Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Shock and Awe

Holly and I are still very hard at work poring over the entries in the Surprisingly Essential First Page Challenge, so I don't have an update on when we'll have finalists. Instead, I know there are a lot of new visitors to the blog, and I want to encourage everyone to stick around! Consider this a pledge drive. If you enjoy your local Nathan Bransford programming, please, add the blog to your RSS reader or subscribe to the blog via e-mail. Every little bit counts. We depend on reader pledges for 100% of our operating budget of $0, so please show your support for programming like This Week in Publishing and You Tell Me and our many contests.

And seriously, you guys are some talented writers! Reading over the entries has been a pleasure, and can I thank everyone again for entering? I think I can.

Meanwhile, an interesting debate sparked in the comment section of last night's time-calling post, and I thought I'd expand on it a bit here.

One of the things you always hear when you're a writer is that you really have to grab an agent with your opening. And this is true -- we read a whole lot of manuscripts, and if we're not grabbed right away we're going to move onto the next project.

BUT. This does not mean that you have to go out and try and grab the reader by the throat. Perhaps the most common shortcoming I'm seeing in some of the entries is that they try too hard to be surprising or shocking or pulling one over the reader. This is a common problem. Writers I talk to even sometimes tell me that they wanted to start with a more gradual opening, but their writing group said it was too quiet, so they went with the "bigger" opening instead. For instance, at least 7 openings in the SEFPC involve burnt and/or rotting flesh.

To be sure, this can be done well. But look at the openings of your favorite novels. Herman Melville did not begin MOBY DICK with Ishmael staring at the rotting carcass of a whale, Charles Dickens did not begin A TALE OF TWO CITIES by describing what guillotined heads look like. Even suspense novels that do begin with a shocking opener, like Jeff Abbott's FEAR, which starts with the seriously awesome first line "I killed my best friend.", double-back to gradually reveal details about the characters and world of the book.

This is because the purpose of an opening isn't to grab a reader and start punching them in the face, but rather to draw them into the world of the book. A "shocking" event in the very beginning isn't usually very shocking because it's not earned -- the reader doesn't yet care enough about the characters or know enough about the world for it to resonate properly -- so it feels more like a parlor trick. Even if it's an action-packed beginning, it's still necessary to orient the reader. So there are some definite dos and don'ts in the beginning, and I'd point you to Kami's great comment from last night's post for a breakdown.

The purpose of a first page is to begin to get to know a character, world, or plot in such a way that the reader wants to know more. It's a taste. And great characters, a great plot, and/or great setting (and of course great writing) grab me a lot more than an opening that tries too hard to be surprising or shocking.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Thank you so much to everyone who entered the Surprisingly Essential First Page Challenge!! Time is up, and frankly, not a moment too soon. 645 comments on Blogger, 29 on Myspace.... wow. I'm really blown away both by the quality of the entries and the fact that there are SO MANY OF THEM.

Holly and I definitely have our work cut out for us. I'm honestly have no idea how long it's going to take us to read through the entries and decide upon finalists. BUT. At some point in the near or distant future we will somehow settle upon a list of finalists and you will be able to vote on the ultimate super grand prize deluxe winner. So keep checking back.

And seriously, one big round of applause for Holly for agreeing to judge. She is a champ, and I hope you are all enjoying her awesome blog.

Thank you again to everyone who participated!! This has been a lot of fun, I'm really looking forward to reading all the entries, and in fact...

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

SEFPC Update #2


Thank you very very much for everyone who has entered the Surprisingly Essential First Page Challenge! There are many a Surprisingly Essential entry (around 400 between Blogger and Myspace), and the thread will be open for entries until tomorrow at 5:00 PM Pacific. Please continue to enter in the original contest thread and only in the original contest thread. Some people have missed the mark. I know the original post is getting so large that some people (especially those who are on dialup) are having some trouble entering. If you absolutely cannot make it work, you can e-mail me your entries and I'll post for you. But for the sake of my inbox, please try everything short of summoning the entire Geek Squad of America to your house before you take that last resort!

