Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, February 29, 2008

This Week in Publishing 2/29/08

This week. Publishing. For real this time.

Don't worry, I won't be changing my business cards any time soon. You may have read the news that ICM and Curtis Brown UK are contemplating some sort of mating ritual, but FYI, Curtis Brown and Curtis Brown UK are separate companies and have been for some time, and thus I would not be affected by any possible joining of the two. As you were.

Editorial Anonymous got in touch with a sales rep for a publisher, who very helpfully answered some reader questions about author brands and in-office signings. Since I am a farmboy I can't help but read "author brands" and think about the horrifying experience of watching my uncle brand cattle with one of those hot iron things, so in case you are feeling down about being an author and all of the new publicity demands that come with it, just remember: the cows have it worse. The cows always have it worse.

The Oscars came and went on Sunday, and needless to say: Cormac McCarthy won. I mean, was there ever any doubt? Anyone who lost their Oscar pool because they didn't pick "No Country For Old Men" need to know just one thing: YOU DON'T BET AGAINST CORMAC MCCARTHY. The man is a juggernaut. Me? I tied for winning the Curtis Brown office pool, and if only "Salim Baba" would have won for best documentary short I would have taken the whole shebang and you really would have heard the bragging.

Meanwhile, you know how they were trying to turn the Quills into the Oscars of Books? Yeah. Let's just say the Quills will not be celebrating their 80th anniversary in 76 years. In the wake of announcing that Reed Elsevier is putting their division Reed Business Information on the block, which includes trade magazines Variety and Publishers Weekly, they have also "suspended" the Quills. Sigh.

And finally, a book ATM? Oh hell yes. (thanks to Publishers Lunch for the tip). Contra Costa County in California is starting a program called "Library a-Go-Go." Stay with me -- I know that with "Book ATM" and the ridiculously great name "Library a-Go-Go" you are being besieged with awesomeness, but STAY FOCUSED. The Library a-Go-Go project will install several book ATMs at BART stations (BART = subway/commuter train basically) so you can pick up and drop off books at a Swedish-built machine containing 270-400 books, all without leaving the train platform. If this is the future sign me up. Now.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Literary Agent Blog Roundup

I have to hand it to my compatriots, this has been a really stellar week in the literary agent blogosphere. I was saving all sorts of posts for tomorrow's This Week in Publishing, but there are so many good agent blog posts this week I thought I'd do one roundup.

First up, there's a new agent in the blogosphere, so let's all give her a warm welcome and crash her Inbox with query letters!! (just kidding -- give her some time to catch her breath). Colleen Lindsay is a new agent with FinePrint, and she has a blog called The Swivet, which is rapidly becoming, nay, is already a must read.

Fellow rhetorical question warrior Jonathan Lyons has a list of his pet peeves, in which he joins the noble fight against queries beginning with rhetorical questions, and he also has a great post on the fact that vampires are not, in fact, dead, and what agents and editors usually mean by pleas of "no more vampires" is that they don't want unoriginal takes on the genre.

Over at BookEnds, they're well into their next first-100-words contest, and this one is erotica so... well, I know I'm blushing. They also have a post discussing the types of projects that would be appealing to a book packager, and whether you should first seek an agent.

Jenny Rappaport and I said hi this week, and also she has a post on current industry trends.

Following up on her post about how advances work, Jennifer Jackson of the Donald Maass Literary Agency has still more great information on how royalties work. If you want a great nuts and bolts breakdown, check it out.

Janet Reid has a seriously awesome list of words that automatically raise the bar on whether an agent will request your work, as in, it had better be really incredibly good because we see these things so much.

I have to say, this is such a great time to be an aspiring author. Never before in the history of the written word has so much information about the publishing industry and agenting been so readily available to authors. Make sure you're absorbing the wealth of information that is now available, because with greater ease of access to information comes higher expectations that authors will take advantage of it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What is Your Goal as a Writer?

Simple enough question, but I'm guessing there will be wildly different answers.

What is the ultimate goal of your writing? To pass the time? To find fame and fortune? To change the world? To leave something behind? So scholars in the future can debate the meaning behind your work? To scratch an itch?

What end result do you have in mind when you put pen to paper (or fingers to laptop)?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Novel Word Count

I'm not a stickler for word count. Yes, there are certain word count expectations for certain genres, some are stricter than others, you can look these up on the Internet if you're interested, but my modus operandi on word count is my usual refrain about writing: if it works it works.

Within reason. If your (adult) novel is less than 40,000 words you're in novella land (where publishers worry about how a bookstore is going to stock your book when it will have such a skinny spine). Children's novels are generally shorter, but shouldn't be TOO short. If your novel is going to be over 150,000 words and your name is not David Foster Wallace, Leo Tolstoy, or Vikram (Chandra or Seth), there had better be a darn good reason for it.

Well, in the last couple of weeks people have been just blowing me away with their word counts. They're so high I have a physical reaction, similar to what would happen if someone took a query beginning with a rhetorical question, attached it to a sledgehammer, and hit me across the head with it. We're talking LONG. Just in the past week alone: 291,000 words, 223,470, 314,000 (first in a trilogy), 250,000, 213,000, and more!

PEOPLE. Not only do some agents automatically reject if your novel is too long (for the record I'm not one of them), you really have to ask yourself if you wrote that long of a novel because it was necessary and true to the story and you're able to keep the reader engaged over that huge length or because you need to take your laptop into the shop to fix the Backspace button.

Due in part to physical constrains (i.e. shelf space) and the resulting preference of national chains, some people in publishing feel there is a trend toward shorter books going on at the moment. While I don't advocate following trends too closely (all it would take is a couple of blockbuster doorstoppers to start a new trend), especially for a first novel you probably want to try to avoid giving people one easy reason to pass on your work.

Again, if it works it works, but the odds of it working when your debut novel is over 150,000 words drops dramatically.

