Wednesday, December 31, 2008
A special note on this post: I wrote it on June 4, 2007, and I think it summed up the mood at the time, which was pre-Kindle and pre-recession. My how things change in a year and a half.
This past Saturday night I went to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley to watch The Arcade Fire, and let me tell you, those crazy Canadians can sure put on a good show! In case you haven't heard of the Arcade and the Fire that occurred there, they are a sort of orchestral indie rock band that exploded onto the scene with their debut album and then solidified their standing with the follow-up. If they come your way, I highly recommend that you check them out.
Anyway, BEA is over, and this just in from the participants: it was hot. Really hot.
Also at BEA: publishers, authors and booksellers wondering how new technology and our new robot overlords will affect the world of books. The New York Times, of course, was all over this.
From Camp "I love the taste of chrome in the morning" you have Chris Anderson, who is contemplating releasing his new book for free online (the book is conveniently titled FREE), only it will have advertisements inside. And from Camp "Die you robot scum" you have.... well, no one was willing to denigrate our robot overlords on the record for fear of retribution, but the Times article quotes some people who express a sense of inevitability and mild fear about the coming changes.
Now personally, although I joke about the publishing industry's reluctance to embrace certain mind-boggling new technologies such as, uh, e-mailed query letters, I feel that the publishing industry often gets a bad rap for being left behind in a world of new technologies. To my eye, this isn't the case. Publishers are investing lots of cold hard cash in new technology-based publishing initiatives to be ready for changes in the marketplace, but so far... things haven't changed all that much. Sure, you have more online marketing, Internet piracy is becoming more of a problem, Amazon and other online vendors loom large, independents are struggling from competition from chains and the Internet, but the vast majority of books are still bought in stores, are published by the same publishers, are printed in paper and ink.... etc.
So the next time you see the publishing industry criticized for being unreceptive to technological change, or the next time you hear someone talk about a coming massive change in publishing that the industry is catastrophically unprepared for, think about how little has actually changed in the last 10 years. Sure, things are going to continue to evolve, and it's possible that I'll see something like a digital revolution during my publishing lifetime, but until people decide that they want to read on PDAs and screens than hold a book in their hands, things will continue to stay relatively the same.
It's not that publishing is behind the technological curve. The industry is just giving people what they want.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
As anyone who has watched a reality television show knows, there is one sure-fire no-doubt-about-it way to tell if someone is going to get voted off the island or "auf"ed by Heidi Klum: overconfidence. When a reality tv, uh, person looks the camera in the eye, talks about how great they are and how confident they are in their alliance, before you can say Jeff Probst, poof, they've been blindsided and voted off the island. Works like a charm.
Just. Like. Writing.
Let me first start in opposite land and stress how important confidence is to a writer. Every writer, from the rankest amateur to biggest bestseller, experiences the type of rejection that would make Vlad the Impaler tear up and beg for mercy. Writers sometimes don't even have the confidence of their friends and family, it's hard work, and it takes some series intestinal fortitude to stick with it and keep on writing (that or alcohol).
Confidence = good. Confidence = important. (I heart word math)
But in my line of work I'm in contact with quite a few aspiring and unpublished writers whose confidence... well, let's just say their confidence in their writing sometimes exceeds their ability. Here's a general rule I've discovered among the unpublished: the people who are most unwilling to heed sound constructive criticism and the ones who most need to heed said constructive criticism are the ones who are most convinced of their own genius.
There's good reason for this rule to apply -- one of the absolute most important attributes of any successful writer is the ability to scrutinize their own work in order to improve it and make it better. The minute a writer starts thinking what they write is genius is the moment they stop scrutinizing their work for places where it can be improved upon, changed, or, most importantly of all, removed. A healthy skepticism is an essential tool in a writer's arsenal. Also bourbon.
So let's all learn a lesson from the hilariously inept Four Horseman alliance from this season of Survivor, who were stunned to find out that their genius plans were foiled by a formerly homeless guy named Dreamz. Overconfidence will not only get you voted off the island by someone who pluralizes his own nickname with a "z," it might just interfere with your writing as well.
Monday, December 29, 2008
Well, the folks at Twitter are definitely conscientious about dealing with impersonation issues. Unfortunately they didn't notice my e-mail updating them that I had considered the situation resolved, so they deleted my account and then re-released it to me, meaning that if you followed me in the last couple of weeks... Twitter won't remember. Um.