In other news, I hope Holly will be speaking to me by the end of the week! Have you checked out her blog? Promised her cat toys and ski encouragement? I hope so! I seriously cannot thank Holly enough for agreeing to help out. This is quite a task.

And in other news, I hate to mar what has otherwise been an extremely fun contest that I am still very excited about (despite the morale meter dipping), but I think I need to address this, so here goes. Some people have expressed concern that their entries are being critiqued on other blogs, and that this isn't something they signed on for. I'm sympathetic to these concerns -- while this is a public forum and people can see their entries, they might not have known that others would be critiquing their efforts, and ultimately I'd just like everyone to feel good about participating. Yes, being critiqued is something that happens when you're a writer, but this contest is just supposed to be fun. It's not like anyone is getting paid for this.

So I proposed what I feel like is a very fair compromise: I asked people who were critiquing to please refrain from critiques for the moment, but since I know there are many people who would love to hear feedback, I'd be happy to mention their blog on tonight's update to send people their way if people want critiques. That way, the people who want critiques can get critiques, and the people who don't want critiques don't have to be critiqued. Everyone wins! Even the monkeys, and they never win.

Unfortunately, while one critiquer was extremely gracious about bowing out (I really can't thank her enough, she was very kind about it), another has disagreed, and UPDATE: Chro has agreed to pull unsolicited critiques and critique all comers! I wish him luck! Check out his blog if you want feedaback! But other than those who have agreed with the compromise, the critiquers aren't excerpting material, and besides offering a compromise, my hands are somewhat tied here. People are going to do what they're going to do, apparently. So I apologize to those who are uncomfortable with what's happening, but I hope it won't mar their enjoyment of the contest. I tried!

Ultimately, I hope we can move on from this -- I hesitate to say there's a lesson in this (there isn't!), but from here on out I'm going to be deleting further comments that relate to this issue (I'm serious about this). Let's just all enjoy the contest and let's all just get along, and really: we need to remember that Spencer is the real problem here.

Thanks again to everyone who entered! Keep on entering (I didn't plan on sleeping tomorrow night anyway... or the next day), and I'm seriously amazed and impressed by all the talent out there. You guys are awesome.

Monday, January 28, 2008

SEFPC Update #1 and Comment Thread

The Surprisingly Essential First Page Challenge


It's that time. I'm pleased to announce the opening of THE SURPRISINGLY ESSENTIAL FIRST PAGE CHALLENGE!

Before I get to the guidelines, I'm also pleased to introduce the contest's co-judge, my very good friend Holly Burns, author of the wonderful and hilarious blog Nothing But Bonfires. I conned, er, persuaded Holly to participate because: 1) she's British (I mean, they invented the darn language), 2) she's an extremely talented writer (did I mention her wonderful and hilarious blog that you should already be reading?), and 3) I thought it would be helpful to have a judge from outside the publishing industry, the type of person who might pick up your book in the bookstore after reading the first page -- in other words, THIS IS YOUR READER.

So a massive thank you in advance to Holly for agreeing to participate.

And now for the contest guidelines:

1) All may participate. First pages may be from your work in progress or one you invented solely for the SEFPC. I've learned my lesson from contests past, and am limiting entries to one (1) per person.

b) Leave your first page in the comments section of this post. People who subscribe to the blog via e-mail: please click through to the site and leave your pages on the actual blog. Entries that are e-mailed to me will not be counted.

4.6) First pages are limited to 500 words. Use them wisely. Paragraphs should be single-spaced with double-spaces between paragraphs (like how this blog post is formatted). Please do not get crazy with your formatting.

+) The preliminary deadline for entries is Wednesday at 5:00 PM Pacific time although for some reason I always end up changing my mind about these deadlines, so please keep checking back. Nominees will be announced whenever Holly and I have had a chance to decide upon them, and you will have a chance to vote on the ultimate winner.

£) Spreading word about the contest on the Internet is encouraged. I am ready to judge this contest. No matter what. Even a million entries will not faze me. My voice only quivered a little when I said that.

X) And the prizes! The ultimate grand prize deluxe winner will receive the satisfaction of knowing they have a seriously awesome first page, and will have a choice of a query critique, partial critique, 10 minute phone conversation, or one of my clients' books. Runners-up will receive a query critique or other agreed-upon prize.

