fit: wait a few months after you receive the "no" (or six months if there's no response) before querying the next agent, and send another personalized letter (and if you can't personalize due to lack of information, shake up your letter) -- you never know whether agents share assistants, and no agent wants to feel like they're on a vast distribution list (and no assistant wants to repeatedly read the same letter. And pass it to the agent with a "rejection" recommendation. And print out another rejection letter. And give it to the agent for them to sign. And putting it in the envelope. And sealing the envelope and putting it in the mail. And responding to calls from people who are wondering where their query is and having to locate the record of that query among the thousands of others. Frankly it's a wonder more assistants don't become serial killers).

Re-querying the same agent

Wait six months. This one is important, because there are few things more annoying for an agent than passing on one project only to receive an e-mail five minutes later saying, "OK, what about this one?" and, after that one is rejected, receiving another one that says, "OK, what about this one?" (and this has happened enough that I just don't even respond to the follow-up query -- sorry, but I'm not going to get myself into a query mobeus strip)

If you receive a no but really like the agent, give it some time, work on your writing, take another look at your query letter for your new project, and six months later if you have a completed project it's fine to try again. But your odds of getting a manuscript request are approximately, oh I'd say 0% if you immediately re-query.

Please be sure and check the comments section if you have further questions (and ask away, I'll try and answer), and in the meantime, let's just all hope The Hills regains some semblance of the dramatic lunacy we've come to know and love.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Query Stat-tacular

Hope everyone had a nice weekend. I was away from the computer from Thursday afternoon until this morning -- during this absence I received 81 queries.... and here are the stats:

Suspense/thriller/mystery: 20
Fantasy: 12
Young Adult: 9
Literary fiction: 7
How-to/Self-Help: 6
Memoir: 4
Historical fiction: 3
Religion/New Age: 3
Picture book: 3
Science fiction: 2
Women's Fiction: 3
Male Ennui: 2
Politics/Current Events: 1
Sports: 1
Biography: 1
Short stories collections: 1
No freaking idea: 3

GOOD NEWS: I have to say, this was a particularly professional batch of queries -- very few glaring errors (such as telling me how much your relatives enjoyed your work (1) or mentioning how the public is craving your story because HARRY POTTER is finished (1) or sending me a query with read-receipt turned on (2) or including me on a mass e-mail with every agent you could find on the Internet (1) or addressing your query "Dear Literary Agent" or "Sir/Madam" (4) or mentioning that there is an SASE included in the electronic query (1) )

BAD NEWS: Queries beginning with rhetorical questions: 4

(Clearly the war is not over.)

GOOD NEWS: Personalized queries: 28

This is extremely good news! Yes, 28 personalized queries means that only 35% of the queriers personalized their query, which is still rather astonishing given how much it increases a writer's odds, but when you consider that in Query Stats past only 19%, 14% and 19% also were personalized, this marks a substantial improvement. Give yourselves a round of applause, query writers!

And of these 81 queries I requested 4 partials.

Thanks to everyone who submitted to me -- I like queries, and it's always encouraging to read a good group of them.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

When in Doubt: Query Me

UPDATE: Hi all, I'm no longer an agent, so this post no longer applies. I'm no longer accepting queries.

In the comments section of yesterday's post, Josephine and I were talking about the types of genres I prefer. Some agents definitely do have very clear genre delineations about what they do and don't represent and you should be aware of these.

Me? Not so much.

I'm open to pretty much anything. This is in large part because in my spare time I read basically anything and everything. This year alone I've read (among other things) WELCOME TO THE WORLD BABY GIRL, THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, GOSSIP GIRL, THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, THE NOTEBOOK, and I'm about to start TWILIGHT.

So if you're wondering about whether or not your project will be "up my alley" -- try me. It may not be right for me, but I'd much rather err on the side of seeing everything than possibly miss out on something I might have really liked.

There are some things I pretty much basically definitely don't represent. I don't rep picture books, I probably wouldn't take on a middle grade project unless it blew my mind (or came from an existing client), I don't rep category romance (but I do rep women's fiction and memoir), I don't rep screenplays, poetry and totally true alien encounters (even if they involve monkeys).

But seriously: when in doubt, just query me. I like queries, and I usually respond within 24 hours.

The blog is going to be on hiatus tomorrow, so there will be no regularly scheduled This Week in Publishing. Have a great weekend!

Related Posts with Thumbnails