Monday, February 25, 2008

So Begins Today's Blog Post

At the San Francisco Writer's Conference I participated on a fiction agents' panel with many wonderful agents, and it was a pretty great hour. One of the audience members asked to hear our personal pet peeves when it comes to queries, and you could almost feel the excitement among the agents on the panel, as this is without a doubt one of our favorite topics. Who doesn't like complain about their pet peeves?

Anyway, after I had expressed my irrational and yet passionate disdain for queries beginning with rhetorical questions, the incomparable and awesome Donald Maass had, I thought, a pretty superb query peeve as well, and now that he mentioned it I can't help but trip up on it every time. And that is: a query that begins with a quote from the first lines of the novel, followed by the words "So begins my xxx novel..."

The man is a genius! I definitely understand why people would want to put their best foot forward and just cut to the chase with their writing. But there's something about the whole setup of quote followed by "So begins my..." that can't help but feel a little canned. Not to mention the fact that while it's possible to have a really awesome first line, the excerpt itself isn't enough to really give a sense of the novel, which is why the whole query thing exists in the first place.

Now, if you have employed this setup, do not feel bad! You couldn't have known that it was such a common trope, and no agent is going to reject you solely on the basis of using this opening. But just be aware that this is a very common setup, and when you're trying to stand out from the query pack, it doesn't usually pay to be common.

So ends today's post.

Friday, February 22, 2008

This Week in Publishing 2/22/08

This Week in Publishing is like a simile.

So it turns out that not only are there simile fans, but they are impassioned, like a great throng of warriors as deep as the day is longer than an old man's war story. Follow the carnage in the comments section of yesterday's post, including my prediction of a coming nuclear war over dangling modifiers. All I have to say is: know the rules before you break the rules. Also: don't get mad over similes.

Remember when Steve Jobs said no one reads anymore? Well, reader John Askins was the first to point me to Timothy Egan's NY Times blog post on reading, in which he points out that while disco is dead, reading is not. You know. What with the 400 million books sold last year and all. He also, hilariously, points out that HARRY POTTER and THE DA VINCI CODE both individually sold way more copies than Apple sold iPhones. Of course, I still want an iPhone. So I can read books on it. (honestly)

Reader Cameron Sullivan pointed me to an article from the Guardian assessing the self-publishing boom, which includes the bomblet that self-publishing company Lulu has doubled in size every year. They publish 4,000 titles every week. I think that calls for a "great googly moogly." Make that several great googly mooglys.

In similar but not entirely related news, the Espresso is coming! The Espresso is coming! Publishers Lunch linked to this article about Vermont-based Northshire Bookstore, which is the first independent bookstore to acquire an Epresso book printing machine thingamajig, which produces a finished book in just a few minutes (Maya Reynolds' take on the Espresso here and here). The machine will even print books from the bookstore's own imprint. Northshire General Manager Chris Morrow says, "I just feel that standing still is sure death." So be sure and hop up and down while waiting for your Espresso book to print.

And finally, last week I linked to news about Borders' new concept store. Want to know what said concept store is like? Well, Margaret Yang, aka Original Bran Fan, was brave and awesome enough to venture over to the Ann Arbor concept store and she files this report:

I remember twenty years ago when there was only one Borders store, period. I’ve enjoyed watching it evolve first into a bigger store in Ann Arbor, and then into a chain. So I was excited about this new “concept” store, especially when I found it was right in my own neighborhood. This store, according to press releases, emphasized the digital. Would it have a print-on-demand machine in the store? Would it have a smaller staff, forcing the patrons to type their questions into a computer? Would it have—as Nathan Bransford worried—a robot clerk with an electronic sneer when you downloaded a romance novel? The website, told me nothing. I had to go see for myself.

First impression: this looks like a bookstore. “What makes it different?” I asked a clerk.

Go to the travel section, and amid the travel books, you can find a computer hooked up to Expedia, so you can book a trip right in the store. Go to the music section, and amid the CD’s, you can find a station to download songs to your MP3 player for about a buck a song. Go to the cooking section, and you can download recipes. And somewhere in the store (although I did not see where) you can also download a book to your e-reader.

But I don’t want to go to a bookstore to do any of that stuff! Why would I? With a broadband connection, I can do all that and more from home, in my jammies.

What I want to do at a bookstore—amazingly enough—is buy books.

And what do you know? You can still do that here. This store is the prettiest Borders I’ve ever been in. The ceiling is high with good lighting, and the shelves are low, giving a view of the entire store and all the gorgeous books therein. Many, many books. As many as are in any average Borders store. I saw many human clerks around, some of whom actually knew how to find things in the store, and all with a sincere desire to help.

Plenty of books and decent service in an attractive setting. It’s not new.

But what a concept.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Your Similes Are Like a Giant Flood Washing Over Me

More common than air.... Damaging like a giant tornado hitting a chainsaw factory.... Similes are sweeping the nation as fast as a cheetah on a motorcycle.

For the grammatically disinclined (you know who you are, or rather, you SHOULD know who you are), a simile is a comparison between two or more things, often using the words "like," "than" or the ever popular "as [blank] as a [blank]."

Now, as with any other writing device, similes can be done well. Some writers use them to tremendous effect, some wonderful writers even use them often, and I would not take their similes away from them. This doesn't apply to everyone.

But as Johns Hopkins MFA grad and author May Vanderbilt told me this weekend as we were discussing writing over drinks at the San Francisco Writer's Conference after our panel with editor Christine Pride (yes, this is what agents and writers do at writer's conferences), she was once told in writing school that you get one or two similes a book. No more.

No doubt this is hyperbolic advice and not meant to be taken literally. You don't got ONLY two similes. But unless your gift for similes is as grand as a Steinway piano (get it??), this is something to keep in mind. Similes are like jalapeno peppers. They can add some spice, but too many of them and your reader will spit out your novel and run away.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How Objectively Can We Judge Good or Bad Writing?

As anyone who has presided over a slush pile, passed on a megabestseller, or read their friend's manuscript will tell you, reading is subjective. Many different people have their own opinions about the same book, and those opinions can vary so widely it's almost impossible to believe they've read the same book. One person will think it's the best book ever, another will think it's the literary equivalent of Heidi Montag's Spencer-directed music video.