And that is it! Keep checking back for updates because these guidelines may be changed on a whim. Thank you again to Holly (here's her blog one more time) and good luck!

Who has the most surprisingly essential first page? Let's find out.

Friday, January 25, 2008

This Week in Publishing 1/25/08

Well, the votes for what-contest-we-should-have are in, and it's official: you all want me dead. Er. You want to have a first page content. I was never good at math, but let's see... 1 page x 500+ entries = hmm... carry the one... equals... well, multiple organ failure if I've calculated correctly. So tune in next week for that! Just to recap, we've had a title contest, then a first line contest, then first paragraph, now first page. At this rate we'll have a "first three finished manuscripts" contest before the year is out. Rules, regulations, and hyperbolic title will be posted on Monday. It's gonna be fun!

Meanwhile, in publishing:

OMG, my bff reader Diana Williams sent me dis article from da Times re cell phone novels n Japan. Thr ttly kool. LMAO! N e body like em? TTYL

The Wall Street Journal went on a hunt across the globe for DA VINCI CODE AUTHOR Dan Brown's next novel. The verdict: unknown. Also no albinos. But they did interview the grand master of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the District of Columbia. How's THAT for thorough?

Reader Christina Parker sent me a link to an article on the website, in which people drop books off in random places and then track them on the website to see where they've been. Apparently 625,000 people in 145 countries have signed on, and there are all kinds of maps and things like that. The techie part of me thinks: cool! The agent part of me thinks: the poor authors don't get royalties when the same book is read 20 times. And that's kind of a shame.

Via GalleyCat, author A.L. Kennedy has won the Costa Award (formerly known as the Whitbread). Given the number of awards that are being announced this month I'm sure I'm missing some, so if I haven't mentioned it: congratulations!

And finally, Sacramento Kings fans know Bob Delaney as one of the three referees on the court during Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals in 2002, when the Kings were SO COMPLETELY OBVIOUSLY JOBBED by the refs that Ralph Nader of all people sent a letter to the NBA urging them to review their refereeing policies. Think I'm kidding? Click here . Hmph. Where was I? Oh, Bob Delaney has a book coming out! You see, way before he was a ref, Bob Delaney was an undercover informant who infiltrated the mob. Crazy, right? I guess I'll forgive him. Someday.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Let's Put it To a Vote

Thanks so much for all of the great contest ideas! I'm so ready for this contest. You know. Once we decide what it's going to be.

I've whittled down some of the suggestions into a handy-dandy poll. Vote today, and whatever is winning when I write the This Week in Publishing post tomorrow will be the contest.

Oh -- and as for the prize, I'll let the winner(s) choose one of a query critique, partial critique, 10 minute phone conversation (I'm really not that interesting, but ok), or one of my clients' books. Hopefully the winner(s) will find something useful out of those prizes.

Here are the contest choice finalists:

- Short short fiction (thanks to Cam for suggesting first)
- Dialogue (thanks to Steve Axelrod)
- Elevator pitch/hook (thanks to Heidi)
- Prompt contest where I provide the start and everyone has to work with it (multiple variations suggested, thanks to everyone)
- First page (thanks to Chris)

Which shall it be?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What Kind of a Contest Should We Have Next Week?

Much like a new mother, I have sufficiently forgotten the pain of birthing the past few blog contests and am ready for another. So..... contest next week! Who can stop me? No one! (Remind me of my bravado next week when I'm nursing a drink and a shot of good old-fashioned remorse).

But since this is your blog and you have been kind enough to let me write here for a while, I'm wondering: what kind of a contest should it be? A hook contest? Another title contest? A worst contest? Book covers? Short fiction? Random lottery?

And, for that matter, short of an outright offer of representation (which I can't do) or money (which I don't have), what should the winner receive?

It's going to be fun! I think!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Please Don't Scare Me

The stock market is tanking, the weather in San Francisco is apocalyptic, and I face the prospect of seeing more of Javier Bardem now that he was nominated for an Oscar for the performance in No Country for Old Men that is still giving me nightmares. Plus, holy crap, **** killed **** on the Wire. I'm jumpy, people. Approach me carefully, do not speak too loudly, and please, please do not freak me out in your query letter.