If you followed me in the past couple of weeks, could you pretty-please do so again?
Here's the feed: Twitter.com/nathanbransford
Life. It's deep, right? I mean, just look at the word. Life. Wow, man. Just, wow.
Here's the thing about real life. Real life is boring. Do not write about real life.
Let me put it another way. People say rap is "real." Rap isn't real. Rap is a fantasy world. As I always say: Consider the Wu. The Wu Tang Clan have created an elaborate fantasy world based upon martial arts mytholgoy, Al Pacino movies and, I'm told, cash ruling everything around me. These geniuses accomplish the impossible: they make Staten Island seem cool. (Of course, you could call any place "Shaolin" and it would seem cool. Like I said, they're geniuses.)
People call rap "real" because it deals with real life issues (i.e. the aforementioned cash ruling everything around me), but the best rap takes those real issues and places them in a fantasy world that adheres to its own moral code. When you take the completely boring trials and tribulations of real life (i.e. cash ruling everything around me) and place it in a foreign surrounding (i.e. Shaolin), that credit card debt and those student loans aren't mundane, they suddenly appear poignant and powerful. (Bless you, RZA. Bless you.)
Don't strive to write about real life as it is actually lived. That's boring. Take life to the next level. Put real life in a strange world or filter it through the gaze of a unique character. When you put real issues in a strange world a funny thing happens: your book seems more real.
Now, my intention here is not to tell you to write gangsta rap inspired fiction (although, actually, that's not a bad idea). Think about the unique worlds crafted by your favorite writers -- even the ones that take place in "real" life. Great books are transporting. They take you away to a new place before they bring you back to what you know.
To put it another way still, when a sales rep goes to a chain and tells the buyer about the books on the upcoming list, they need something to point to that makes a book stand out. They need to be able to say, "This is what makes this book different." A unique character, a unique way of telling the story, a unique plot, a unique world, something, anything that sets a book apart from the thousands of other books that are published every year.
And I'm here to tell you: real life isn't enough. Now go write me some gangsta rap fiction.
Friday, December 26, 2008
Now, you probably read the title of this post and assumed that I'm about to be mean to some poor author who was unfortunate enough to send me a letter. But never fear! No authors were harmed in the making of this blog. I wrote this really bad query letter myself. I know, I know. You can save your applause until the end.
I thought it might be helpful to post a letter that includes some of the common mistakes people make in query letters so you can avoid them. Don't do as this poor, hapless writer did. Er, I mean don't do as I did. Do as I don't.
rip pffffffffffffffffffffff cough cough cough cough oh god get it out of here [Since I can't include smellovision in my blog posts, that is my reenactment of the experience of opening a query letter that smells like old, stale cigarette smoke. Let's just say it's not a happy smell.]
Dear Miss Snark, [As much as I enjoy seeing which agent you queried before me, it's probably not the best strategy to forget to change the salutation.]
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if there was a race a heartless zombies who ate, nay enjoyed, human flesh? [Mayday mayday. My epic war against query letters beginning with rhetorical questions is not going well. Please send reinforcements.] In my 250,000 word novel, the first of a million word trilogy, a race of homicidal zombies target literary agents, gleefully spilling their vile literary agent blood all over their computers, enacting revenge on behalf of mankind for all of the query letters they have rejected over the years. [250,000 words is waaaay too long. Also you might want to avoid plot lines that involve literary agents dying at the hands of crazed zombies. I'm just saying.]
Drew Diggler was born in Denver, Colorado. His best friend was named Charlie. His dog was named Fred. He once had a crush on a girl named Susan. Susan dumped him. Then he went to high school. In high school he had a dream about zombies. But he didn't meet any actual zombies until much later. He went to college. In college he saw a movie about zombies. Then after he graduated from college he actually met a zombie. The zombie told him it was his mission in life to stab every literary agent in the world with their staplers. [Too much information. Where is the plot? Also, I'm not a big fan of excessive gore. Especially gore that involves literary agents.]
Meanwhile, Drew Diggler realizes that he hates his corporate soul-sucking job, he has grown weary of his wife and their two children, he hates like, his existence, man, so he quits his job/travels around the world/goes on a homicidal killing spree. [The whole man-suffering-crushing-ennui-and-subsequent-mid-life crisis plot is just a tad played out. Also, what happened to the zombie? He was kind of growing on me.]