Writing? Subjective.

But wait, is it really? I feel that I can fairly confidently judge whether a book has good or bad odds if I were to submit it to publishers, I can categorize a pile of manuscripts into "good" and "bad" writing, and I have to make judgment calls dozens and dozens of times a day. If I didn't make reasonably accurate decisions I'd be out of a job.

So you tell me: how objective or subjective is good writing? How do you know what's good? And who decides what is "good" anyway? Should it be the people who sell the most copies? Experts? Critics? The publishing industry?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Day in the Life of an Agent

8:00: arrive at work
8:00 - 11:45: answer e-mails, call editors
11:45 - 1:30: lunch with an editor
1:30 - 3:00: answer e-mails
3:00 - 4:00: write detailed comments on client's proposal
4:00 - 5:10: answer e-mails
5:10: leave for home
6:00: eat dinner, watch election coverage
6:15: start reading manuscripts
7:09: realize that I haven't had time to blog
7:12 - ???: read until I can't read anymore!

Friday, February 15, 2008

This Week in Publishing 2/15/08

Busy week in publishing (at least for this publishing employee)!

Did someone say contest? Well, it wasn't me! The very good people over at BookEnds LLC are having what they promise to be a series of contests, and first up is a first-100 words of a mystery contest. Good luck! To BookEnds!

Also hosting a regular contest (of the monthly variety) is Josephine Damian, who recently wrapped up her "Magnificent 7" first page contest, in which she read and critiqued seven first pages and chose a winner. Keep checking for her next contest, which, if my math is right, should be in a month.

Publishers Lunch reports that Borders is unveiling a "concept store" in its hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, which will feature digital kiosks and digital centers and emphasizing digital options in popular categories such as travel, cooking, and children's books. Could a digital employee who smirks when you buy a romance novel be far behind?

Also via Publishers Lunch, HarperCollins is experimenting with free downloads of certain books, including Paulo Coehlo's THE WITCH OF PORTOBELLO, and Neil Gaiman is polling his readers to see which of his title should be included. The experiment is aimed at assessing the impact of the availability of free books on book sales. Care to weigh in with predictions?

And finally, if you DON'T already love San Francisco I challenge you to watch the below video and see if your cold, black heart doesn't change right back to red. Every year on Valentine's Day San Francisco has the world's largest pillow fight. I heart SF!

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Conference Protocol

The San Francisco Writer's Conference starts tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to meeting some of you there!

I'm sometimes asked about protocols for talking with agents at conferences, and so I thought I'd take my own personal stab at some dos and don'ts.

First up: don't be nervous. Seriously. I don't bite, attack, make fun, disparage, or karate chop. (Unless you're a Lakers fan, in which case you should probably wear a helmet.) I know it's weird going up and talking to random publishing people, but don't feel like your chances of being published are hinging on what you say. They're not. So don't be nervous.

Please remember that I know I need a haircut but have been putting it off.

If you want to say hello but don't get a chance to -- don't sweat it. I hear the folks from Nowhersville, Indiana are looking forward to slapping me around for disparaging their fair town, but if we don't get a chance to speak, just e-mail me.

I'm sitting in on a pitch session on Sunday, but other than that it's not the best idea to pitch stuff to me verbally in the halls. Not because I'm not interested in what you're working on (I am), but I need to see the writing. What it sounds like verbally doesn't really matter, I'm always going to say the same thing: "e-mail it to me." If it comes up in conversation, great. But if you're looking for me to say whether it's a good idea or not -- I won't really be able to tell for sure without seeing the writing. Also, the pitch session is a good opportunity to ask any questions you have about the industry or about your writing -- I'm happy to help!

UPDATE: Please don't give me any papers, cards, or anything else. Save a tree -- emailing me is the way to go.

San Francisco recommendations for out of towners:
- pizza: Little Star
- coffee: Blue Bottle Cafe
- bar: Bourbon & Branch
- hamburger: In N Out or Taylor's Automatic Refresher
- outdoor lunch: Java House
- can't miss tourist attraction: Powell-Hyde cable car
- second can't miss tourist attraction: The Ferry Building
- only-in-San Francisco: the Tonga Room
- Chinatown restaurant (even though we all know the best Chinese food is outside of Chinatown): Hunan Homes
- North Beach restaurant: Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe (best meatball sandwich ever)
- best expensive restaurant: Aqua
- burrito: Papalote

It's going to be a fun time!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

When Do You Follow/Ignore Writing Advice?

One of the very most difficult aspects of the writing process for any author is how to respond to feedback about their writing.

Listening to feedback in order to improve one's work is an incredibly important skill, and some authors are adept at skillfully improving their drafts based on the advice they receive (I've seen it happen). But what happens when you don't necessarily agree with the advice?

What is the balance between listening and ignoring? Do you follow the people you trust or go with your gut? Should you bow to someone with more experience or trust your own instincts? When do you go with the advice and when do you hold firm?

Successful revisions hang in the balance!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

SASE Heads Up

The Postal Service is raising the price of a first-class stamp one cent starting May 12th, so for those of you who say there's a SASE included in your e-mailed query (and there are a lot of you) -- don't forget to add an extra cent to your e-mails.

Thankfully there aren't any exploding power lines outside of my building today, but I'm still slammed. Back with a You Tell Me tomorrow.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Know Thyself

When one is having an extremely busy day in which the e-mails are just pouring in, one does not generally expect that a telephone pole outside one's building will catch on fire, shutting down power for the day. Well, that happened to one ME today. I'm now working from home for the rest of the afternoon, which, trust me, sounds way more awesome than it is.

(Actually it's kind of awesome. I have a laptop and it's 65 degrees outside. You do the math.)

Anyway, this post is going to be brief because of the aforementioned busy day, but I'm getting a bazillion queries lately and I've noticed something kind of interesting about the way different people characterize their accomplishments in query letters.