Now, by urging you not freak me out in a query, I'm not saying don't send me a horror or suspense novel. It's fine to scare me through storytelling. What I am saying is that now is not a good time for confessing that you have homicidal tendencies toward literary agents and/or scaring me through inadvertent, sometimes well-intentioned means.

Sure-fire ways to freak me out include:

- Sending your query in a bizarre package
- Sending me a "true-crime" query for a crime YOU committed (yes, this happens)
- E-mailing me a query from a strange e-mail address (such as
- Sending me an anonymous query and/or one signed with a bizarre pen name. Look -- having one name a la Prince or Madonna DOES NOT MAKE YOU LOOK AUTHORIAL. It makes you look crazy.
- Writing in the passive voice. The horror!!!
- Excessive praise
- Stream-of-consciousness queries that appear to have been written on an excessive caffeine dosage
- Memoirs about alien and/or supernatural encounters. Call me crazy, but I am not going to believe that you have already been to heaven, hell, or the moons of Saturn and survived to tell the tale.
- Tricks of all kinds, including people who pretend like I've previously requested their manuscript only I forgot (I don't forget) and people who pretend that we are old classmates (I graduated from high school with 70 people, about 50 of whom I started kindergarten with 12 years earlier. We knew each other. A little too well.).

So please, be as cool as possible in your queries. Don't make any sudden moves. And hopefully we won't find ourselves in a Cormac McCarthy novel. Hopefully.

Friday, January 18, 2008

This Week in Publishing 1/18/08

Ths wk n Pblshng

Via Pblshrs Lnch, Knpf annced tht bstsllng athr Chrstphr Palini's nxt novl wll b namd BRISINGR, th Nrse wrd fr fire. No wrd on hw he wll spnd hs spre vowls.

Thanks to reader Gerri Baxter for pointing me to an article on destination bookstores (where people aren't reading). I would absolutely endorse their selection of City Lights, Elliott Bay, Powell's, and The Strand (I'm sure the others are swell too but I haven't been), and I will raise them Borderlands of San Francisco, Cody's in Berkeley, Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, KY (which, randomly, I've visited), and Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books in the West Village of NYC, which.... I mean, doesn't the name just say it all? (add your favorites in the comments!)

Maya Reynolds has the goods on how the Directors Guild deal affects the Writer's Strike. Someone is going to have to cave. Couldn't we all just agree on payment in the form of Dwight Schrute bobbleheads and call it a day?

It's award season! Among the notables, the Newbery went to Laura Amy Schlitz for GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! VOICES FROM A MEDIEVAL VILLAGE, the Caldecott went to Brian Selznick for THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, the Printz went to Geraldine McCaughrean for THE WHITE DARKNESS, the NBCC Shortlist was announced, and the Edgar Award nominees were announced.

And finally, Nathan Bransford's 2007 Book-To-Film Adaptation Award goes to (who else) Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers for "No Country For Old Men," which scared the living crap out of me. I am still recovering. Slowly.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Steve Jobs: "People Don't Read Anymore."

Not long after dashing some nascent hopes that Apple would unveil some sort of awesome e-Reader device at this week's MacWorld expo to compete with the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle, Steve Jobs stomped on the book industry a bit more with this quote in today's Times

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

Um. Ouch. You could have just kicked my dog and gotten it over with, Steve.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Should More or Fewer Books Be Published?

According to PW, there are 3,000 books published PER DAY. Now, granted, I'm sure this figure includes self-published books, things like trade manuals and everything else under the sun, but that is a whole lot of books. Without question, there are more books being published today than ever before in the history of humankind.

Is this a good thing?

One thing I always hear is that the publishing industry puts out too many bad books. "Too many books -- too many BAD books!" I always tell these naysayers that they just bought the wrong books, because there are more good books published every single month than would be possible to read in an entire lifetime, but I won't deny that there are quite a few mediocre books that hit the shelves, some of which even sell quite a few copies.