And then after he quits his job/travels around the world/goes on a homicidal killing spree, he discovers Jesus' DNA and decides to clone him while uncovering a centuries old plot that is protecting the hidden meaning of life just as he stumbles upon a government conspiracy concealing the existence of extraterrestrial life, all the while being chased by the bad guy, who is an evil albino. [You might want to avoid these plotlines as well. And this letter is going on too long.]
This is just one of seventeen unpublished projects I would like you to represent, all attached here. [Writes about more than one project, attaches a file]. I'm so so so so so so sorry I'm a first time writer, I know I'm not qualified, I genuflect before you, but see, at least I know the word genuflect so that has to count for something, right? I know there are better qualified writers out there than me, but I hope you will please give me a chance. Please? Will you? I hope you will. [Don't apologize for being a first time writer -- I like first time writers! They have that new author smell.]
My book is kind of like THE DA VINCI CODE mixed with THE LOVELY BONES meets THE HISTORIAN mixed with a dash of HARRY POTTER and ERAGON. Oh, and it's also like FANCY NANCY and THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN. Now that I think about it it's exactly like a lot of other bestselling books out there, so it is guaranteed to be a #1 New York Times Bestseller. [Don't compare your book to a bunch of other bestselling books -- it's ok to reference other books, but you probably want to avoid big bestsellers]. I did not include a SASE in my letter, nor did I include an e-mail address, in fact I'm also not going to include a phone number, just so you cannot possibly get in touch with me. [This actually happens -- I have a file full of letters with absolutely no contact information. Sadly I was not even able to reach the authors using telepathy.]
Let's make some money together. [Whenever people say this I always imagine that we're starting a used car dealership.]
Nathan Bransford, Author
Hmmm..... on second thought, maybe there is a market for literary agent hunting zombies. I'm going to request a partial from myself.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
First of all, allow me to express my shock that Bachelor Andy Baldwin chose Tessa over Bevin, who was so into our favorite officer/gentlemen I think she was a few one on one dates away from starting an Andy-based religion. Don't get me wrong, I like Tessa just fine, she seems like she'd be a fine person to go bowling with, but towards the end she kind of looked like a caged animal searching for an escape route. She tried just about everything to get herself eliminated short of assaulting Andy and demanding that he pick someone else, although honestly, I'm not sure even that would have worked because it seemed like she was pretty much the coolest person that Andy had ever dated and he was stunned by the mere experience of being in her presence.
Anyway, one thing you always hear agents talk about and is repeated over and over on writing message boards is the necessity of a great hook. People always say you need a great hook for a novel. Hook hook hook, all anyone talks about is hooks. Well, let me add my two cents on the matter: you need a great hook.
A hook is what will attract an agent to your project, and, later on, a reader to your book. It's that magnet that draws people to the story and makes them want to read more. It's really essential. But what, really, is a hook?
Let's think of some great hooks in literature:
A man goes into the jungle to search for a missing general (HEART OF DARKNESS)**
A reclusive chocolateer opens up his factory to the lucky children who find golden tickets (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY)
A monomaniacal sea captain forces his crew to search for an elusive white whale (MOBY DICK)
A train engine thinks it can make it up a hill (THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD)
What do those have in common?
In order to describe what makes a great hook, let's start with what a novel really is, which is a quest. Whether it's a quest in the mind, through the jungle, through space, or through the mystical land of unpronounceable consonants (the land of unpronounceable consonants is inevitably filled with dragons and orcs), every novel is a quest that starts in one place and ends in another. And every quest needs a first step, where the character makes a decision that will change his/her life. In STORY, Robert McKee calls this the "inciting incident" -- it's the moment that propels the story forward. Ishmael joins a ship that searches for the white whale. The little engine decides that it thinks it can.
But there's more to a quest than a mere decision to embark out into the land of unpronounceable consonants. There are orcs and wraiths and demons, oh my! One of the more subtle aspects of a great hook is that it also provides the central conflict. Every character on a quest encounters obstacles along the way. The biggest conflict, whether it's between the protagonist and a villain or the protagonist and a scary world or the protagonist and himself, forms the second component of the hook. To take the hook of MOBY DICK, for instance, there's conflict between Ahab and his crew and between Ahab in the whale. And of course there's conflict between the train and the hill and the train and its self-confidence in THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD.