Put on your agent hat for a moment. Which of these two authors would you be more interested in signing:

Author A has published six books, published numerous articles, and is a an award winning author.... only after some digging you find out the six books were published by a very small press with a sketchy website, the articles were published on the author's blogs, and the award was Citizen of the Year from Nowheresville, Indiana.

Author B has published several works from small presses, has a killer idea for a new novel, and is ready to make the leap to a major publisher. After some digging, this is all turns out to be true.

So who would you choose? Author B, right? Trick question: THEY'RE THE SAME AUTHOR. Also I made them both up. This blog gets trickier and trickier.

Anyway, the moral of this bizarro example is that it is much better to be completely honest about your accomplishments but pitch yourself as being on the rise than it is to try and blow up your accomplishments into something they're not. Agents do not like it when authors try and fool them, and we can smell a turkey sale a mile away.

On the flipside, though, don't undersell yourself either. Don't apologize for a lack of writing credits -- don't fake them, but just make sure you have a great story and you're confident about it. If you do, an agent will come calling. Assuming their telephone pole isn't on fire.

Friday, February 8, 2008

This Week in Publishing 2/8/08

This! Week! in! Publishing!

We had a contest, heather!anne! won, it nearly broke me, we're back to normal now. Whew.

The San Francisco Writer's Conference is fast approaching, and the keynote speakers include Daisy Maryles, Executive Editor of Publishers Weekly, and authors Clive Cussler, April Sinclair, and Tess Gerritsen. Oh, and I'll be there! Maybe I won't "uh" my name this year.

Jessica Faust from BookEnds has a seriously awesome post up about how to choose the best agent. Once you know an agent is reputable, how do you know they're the right agent for you? This is a really difficult question to answer, and she does (I think) a great job of breaking it down.

Jeff Abbott pointed me to this GalleyCat article about how the Kindle is outpacing Amazon's expectations! No word on what those expectations actually were to begin with, but interesting nonetheless.

Also via GalleyCat, now, I'd like to remind you that this isn't a political blog so please don't..... oh what the heck. Bush's budget calls for the elimination of the Inexpensive Book Distribution program at Reading Is Fundamental, which distributes books to the youngest and most at-risk kids. GalleyCat would like to remind us that the First Lady was an ex-librarian. Hmmm...

And finally, remember last week how I told you about the book already up on Amazon about the Patriots going 19-0? Well.... that link doesn't seem to be working anymore. So weird, right?? I wonder why.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Harry Potter is Not Walking Through That Door

Digression. A few years back, the Boston Celtics were really bad. Their star trio Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish had retired, former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino had taken over as coach/GM, and... they were really really bad. But people in Boston still had all these high expectations for the team, and Pitino was fed up with people thinking the Celtics were going to be as good as the old glory days. So at a press conference he blew up on the media and gave a famous rant about how "Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through the door they're going to be gray and old." (clip below in all its awesomeness)

Well, I have something to say to aspiring authors out there: Harry Potter is not walking through that door.

I've been getting SO many queries lately talking about the "void" left by the end of the HARRY POTTER series. Inevitably these are queries from children's fantasy writers with varying degrees of similarity to Harry Potter, who feel that people who are no longer buying HARRY POTTER books are pooling their money to spend on the next children's fantasy book featuring wizards.

Yes, to be sure, in the publishing industry we're all wondering and placing bets on what the next "next big thing" is going to be. But when has the "next big thing" ever been like the last big thing?

Aspiring authors do themselves such a disservice by trying to follow the publishing trends or trying to model their book on the ones that have been successful in the past. Trust me -- Harry Potter is not walking through that door, THE DA VINCI CODE is not walking through that door and THE LOVELY BONES is not walking through that door. The next huge hit is not going to resemble the hits of the past.

The best thing to do is what J.K. Rowling did: she wrote a great book that was fresh and original and not at all trying to mimic what was popular at the time.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The! Winner! Is! ...

Before I announce (and congratulate) the winner, please let me first thank everyone who participated in the contest, whether through entering, commenting, voting, or some combination thereof. This has been a lot of fun, you guys are seriously great, and I sense there are more contests in this blog's future (maybe I AM a seer after all).

Please also allow me to extend another HUGE MASSIVE thanks to Holly, my illustrious co-judge and author of Nothing But Bonfires (you have checked it out and added it to your blog roll, right?), who took many, many hours out of her busy week to help co-judge the contest. And in fact, she was even kind enough to pass along a message to everyone:


Hi everyone, Holly here! I just wanted to introduce myself quickly and thank you all so much for your submissions.

When Nathan originally asked me to be a co-judge in his contest, I leaped at the chance---I mean, really, I think I said yes before he’d even finished asking the question.

“Are you sure you’re up for it?” he said. “I mean, I’m not entirely confident you know what you’re getting yourself in for. There are going to be quite a few entries, you know.”

“Pshaw!” I replied. “Why do you think I wear such strong contact lenses? From reading too much, of course! I devour whole novels in a day! I eat anthologies of short stories for breakfast! I can read a few hundred first pages for your competition, Nathan, no sweat!”

Except it wasn’t a few hundred, was it? It was 675. So, uh, thanks for that.

But the truth is, I had a blast. Honestly, I did. And in case there’s any doubt in your mind, I absolutely, unequivocally, cross-my-heart-and-swear-on-a-stack-of-Hills-DVDs read every single entry. (No, seriously! As Spencer is my witness!)

And narrowing them down was hard. It was excruciatingly hard. I started by copying and pasting the ones I was immediately impressed with into a Word document I called FINALISTS. But then I had so many finalists that I had to start another document called FOR REAL FINALISTS. After that came FINALISTS! NO, SERIOUSLY THIS TIME, NO KIDDING, and in that document I had about 30 entries. I cut that down to 15. I cut that down to 10, and then I sent those 10 to Nathan, who sent me his 10 back in return. We found we had two in common, so we put those on the master list.