What should be done about this? Hypothetically, should there be fewer, better books and should the publishing industry invest their resources in these? One of the problems with so many books being published is the sheer abundance of options is one important factor in the gradual disappearance of the "midlist" -- books that sold fine but weren't bestsellers. This abundance has helped to fracture the marketplace into niche markets, leaving only a handful of mega-bestsellers at the top who are commanding large advances.

Or do we benefit from having 3,000 books published a day, some of which rise to the top, but most of which languish in anonymity? Consumers have options, niche books are finding their markets, and small gems that might not have made the cut in a blockbuster-driven publishing clime are published by small presses every single day.

So you tell me: should we publish fewer books or more? Which is better for readers, the publishing industry and literature as a whole?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Don't Fake a Personalized Query

I'm on quite the query kick these days, and there are no signs of stopping the quermentum. Query power! Hop on board the query train! Put your queries in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care! I'll stop now.

One of the more hilarious things that people do in query letters (besides ones that are actually funny), is to try and fake me out by pretending they've read my client's books. Having read these books several times each at the minimum, trust me -- I know these books. I am not going to be fooled.

So when an author says they can tell how much X author appreciates my work on their behalf based on the acknowledgments in X book.... I'm going to know when I'm not actually in the acknowledgments for that book (yes, this happened).

When someone compares their work to Brad Geagley's, only they write erotic suspense and his books are mysteries set in ancient Egypt.... I'm going to know they're faking it.

I realize that these queriers mean well and are just trying to personalize, but they're really missing the whole point of personalization. The goal of personalization isn't to suck up to the agent and score cheap points, the goal is to show that you are a diligent, hard-working author who is familiar with the conventions of the industry, are abiding by them, and you have familiarized yourself with the agent as much as possible before you queried them. All of these latter qualities, it just so happens, are qualities that bode well for a successful author.

As much as some people think we agents just want people to suck up to us, it's really not true. We are just looking for authors who embody the qualities (hard work, diligence, attention to detail, familiarity the publishing business) we see in other successful authors. Taking the easy way out and/or trying to fool an agent is not on the list of desirable qualities.

Now, don't get me wrong -- as nice as it would be, I don't expect everyone who queries me to read all of my clients' books and display a sweeping command of them in the query. There are people who read at least one, and I really do appreciate that and I take note of that kind of dedication, but it's not a guarantor. As much as I want to be the first person people query, I don't want to monopolize their time. So trust me. I'm not suggesting you write a book report in addition to a query.

But there is an art to personalization, and it's important to convey the qualities that an agent is looking for. Dedication and diligence are important, so if you query me I hope you'll do your homework, read "The Essentials" and sure, if you've read books by my clients, mention that. Just don't try and trick me.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Funny is as Funny Does

I've been getting quite a few queries for comic novels lately. How do I know they're comic novels? Well, the author tells me that they're funny.

Look, I love funny novels! Good comic writing is extremely hard to find. But here's the problem with this approach: if someone can't make me laugh in a query letter for a comic novel, I'm guessing the novel itself probably isn't that funny.

This extends to every genre. If someone tells me their novel is literary but the query letter doesn't display quality writing, I'm going to assume the novel isn't that literary. If the query is for a suspense novel but the description of the plot seems hackneyed or cliched, I'm guessing the novel is also hackneyed. The query letter needs to embody the underlying work.

Now, I don't think this should be taken too far -- it's still essential to get the plot of the novel across, and whatever approach you take to convey the spirit of your project should not feel forced. A good, straight-forward, organized query letter is usually better than trying to get too far out of the box in the name of creativity -- I mean, you don't need to send me your query printed on a whoppee cushion.

But at the same time, a query letter should reflect the strengths of the underlying material. And if you have a funny novel, the query needs to be funny too.

Friday, January 11, 2008

This Week In Publishing 1/11/08

Este semana en... um.. publishing.

The Millions took a look at the fiction published by the New Yorker from 2003-2007 and found some interesting trends. 37.4% were written by women, only 52% of the writers hailed from the US, and perhaps more interestingly, a mere 14 writers have accounted for 32% of the fiction, including Tessa Hadley and Haruki Murakami clocking in with 7 stories each.