So essentially, a hook is the quest and the central conflict, described as succinctly as possible, designed to make someone want to read more.
Keep in mind that either the quest or the conflict may be implied in a great hook. For example, "snakes on a plane" is a hook that describes the conflict (snakes vs. people), and the implied quest is to get the mother****** snakes off of the mother****** plane. It can also work the other way. "Southern family moves to France" describes the quest in FRENCH BY HEART (moving to France), and since we know there's a big difference between the American South and France, there's an implied conflict there. But whether it's implied or stated, every hook has quest and conflict.
There you have it! Sure there's a whole lot more to the story, and a hook shouldn't be confused with a plot. A hook is a premise, it's a starting point, and it's up to you to keep the reader reading once they've opened up the book.
**UPDATE: This is a wildly inaccurate description of HEART OF DARKNESS. Oh well.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
One of the other benefits of the Internet is that people without a platform and starting from scratch have a new opportunity to get up on a virtual soapbox and make themselves heard. These days publishers are all over well-trafficked bloggers like stink on a monkey (stole that one from Seinfeld).
I receive a lot of questions from bloggers about how much blog traffic counts for a platform, and how they can translate their blog into a book deal (this mainly applies to nonfiction -- the rules of fiction are mostly the same). To me, even apart from the audience a blog reaches, I ask one main question about a potential blog book: would the book be better than the blog?
Think about the appealing characteristics of blogs: they're instantaneous, they're free, they can respond to current events, they can be linked to, they're free, you can leave comments, and they're free. As much as your blog audience loves you (really, they told me you're awesome), do they love your blog enough to plop down $24.95 for a book that doesn't even have a comments section that they can curse you out on? Or more to the point: does your book idea contain enough unique material and is it on a meaty-enough topic that it can transcend the year it takes to get a book from writing to published?
So yes -- there are certain blogs that can benefit from the length and scope of a book, and there's a reason publishers have been snapping up blog books. But for others, especially blogs that are current-event driven, it's tough to beat the timely material you're already dispensing for free. So if you're hoping to transubstantiate your blog into a book deal, make sure you have a clear idea why a book based on your awesome blog would be even awesomer.
Monday, December 22, 2008
If you are the industrious individual who started this feed, could you please shoot me an e-mail? I won't send the Feds, I promise.
And yes, I know this is probably a sign I should join the dark side. If I get my name back.
PS: Also, thanks so much to Josephine and Colleen for their help on this!
Maybe it's because basketball season is in full swing (and my Sacramento Kings, sadly, are stinking up Arco Arena), but I have been seeing a lot of crossover novels lately. Get it?? Get it?? Crossover? Basketball? (I know, it's my lamest opening ever. Just stick with me here.)
After everyone saw how books like HARRY POTTER and ERAGON sent kids and adults alike scurrying to the bookstores in droves, crossover became the new thing all over again. Everyone has seen how successful books that are enjoyed by both children and adults can be, and the massive sales.. ahem, I mean the thrill of having your work read by as many people as possible means I now get a lot of crossover novels in the query inbox.
But here's the problem with crossover novels: there's no crossover publisher, only children's publishers and adult publishers, and there's no crossover section of the bookstore, only the children's side and the adult side. Sure there are big publishers with both children and adult divisions, but cooperation on a crossover novel would mean taking the elevator down a few floors, and come on, who can be bothered to do that???
So this raises an interesting question for the aspiring crossover novelist -- how can you tell if your novel is a YA (young adult) novel that might appeal to adults or an Adult novel that might appeal to a younger audience?
As an example, let's take two (very good) novels about troubled high schoolers: KL Going's FAT KID RULES THE WORLD, and Michelle Tea's ROSE OF NO MAN'S LAND. FAT KID RULES THE WORLD opens with an overweight teenager contemplating suicide before he befriends a homeless high schooler and joins a band, ROSE OF NO MAN'S LAND is about a troubled teenager who befriends/sort of falls in love with a wild teenager who distracts her from her troubled home life. Somewhat similar themes, right? But FAT KID RULES THE WORLD is a YA novel and ROSE OF NO MAN'S LAND is an Adult novel. What accounts for the split?