After that, it all got a little Sophie’s Choice up in here. Of the two I eventually chose as my picks---Julianne’s and Charlotte’s, in case you’re wondering---both were equally evocative, clever, and just plain well-written. (Both were also about funerals, in case you hadn’t noticed, which prompted Nathan to email me and ask if everything was alright.) But the ones I had to leave behind broke my heart: the dead baby in Elladog’s story, the twelve-year-old smart talker in Lincoln Highwayman’s piece, the tarot card reader in Southern Writer’s intro, the newly boob-jobbed protagonist on Len Joy’s page. I wanted to bring them all with me onto the shortlist, and I’m hugely sorry that I couldn’t.

So thank you to all of you for making my days (and my nights---my long, long nights) that little bit more interesting. Thank you for giving me some truly great stuff to read. Thank you for having the courage to enter the competition and the graciousness to congratulate your peers when it was over.

And now I think it’s about time Nathan bought me a shot.


Nathan again. And yes, I definitely owe Holly a shot.

I'd also like to extend my own personal congratulations to the authors on my list of final 10 that barely missed the final 6: Eric ("Tweed & Scissors" -- almost completed the contest trifecta having made the finalists of two previous blog contests), Walter (the Generalissimo), LindaBudz (the Potato Baby Dare), Ally (the Brown Shoe Diaries), and Michael Reynolds (disappearing teacher). In case you're further curious, heather!anne! (soup can man) and kari (Possible Happiness) were on both Holly's and my lists of top 10, and after Holly chose Julianne and Charlotte I chose luc and terryd to round out the top six.

PENULTIMATE congratulations are in order to our wonderful finalists: Julianne, kari, Charlotte, terryd, and luc. (Please e-mail me to discuss your prizes.)

And the ULTIMATE GRAND PRIZE SUPER DELUXE WINNER IS... after 675 entries, many votes, a whole lot of comments, and one great week.... I'm pleased to announce that heather!anne! is the winner of the Surprisingly Essential First Page Challenge!

Thanks again everyone, I hope you will stick around and continue to participate in the blog, and I'll be back later in the week with the usual blog programming.

Monday, February 4, 2008

More on the Finalists (and the naysayers)

This just in: I am not a seer.

No, really.

Long story short, some anonymous hecklers and some apparently published authors submitted their first pages in the contest, and since they were not chosen as finalists, they feel that this means that either a) I'm an idiot, b) the publishing process is broken, and/or c) well, I'm sure there may have been a c but I deleted their comments because I loathe anonymous snark (as opposed to the anonymous Miss Snark, whom I love).

First of all, don't you know that Spencer is the enemy? Why are you targeting me?

Second of all, welcome to publishing. Pull up a chair. I hope you'll stay awhile. It's an interesting place.

For the people who apparently believe agents should divine the publishing prospects of a work based solely on the first page of said work: uh, that's not really how it works actually. Over 20 publishers passed on A WRINKLE IN TIME when they had the whole manuscript in their hands, let alone just the few words that came after "It was a dark and stormy night." Publishers passed on [insert any bestseller and/or classic book here] a bunch of times. This is a subjective process in which many wonderful books are passed on. Publishing is all about matching up the right book with the right agent and the right editor at the right time. Even if an agent or editor passed up on the next huge book, it doesn't mean they're stupid -- they might just not have been the right fit. Enthusiasm and fit are everything.

But wait, you might say: don't agents try and divine the publishing prospects of queries all the time? Yes! We do -- but this is why the (admittedly imperfect) query process is in place. A query should give a sense of the overall work, whereas judging a book based on the first page is like trying to determine how awesome the Statue of Liberty is just by looking at her toenail. This is why it's necessary to write a good query and query widely. Subjectivity is the name of the game.

So for the people who are getting worked up about a for-fun contest on an agent blog: simmer down there, hot rod. This all goes with the territory. The purpose of this contest was to find some good first pages and have fun in the process. Aren't we having fun?

And oh by the way -- how about those six finalists? Aren't they good?

Some people requested that I speak a bit more on how I chose my finalists, so here goes. There were many awesome first pages, but I found myself drawn to a particular group, and frankly I'm very happy with the choices.

A first page really can do (basically) four things: reveal the setting, reveal the characters, reveal the plot, and/or reveal the style. There were many first pages (just as there are many wonderful books) that started off with a wonderfully evocative setting, there were many that started off with wonderful characters, an intriguing plot and/or an interesting style. You could find all sorts of wonderful books that start with a combination of one, two, three, or four of these elements (ATONENMENT, for instance, begins with a fascinating character, Briony, organizing a play with McEwan's intricate style).

For the purposes of this contest, perhaps because we're judging the first page and ONLY the first page, I, personally, found myself drawn to works that revealed all four elements.

I also found myself drawn to works with a high degree of difficulty. As I mentioned in the comments of the voting thread, at first blush, some of these finalists might seem very straightforward, but it is VERY difficult to capture a pitch perfect voice and a historical setting like Heather!Anne! did (she even used the word reckon well, which is nearly impossible to do), it's VERY difficult to ease the reader into a world while building some spine-tingling suspense like terryd, VERY difficult to simultaneously introduce a strange futuristic world while at the same time eliciting a response like "yup, I know this family" like luc, VERY difficult to master the impeccable flow of kari's first page and then bring a smile to the reader's face with that dialogue, VERY difficult to elicit a sense of place like Charlotte, and such an impeccable and precisely-constructed mood like Julianne.

While I can rule out some works objectively because they're far away from publishable quality -- ultimately it's subjective. I picked four out of 675. There were many more that were good, more that I want to see more of, and apparently a few by some excitable authors taking this contest just a tad too seriously.

I went with the ones that really struck me and that I was most enthusiastic about. And at the end of the day, that's the way the publishing process works.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

America's Next Top Surprisingly Essential First Page (the Finalists)


675 beautiful first pages stand before me.

675 first pages who were fierce and who made it work and who cried whenever I asked them tough questions, because that is the best way of advancing in America's Next Top Model I mean Surprisingly Essential First Page. But only six can continue on in the hopes of becoming America's Next Top Surprisingly Essential First Page.