GalleyCat checks in with oft-Digged (Dugg?) author Charles Sheehan-Miles on the question-of-the-moment: whether online success will actually sell books. The verdict? We'll see. Also, the Cat in the Galley has the scoop that Oprah's next book club pick just might be a $14 Plume paperback. Let the speculation commence!

Some more huge publishing deals went down in this early year -- Tom Wolfe is moving over to Little, Brown for his next novel, and fresh off of the success of THE DIANA CHRONICLES, former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor Tina Brown will next tackle the Clinton dynasty. This pollster is predicting a landslide bestseller.

And finally, Sean Lidnsay from 101 Reasons to Stop Writing, who is fast becoming more famous than all of us put together, had a hilarious interview with Jossip in which he further discouraged writers, and in which he delivers this priceless gem: "The biggest problem facing the publishing industry today is that the people who should be buying books are instead trying to write them." Yowsers!

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Passive Voice is Found in Your Query Letter

Back when I was an English major in college, my TAs would always warn us about writing our papers in the passive voice. I nodded along with the rest of my classmates, but in truth I had no idea what the "passive voice" even was. It sounded like something vaguely horrible and dangerous, but I had enough problems trying to figure out what in the heck James Joyce was writing about.

Now that I'm an agent, I know that the truth is even more serious: the passive voice is ready to kill your query letter.

What, ask you, is the passive voice? Good question. Here's a website that will explain it better than I can, but basically it's a way of writing a sentence without attributing an action to an actor.

Here are some examples:

Spencer called me on his homeboy phone. -- normal sentence
Calls were made on Spencer's homeboy phone. -- passive voice

The monkey's bananas were stolen. -- passive voice
Spencer stole the monkey's bananas. -- normal sentence

Make sense? It basically kills a sentence by making it vague and dull since the actions aren't attributed to a person or thing.

Well, some people manage to write nearly their entire query letter in the passive voice. It goes something like this:

Vengeance will be found. Mistakes will be punished. When his dreams are shattered, Spencer is compelled to find the enemies who have caused his life to be destroyed...

This makes me pound my head on my desk. Vengeance will be found HOW? Mistakes will be punished HOW? HOW were his dreams shattered? WHO are the enemies? HOW are they destroying his life? WHY don't you just go ahead and rip my hair out for me?

So watch out for the passive voice, the silent killer of query letters, and of writing in general. A novel is not a place where things happen, a novel is a place where characters do things.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

What Are Your Predictions for 2008?

As a child, I was really, really looking forward to the 2000s because we would have helipads and awesome flying cars, and the only drawback would be that our privacy would be given over to nebulous electronic surveillance methods. Well, we've turned another page on the calendar, it's 2008, and STILL no helipads or flying cars, and basically the nebulous electronic surveillance is used to sell me stuff in Gmail. And, to further confound my predictions, I LIKE IT when Gmail tries to sell me ski gear when I e-mail someone about an upcoming ski trip. Who knew Big Brother was so cuddly?

Needless to say, my powers of prognostication are not very strong. Luckily the people who read this blog are much smarter than I am (not because you the blog is making you smarter, but rather it seems to be something that you are bringing on your own).

So, inspired by Maya Reynolds' recent post on PW's 15 predictions for 2008, I thought I'd ask you to put on your crystal balls and look into your wizard hats: what are your predictions for 2008?

I'm going to go out on a limb and say:

- political books will be popular
- celebrity books will be popular
- self-publishing will continue to be heralded as the next big thing without actually becoming the next big thing
- no flying cars

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Dead Cliches

One of the most common shortcomings in some query letters (and in fiction by inexperienced writers) is an over-reliance on cliched phrases. The end result is a query that feels both unoriginal and strangely nonspecific, since in real life we use cliched phrases as a shorthand for bigger (and more interesting) ideas.