To me the separation between YA and Adult is not necessarily thematic, it has more to do with pacing and presentation. When you read a YA novel the pace tends to be quicker, the books tend to be shorter, and things happen in a more straightforward fashion. While of course there is a ton of variation and exceptions, things tend to unfold on the surface to keep a younger reader interested and engaged. In an adult novel, even an adult novel about high schoolers, things unfold more slowly, there tends to be more subtlety and ambiguity. Things happen beneath the surface and they can be more challenging. In other words, I think the YA/Adult split is more about the telling than the characters and the themes.
All of this is a long way to say that I think you need to write and pitch your novel as one or the other, because agents don't usually handle both adult and YA, and it's virtually impossible to pitch a "crossover" book. You also want to really make it one or the other to avoid ending up with a novel that is too adult for children and too juvenile for adults, which happens a lot. Books do indeed cross over, and you can mention that your book has crossover potential, but at least initially I think you have to go one way or another -- hopefully this will serve as a rough guide of which direction you should go.
Just. Like. Basketball.
(Worst metaphor ever.)
Friday, December 19, 2008
Well, the future arrived, and I think I have whiplash.
We're moving to a model with a disappearing midlist and a series of big bets, fewer brick and mortar bookstores, an exploding number of self- and indie-published books, two dynamic e-readers, and massive advances for celebrities and perennial bestsellers. Books are now competing not just with movies and television, but with a rapidly evolving Internet that now includes blogs, news, and puppy cams.
So now we're left with a lot of questions for '09:
- Will the bestsellers of tomorrow be like THE SHACK -- self-published and driven by word of mouth?
- Will Borders survive? And in what form?
- Will publishers regret tying their fates to so few titles?
- Will e-readers become commonplace?
- Will the Internet change reading habits?
It's a challenging time for the business, and yet when the dust clears next year it will be even more apparent: people are still buying books. Even with all the turmoil the industry has endured, as of October book sales this year were UP over 2007. Up!! Let's repeat that with caps: UP!! How people are buying books is changing, what types of books they're buying is changing, who's publishing them is changing, but people are still buying them, and they still want good ones.
So it's a tough time, the layoffs hurt, and the future is uncertain. But books are still books.
Now then. Over the next couple of weeks I will not be blogging regularly, but I will be configuring the old Blogger to post reruns I mean greatest hits. It will be like I never left.
Wondering what the world would look like if Borders goes bankrupt? If so, you have something in common with 100% of the publishing industry. Jenny Rappaport digs into some of the different ways a Borders bankruptcy could unfold.
Macmillan is embarking on the creation of a children's group, which will bring its imprints together under one umbrella. They also announced, unfortunately, that they are eliminating 64 positions.
Moonrat provided some terrific insight into the various elements that go into a decision about hardcover vs. paperback original. She later returned to report that they're going with hardcover, and here's why.
This week's "What's Wrong With Publishing" article is brought to you by author Lawrence Osbourne, who cites an adherence to "dumb" books like THE DA VINCI CODE (which he calls "execrable twaddle") as part of the reason for publishing's economic malaise. He also says that authors like Roberto Bolano and JM Coetzee wouldn't have been published in the US if they didn't first succeed in their home countries.
In completely totally unrelated news, genre fiction sales are up! How about that.
Meanwhile, Ballantine editor Mark Tavani weighs in on the industry downsizing, and strikes an upbeat reminder that people still want books (via The Swivet).
Your debate du jour: are the Newbery winning books too challenging? Related: are we becoming lazy readers? Related: what were we talking about again?
And finally, via the New Yorker's Book Bench blog, Harper's Fourth Estate celebrated its 25th anniversary by producing this completely spectacular and addicting stop-motion animation short made out of book covers:
Happy Holidays, everyone! See you in '09!
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Let's put this one to bed (as visions of sugar-plums dance in its head).
There is no good or bad time to query. You might hear that the publishing closes down during the summer and around the holidays. This is less true now than in years past, but even still, that doesn't necessarily mean there's a "good" or "bad" time of the year to query. Just send it when you're ready.
Two exceptions: If you know the agent is out of the office, don't query. And please don't query during the weeks around major holidays, i.e. Thanksgiving and Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Festivus.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, people tend to have time off around the holidays and hey, what better excuse for avoiding your relatives than sending out queries! This means that not only am I racing to get everything done before and after the holidays, I receive a whooole lot of queries over Thanksgiving and Christmas, i.e., at a time when I am also extremely busy.