But first, let's review the prizes. The winner of America's Next Top Surprisingly Essential First Page will win a photo spread in Publishers Weekly with legendary fashion photographer Gilles Bensimon, a $0 cash prize to start their modeling career, and their 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.

You all know our judges, uh, me, and living legend and blogging icon Holly Burns, author of the blog Nothing But Bonfires.

But I only have six photos in my hand. These six photos include two finalists that appeared on both of the judges' list of favorites, two choices from Holly, and two choices from Nathan. These six photos represent the six who will continue on in the hopes of becoming America's Next Top Surprisingly Essential First Page.

In no particular order, the first name I'm going to call... is Julianne Douglas.

Julianne, the judges were impressed by the sense of atmosphere and the flow of the conversation. Here is your Surprisingly Essential First Page:

Still Life with Flowers (Women's fiction)

The afternoon sun sliced the room like scissors through cellophane and exploded against the laminated flipchart in a blast of white light. Elaine shielded her face with an out-turned palm. "The slats," she interrupted. "Excuse me, Mr. Severson. The slats." She jerked herself to her feet. Wadded tissues tumbled from her purse like confused sheep. She herded them under the chair with her toe and navigated around the artificial ficus to the window. The room smelled fusty, like last week’s forgotten bagel. She muted the glare with a twist of the dowel, then reached beneath the blinds to raise the sash. Cool air rushed in; she forced a deep breath. The slats clattered into place as she dragged herself back to her chair. "I couldn't see, Peter." Over by the door, her husband grunted.

Cars whisked by on Trindle Road. The noise was louder now with the window open. Flashes from passing fenders raked the fuzzy dimness of the ceiling. A steady stream of commuters rushed home to let out their dogs. Defrost pork chops. Hug their kids. Elaine swallowed hard and tried to concentrate on the reedy voice of the man behind the mahogany desk.

"These are our most popular arrangements." Mr. Severson propped the spiral-bound catalogue upright against his forearm. "Typically, in a closed-casket service, a large floral spray covers the lid. Two matching wreaths flank the casket. An urn decorates the foot of the altar." His free hand tapped the mock-up with a pen as he listed each element.

She focused on the picture with puzzled fascination. "Lilies."

"Yes, Mrs. McArdle." Mr. Severson lowered the book to flip a page. He raised it again, this time displaying a checkerboard of smaller shots. "As you can see, all of our arrangements feature white lilies. Lilies symbolize purity, eternal life. People expect to see them at Christian funerals." He scratched the side of his nose with the pen.

"I did a painting of lilies once. I'm a painter, you know." She fumbled for a tissue. "Five white lilies in a golden vase. One for each of Christ’s wounds, though I doubt many people understood the symbolism. Hardly anyone does anymore." Mr. Severson smiled blandly and glanced at Peter, who, arms crossed in front of his chest, leaned against the wall and examined the weave of the carpet.

Severson sighed. "Of course they do, Mrs. McArdle. Of course they do." His voice caressed her with well-practiced compassion. "Especially in the case of lilies." He cleared his throat gently. "Now, there are other options to choose from besides the standard four-piece package. For example, the front pews can be draped with garlands. . ." He ruffled the book, searching for an example.

"It was a difficult painting. Especially the reflections.” Elaine frowned, recalling how hard it had been to capture white on gold. “I never did get it quite right."

The second name I'm going to call... is Kari.

Kari, the judges were impressed with the sense of style you brought to this first page, and you nailed the dialogue, which is both evocative and worked perfectly with the rest of the page. Here is your surprisingly essential first page:

Possible Happiness

He did not remember her as beautiful and did not find her particularly so that evening.

Every man at the party would have said the same, would have sworn that their wives and mistresses and secretaries were far lovelier, that they passed twenty women on the street each morning who were more pleasing to the eye. They would have claimed, with little prodding, that she measured just an inch too short, just a year too old, just a hair too wide, and that it was not one but all of these features together that subtracted “beauty” from the perfunctory sum of assets they might otherwise settle on a woman. They did not know her, or know why she was in attendance or which of their hosts might have invited her. No fanfare announced her arrival and she did not directly precede or follow any notable luminaries, so the men could not say with any certainty why—when scores of prettier women wandered in their midst—they each had turned to watch her as she entered the ballroom, only that she seemed to expect it, as though she had lived her whole life in a crowd and it was simply her nature to be appealing. Nor could they explain why their eyes continued to follow her as she weaved her way through them, whether it was the silk of her scarlet gown fluttering around their ankles or the scent of fresh gardenias that made their palms grow damp. Those who stood close enough to brush against her longed to reach out and release her hair from its complicated arrangement, to watch the dark waves tumble to her shoulders in the glow of the chandeliers. She made no sound and yet some imagined they heard the silvery trill of a laugh as she swept past them. When she reached the far edge of the marble dance floor and stopped, these men found themselves peeling away from their partners to lean toward her, eager for her true voice, and they were rewarded. “Schnapps,” she commanded of her escort, a tall fellow in a tailcoat whom they had failed to notice until that moment and ceased to recall in the next moment when he stepped away from her.

A minute passed (two? three? they could not be certain) before the women descended to recover their errant prizes. The youngest wives, who would have considered their mates immune, could see very clearly the misguided enthusiasm with which she had applied the rouge to her cheeks, and noted the black lace at the hem of her billowing gown beginning to unravel, just a bit there, just above her left foot. The mistresses smiled as they stroked the mink stoles that curled around their own pale shoulders. They understood the power of distraction and admired her for it.

“Marian said she’s some sort of actress Philip used to know. Come now, darling, I’m sure it was nothing like that. Although…yes, perhaps it was something like that.”

The third name I'm going to call... is Charlotte.

Charlotte, the judges were impressed by the sense of place you work into this page. It's an evocative setting, and yet the reader does not feel lost because you ground the work in emotion and description. Here is your surprisingly essential first page:

Another Saturday, another funeral. Lindiwe dusts breadcrumbs off her lap, takes a final sip of her sweet tea and places the mug in the sink. She’ll wash it later. She takes her coat off the hook and puts it on. She always wears her coat, even though it’s the height of summer. Putting on her beret, she leaves the house. Carefully, but conspicuously, Lindiwe locks the front door so that the scabengas who have moved in next door notice just how locked it is, and then she stands on the kerb waiting for her lift to arrive.