Here's what I mean. In query letters, I often see the description that a character "has issues." What does that mean, exactly? For instance, maybe the character has recurring nightmares about space monkeys. Now, in real life, we'd say someone "has issues" because we don't really want to get into the whole space monkey thing. But in a query, wouldn't it be more interesting to just say the character has recurring nightmares about space monkeys? (and hopefully space monkeys are relevant to the story if you're mentioning it... also I want to see that query)

I was thinking of compiling a list of all of these dead phrases over time and putting them up on the blog, but 1) I got lazy about it and 2) I realized that these phrases can be used to a good end by the right writer, particularly because cliches can be funny when they're used in a way that's counter intuitive. So a full list would probably be useless. BUT, if I had compiled a list, these would have been some of the entries:

"(something) ensued"
"in the worst way"
"to the bitter end"
"more than they bargained for"
"has issues"
"trials and tribulations"
"an incredible journey"
"he must (something) and (something) before (important object) falls into the wrong hands"

All of these phrases deaden a description that would have been far more interesting if the writer had just been specific about what they were describing.

So when you're writing your query, pay close, close attention to the writing crutches you're using to tell the story. The best way to write a succinct, compelling letter is to be specific and rid your query of cliches. To the bitter end.

Please add your favorite dead cliches in the comments section!

Monday, January 7, 2008

Genre Distinctions

Quick post for a busy day:

- Yes, the weather was seriously crazy here Friday and over the weekend, and no, we were not freaking out solely because we Californians are unused to having weather. The storm? It was big. I saw the bay spilling onto the Embarcadero.
- I'm liking the new season of The Wire. We can discuss further in the comments section.

Now for the main post:

People often ask me how to characterize their own works, and are also stymied by submission guidelines that stipulate certain genres. If you have a YA fantasy novel and an agency accepts young adult queries but not fantasy, can you still query them?

Here's a rough and quick rule of thumb when you're confused: go by the sections in a bookstore. Where would your book be stocked in the bookstore? If it's YA fantasy, it would probably go in the YA section, not the fantasy section, so it's YA first, YA fantasy second. If it's dark urban fantasy with paranormal horror elements, where do you think it would go? Pretend you're a bookstore employee -- don those black glasses, squint knowingly when people are talking to you, and make your best guess about where your book should go. Then write a little card recommending it.

So if an agency accepts YA but doesn't list fantasy as a genre they represent, I would feel free to send them that YA fantasy query -- the section of the bookstore is the most important distinction. This isn't a perfect way of breaking things down, but it will do in a pinch.

Friday, January 4, 2008

This Week in Publishing 1/4/08

This first week of 2008 in Publishing:

Esteemed fellow agent and intellectual property lawyer Jonathan Lyons is going to be giving a Mediabistro course on negotiating book contracts, so if you are going to be in the New York area on March 27th, definitely, definitely check that out. Your future book contract will thank you.

Central Connecticut State University released its rankings of the most literate cities in the US, and coming in first place is San Franc.... uh.. Minneapolis, Minnesota. San Francisco came in 7th. Behind St. Louis. The study's methodology? QUESTIONABLE.

Via GalleyCat, Business Week has an article about the self-publishing boom (Lulu in particular) and benefits and shortcomings thereof. Pros cited in article: Low cost, easy to get published (and then some!), ability to market on Internet. Cons: Lack of professional editing, distribution. Carry on.

Who says publishing closes down over the holidays? Um. Besides me? While we were all sipping egg nog, Santa brought Karl Rove a book deal! Yes, Rove inked a book deal with Threshold, a conservative imprint at Simon & Schuster, for a reported $1.5 million. I would make a joke... but I'm too scared of Karl Rove.

Via Shelf Awareness, not only are the kids not reading, they are BREAKING INTO DEAD WRITERS' HOMES. According to the AP, a wild pack of teenagers broke into former summer home of Robert Frost, destroying furniture, puking in the living room, and discharging fire extinguishers. Then again, maybe the teens had just read AN ARSONIST'S GUIDE TO WRITERS' HOMES IN NEW ENGLAND. Who says literacy is dead??

And finally, the first episode of Season 5 of the Wire airs on Sunday! I'm extremely excited (because IT'S THE WIRE), but terribly sad, because it's the last the Wire season ever. My prediction for the final season? David Simon gets Shakespearean and EVERYBODY DIES.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Atonement vs. Atonement?

As the self-appointed Chairman of the "Can't We Just Give Ian McEwan the Nobel Prize Already??" Committee, I've blogged often about my esteem for McEwan, which borders on the fanatical and which I have so consistently expressed that I have a blog tag for all things Ian McEwan. (I'm expecting the restraining order at any moment.)

While I haven't read all of his books (YET), ATONEMENT is my favorite, and not only my favorite McEwan novel, but rather it is my favorite novel of the last ten years.

There are many reasons to love ATONEMENT, from the beautiful language to the wrenching plot, the rich historical setting to the memorable characters and images, but there are two reasons in particular that I love the novel:

The first is that it is a tremendous example of what I am arbitrarily calling a "backdrop" novel. Although the novel isn't about World War II, the sense of dread and regret and transgression that McEwan evokes in the first half of the book is truly driven home by the evacuation at Dunkirk and the horrific experiences of Briony when she is a nurse. The novel isn't "about" World War II per se, but it manages to capture an intense and moving synchronicity of feeling between the war and the lives of the characters, both humanizing the war and contextualizing the lives of the characters. I really love and admire novels that are able to do this because it makes both the historical backdrop and the characters feel richer and bigger and more meaningful. McEwan is a master at capturing a historical period as experienced in the lives of his characters.

The second reason is that it is a meta-novel, in the sense that it can also be read as being about the nature of writing and truth and fiction. And as it examines the nature of fiction and manages to be a novel about itself, it's not even annoying!

So I was definitely both excited and anxious to see the movie adaptation of ATONEMENT, now in a theater near you.

My thoughts: it was good. You probably couldn't ask for a more faithful translation from book to film, the acting was great, that famous long shot was, well, long (and amazing).... but basically it just made me remember how much I love the book.

My complaint about the movie is that it sometimes felt heavy-handed (when Robbie wants to undo the past... he imagines things moving backwards), and the second half wasn't as intense as the first. Part of this had to do with choices by the filmmakers, part of it (such as the ending) were faithful to the book but seemed a little bit hollow on the screen.

Ultimately: the movie was good. But you just can't top the book.

Have you seen "Atonement"? Read the book? What did you think?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New Year, New Query Stats

Happy New Year, everyone!

I tell you what, there's nothing quite like returning to the office to face 123 queries in your inbox. PEOPLE. Publishing closes down over the holidays, and trust me, you don't want to be 1/123rd of your prospective agent's grunt of "UGH" when they open their inbox after the holidays -- they have plenty of other work that has built up. Avoid avoid avoid sending queries from December 18th - January 8th and the week before and after the fourth Thursday in November.

Of course, I ended up requesting four partials out of those 123, so what do I know?

On to the stats! Now that I've been doing this query stat thing for a while, it's interesting to see the trends. Admittedly these are small and subjective sample sizes, but the gap between suspense/thriller/mystery (which is the perennial leader) and YA has continued to narrow, with 23 suspense to 19 YA. And this week's unusually popular category award goes to male ennui: 8 were firmly in the "disaffected man goes on road trip/embarks on journey of self-discovery/decides that the world is full of BS" category. I guess these authors weren't exactly feeling the Christmas spirit.

Full stats:

Suspense/thriller/mystery: 23
Young Adult: 19
Fantasy: 16
Women's Fiction: 10
Male Ennui: 8
Literary fiction: 7
Science fiction: 6
Memoir: 6
Short story collections: 6
Middle grade: 5
How-to/Self-Help: 4
Historical fiction: 4
Horror/Occult: 2
Politics/Current Events: 2
Picture book: 1
Western: 1
No freaking idea: 3

Of these 123, 36 were personalized (a sad 29%) and 8 began with rhetorical questions.

Other fun categories:

Queries that bragged about the amount of violence and/or sex in the novel: 3
Questions about my interests that could have been easily answered if the person had Googled my name: 2
Mentioned that relatives and/or friends loved their work: 3
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): 3
"Read receipt" turned on: 1 (much better!)
Follow up questions: 2
Addressed "Dear Sirs" or to the wrong agent: 4
Addressed "Dear Nate" (it's "Nathan"): 1

Requested: 4

Last fun (or not so fun) fact: only one of the four partials I requested was personalized. The query "rules"? OUT THE WINDOW!

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