She and Sipho do funerals every weekend. Often they organise them; finding the cash to put caskets of different sizes in the ground and to arrange food and drink for the mourners. If they’re not organising, then they’re attending. Sometimes they are the only attendants. Last Saturday, they buried five-month-old Maria. She’d been dropped at the Mission and had not lived long enough to draw a crowd. Lindiwe mourned her, though. She always mourns, every baby, child and adult who they bury. Every time is like the first time. Sipho knows to have tissues and he passes them to her at the appropriate moment. Such a nice young man. Lindiwe wonders when his time will be.

Sipho drives up in his aging yellow Golf and she climbs in. He drives them past the over-flowing cemetery outside the township, along the dusty road into town and up the hill through the once white-only suburbs. They join the highway and climb an-other, steeper hill, Sipho’s car chug-chugging behind articulated lorries. Today Lindiwe has not had to arrange anything, but she has been asked to give a reading. She holds her Bible closely to her heart to muffle its thumping.

They leave the highway and turn right, hugging a road through plantations and farmlands. Saturday shoppers walk along the roadside, carrying babies on their backs and plastic car-ier bags in their hands. Many of them carry on their heads the large fabric bags that supermarkets now force people to buy. Lindiwe opens the car window and allows the cooler hilltop air to fan her face. She sees the faintest outline of the far-off mountains to her left, but much as she is drawn towards them, Sipho’s Golf coughs its way forward.

After a deep dip, they drive through an avenue of trees. To the left, Lindiwe sees cows in a hilly meadow, and vervet monkeys walking surefootedly along a barbed-wire fence. Through the trees she glimpses flashes of white: buildings. The funeral is being held in the chapel of his old school; a prestigious academy for boys of the elite, a place with so much money that they can afford the folly of all-white buildings that require constant repainting. Lindiwe has never been here before. She has visited the sick in villages nearby, seen the dying and the dead in shacks on the surrounding farms, but she has never been to this school for rich children.

The fourth name I'm going to call.... is Heather!Anne!.

Heather!Anne!, you took on a high degree of difficulty with a young narrator and a historical setting, but the judges think you nailed it. Here is your Surprisingly Essential First Page:

He was carrying a can of soup and needed to make change for a nickel.

I told him if I had a nickel, or five pennies amounting to a nickel, I’d be out behind the old school house with my brother’s friends, gambling on dice. You need two nickels for a Coca-Cola and a Clark Bar, and one really ain’t worth having with out the other.

He chuckled in that old man way, which seemed inviting enough, so I asked him what the heck he was doing with that can of soup anyway. He said, “Oh, nothin’,” and went on his way.

Over dinner I asked if anybody’d seen an old man wandering around town with a can of soup. My daddy said, “You ought to try reading a book some time instead of sitting outside Mitchell’s Pharmacy all day, staring at folks.” My mama said, “Sarah Beth, I told you not to talk to strangers.” And Tim, my older brother, he said, “You owe me ten cents. Don’t be spending any more money at Micthell’s ‘till you pay me back.”

I was quiet for a while, mulling it over in my head, wondering about that soup can a little bit but also about the five pennies that would have made nickel-change. Who needs pennies? They make your hands stink like copper. (Although if I’d had ten pennies, I could have paid Tim so he’d get off my back about that loan.)

Mama must have noticed I was quiet, which she called an ‘abnormality,’ so she said to my daddy, “Thomas, why don’t you tell Sarah Beth to leave it alone? There’s no need for her to be off chasin’ a strange man.”

My mama was always forbidding things by telling my daddy to forbid me to do them. I would have called that an abnormality, but nothing gets you spanked faster than a smart mouth.

“Don’t go chasing strange men,” my dad said, which caused my mama to give him that gushy smile that always made me feel kind of gross.

One time I was at the dentist and he poured some fluoride in my mouth. “Don’t swallow it,” he said. And the only thing I could think of was how bad I wanted to swallow that fluoride. It was the dentist’s fault, I reckoned. If he’d just put it in my mouth without saying nothing I could have probably kept it in there for a half hour, especially if he bet me I couldn’t do it.

But he said don’t, so I wanted to, and I did. I swallowed that fluoride.

I was afraid I might die, but the dentist just laughed and said, “You don’t die from swallowing fluoride.”

That’s how I learned that sometimes when grown-ups tell you not to do something, it’s just a suggestion. And I guess that’s the reason I went looking for that soup can man.

The fifth name I'm going to call... is terryd.

terryd, the judges felt that this is a textbook example of steadily easing a reader into a unique world while building tension, revealing the protagonist's personality, and introducing a plot. Here is your Surprisingly Essential First Page:

JERRY SHARPE - 64,000 words

It’s been two weeks since the cars died, and we’re walking out. My family is here with me in the Sierra, and I don’t know if that’s a blessing or a curse. Most electrical devices are dead, and we don’t have any reliable information about what happened, but we can guess. We’ve heard some rumors, and they’re all bad, and I can’t afford to expect anything good to happen to us, so it takes me by surprise when an airplane flies low over us. We’re walking a deer trail that parallels the interstate. The plane is on us very quickly, and I motion for Susan and the kids to get under cover. We run to a thin stand of pines and look up. It’s been months since we’ve seen anything in the sky except military aircraft, but this one is hanging from its prop and flaps, just above stall speed at tree-scraping altitude. It doesn’t fly directly overhead, but I catch a gleam of painted aluminum above the pines and I feel the pressure of searching eyes. When the pilot adds power to hold a turn, we run for better cover.

We get into a thicker stand of trees and form our four-person perimeter. It’s a sloppy diamond formation but it allows us to cover the road with three guns. Susan gives me a flat look. Her lips are moving, and at first I think she’s trying to tell me something, but then I see that she’s praying, and I wonder if she knows it.

Our son Scotty is prone with his scoped .22. God help him, the boy looks like he can’t wait to shoot somebody. Our eldest, Melanie, is farthest from the interstate. She won’t carry a weapon but I’m grateful that she still more-or-less follows my orders, no matter how it must gall her.

The old Cessna drags itself over the freeway and circles above a meadow. The pilot drops something. I watch the lumpy gleam of a bubble-wrapped package falling from the sky. There can’t be anything half-assed about it. It’s either something very good or something very bad, and I watch its flawed shape pass down through the trees and into God’s nature like a gift or a curse. I’m a naturally pessimistic bastard, and my pessimism has stood me well, as of late, so I motion for Susan and the kids to put their heads down. The ground here is dry and it smells clean and infertile. I listen to the soft, buffeting sound of my breath pushing against hard earth, but time passes and there isn’t an explosion. It isn’t an improvised bomb at all and I hear people cheering, the voices of men, women and children.

Another group is travelling the road. They’re on foot too, and we’ve been trailing them for most of the day.

And the last name I'm going to call... is luc.

A poor family in space? Where can I read more? luc, even when you were referencing things the reader doesn't know about, you made. this. work. Here is your Surprisingly Essential First Page:

Deana Horsehead Chidder:

Our whole stinking family lived on a half-derelict salvage ship that floated so far from the space station, we sometimes had trouble telling it from the stars. There was Ma and Da and seven of us whelps, rattling around in an 80-year-old narrowcruiser with only one working rocket. Phyllis and Wyoming were born deformed from Ma not taking precautions against radiation during pregnancy, but Phyllis--with one eye glued permanently shut and a forehead like an old man's backside--had all her faculties.

At the station they figured us for morons, because none of us would go to that school they had. Why should we, when they wasted your time making you learn about the primary commerce drivers in Procyon A system and how to use a proto-language translation program--who needed it? No Chidder, that's for sure. We'd rather wallow on the ship in our own filth, God's honest truth, and make what living we could from salvaging burned-out probes and trash and the occasional derelict starship.

Except for me. I'd been wallowing with the rest of them all my life, but at sixteen years old I figured I was old enough to run away. Which is why I was on my way to Bay C to meet a Luytenite and a Centipede. Bay C because the airlock there didn't work right and if you hit the wrong button you could get spat out into space like a piece of bad meat. We usually kept away from Bay C, so it was a good place to keep out of sight.

I was taking extra care, because Ma was a certifiable paranoid and she did security sweeps all the time. She once accused me of being a robot spy and tried to poke me with a power probe to prove it. If she'd got me, I would have been dead that much earlier, and maybe I wouldn't have ended up in the Valley of the Dead and dealt with all those demons and everything. I'll get to that later. Anyway, I got clear of her and hid 'til she came to her senses, that time.

So I'd told the Centipede and the Luytenite they had to boost just once, at the station, and then they had to power down and use chemical brakes to dock. Chemical brakes are expensive because of all the wasted gas, but they don't show up on the sensors, so that was the only way I could have them do it. See, I had to be careful about Ma all the time, even when I wasn't up to something. Now that there was really something going on, I wasn't about to give it away and lose my chance.

I'd been hoping Ma would be in the middle of a security audit, or in bed with one of her headaches, but she must have smelled something was up: she was prowling the corridor outside the shuttle ports. She stared at the wall there, at

Voting rules: please vote for your favorite in the comments section of the Blogger post. Anonymous votes will not be counted. Please feel free to spread word around the Internet about the voting, but please do not campaign for any particular nominee(s). Voting will be open until Tuesday at 5:00 PM Pacific.

Who will become America's Next Top Surprisingly Essential First Page? Let's find out.

Friday, February 1, 2008

This Week in Publishing 2/1/08

Still reading! I tell you what, reading 675 entries while also having a job is quite a task. Holly and I hope to have finalists for you soon, but meanwhile, there was a week in publishing, and it was an eventful one.

In perhaps the biggest publishing news, Publishers Lunch is reporting that, hot on the heels of acquiring Brilliance Audio, Amazon is making an offer to purchase digital audio distributor Audible. My mind? BLOWN. Audible has been the #1 player in the digital audio marketplace in part because of their popular subscription plans and due to their exclusive arrangement with iTunes. Many had thought that Amazon would develop a rival non-DRM model (background on DRM here) to compete with Audible/iTunes, but this seems to signal a different strategy. Should this happen, what does this mean for Audible's relationship with iTunes given that iTunes is a competitor of Amazon's? What does this mean for the non-Amazon/Audible/iTunes digital marketplace? And WHO IN THE HECK WAS IN JACOB'S CABIN ON LOST LAST NIGHT?? This inquiring mind wants to know.

Back when I asked people to propose contest ideas, one of said ideas was to have a Shakespearean query contest. Reader Scott Rhoades was kind (and brave) enough to run with this contest, so grab your quill and make like Will Shakespeare trying to find an agent!

For all you Wire fans out there, May Vanderbilt from Good Girl Lit has a post on seeing God in the Wire. Did I tell you that show is awesome or what?

Reader Chris Dodds pointed me to this rundown of George Orwell's six rules for writing. Somehow George Orwell forgot to mention Rule #7, which is that one should not begin one's query with a rhetorical question.

In addition to endorsing Barack Obama, Toni Morrison just announced.... SHE'S A KINDLE FAN! Wow. I don't know who was more excited, Barack or Amazon.

Via... shoot I can't remember where I saw this. Sorry original finder who deserves credit! Anyway, Amazon has a listing for a book on the Patriots going undefeated, with a publication date of February 11th. One problem? THEY'RE NOT UNDEFEATED YET. Come onnnnnnnnn Giants.

And finally, remember last week how I linked to a New York Times article on the popularity of cell phone novels in Japan? Well, leave it to the brilliant people at The Millions to translate an excerpt from one of the cell phone novels so you don't have to. My reaction: Either something is lost in translation or I'm just getting old.

Have a great weekend!

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