So sure -- I could put them off and let the pile build up, and this is what many agents do. But take it from me -- you don't want to be part of a massive query pile when an agent is feeling a time crunch.
Ideally, sure, we'd give all queries equal time, consider every one similarly, whether we're reading a pile of 10 or a pile of 500. Ideally.
Reality: human nature is human nature. When faced with a mountain that feels like it won't move, you start moving a little quicker, take fewer chances, etc. etc. I really aspire to keep a constant pace regardless of my workload, but it's hard not to adjust how many partials you're requesting based on how much work awaits.
Just don't do it. Avoid the weeks around major holidays. It's better to be part of a trickle than a flood. Unless you are eggnog, in which case bring on the deluge.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
There you have it.
Now then -- the very last You Tell Me of 2008! I know, we've all grown up so fast. It seems like just yesterday we were having contests with maybe 100 people entering and the publishing industry was going to change sometime in the future maybe. Well, it done been changed in '08.
But meanwhile, books! There were lots of them published in 2008, many of them quite good. Which one was your favorite?
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Via the (indispensable) HarperStudio blog and the WSJ comes news that HarperStudio and Borders have reached an agreement on a framework for ending returns. In exchange for a discount ranging from 58-63%, Borders will buy HarperStudio books on a nonreturnable basis.
On the HarperStudio blog, Bob Miller writes that they had originally hoped to have a more expansive non-return program, but after six months of discussions they decided they needed to have a mix of returns and non-returns because some accounts can't or won't go the nonreturnable route.
The returns model has long been a problem for publishers, who often end up having to print (and pulp) twice as many copies as actually sell, an economic and environmental mess. While it allows bookstores to be flexible with ordering and theoretically allows them to take chances on unknown commodities without being stuck with the bill if they don't sell, some have called the process, well, sloppy and inefficient. It's a system that few people have any affection for, and now Borders is signaling a willingness to tweak the model (of course, at a steeper discount). (For more background on returns, please see this essential Richard Curtis post, via Moonrat).
Questions remain. Will booksellers grow more cautious in taking on new titles when they know they can't return them? Will they stock fewer titles? Will it be harder for first timers to break out because of cautious print runs? Or will the system make booksellers put more care into the titles they buy and make sure they sell?
It's going to be interesting to see how this shakes out, particularly if it is adopted in a more widespread fashion. But BRAVO for experimentation in a time when we desperately need to see some new ideas in action.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Congratulations, Natalie. Very very well-deserved, and I think we're all wondering what's going to happen to those plucky ninjas. Good work!!
Another hearty round of applause to the finalists, and most of all to everyone (all 1300+ of you) who put themselves out there by posting their work. It was very difficult to choose only six out of over 1300, and there were many worthy paragraphs.
Since I posted the finalists, people have been asking me to explain a bit more about what went into my choices.
First off, I think it's important to remember that as an agent I probably read these differently than the average reader. Judging from some responses I've received, I think a lot of people read these paragraphs thinking, "Which book would I want to read?" and then gravitate to the ones that begin with intriguing plots, voices or situations that speak to them. Which is fine! Nothing wrong with that at all. But that's not necessarily how I read these -- I don't need to know everything right away. When I'm reading a paragraph (or a partial), I'm looking mainly at the quality of the writing. Is it of publishable quality? Is it seamless, are the word choices strong, is the grammar proper, am I being enveloped in this world? If the writing isn't publishable it really doesn't matter how much I like the underlying idea.
Plots are subjective -- people have different tastes and interests. Good writing is less subjective. It's sometimes hard to describe, pinpoint, and define, but good writing is good writing. And these paragraphs are well-written.
So a word for the snarky anonymous commenters: Even if they are outside your genres of interest, even if they describe plots you wouldn't gravitate toward, if you can't see that these paragraphs demonstrate good writing... well, not only are you the type of person who might leave rude comments on a blog, I would (as kindly as possible) suggest that you take a long look in the mirror. The very first step of being a good writer is recognizing good writing.
Now! Before you start getting all depressed on me, I will readily and heartily admit that I had to pass on some gems, and if you were not chosen it does not mean that you are not talented and/or will never be published. Far from it -- there were lots of very strong paragraphs, and there could only be six finalists. But I am confident in the choices, and feel that they are all, in their own way, very strong.
Here's why I chose each paragraph.
Natalie has an immediately catchy high concept plot (ninja school!) combined with a very effective voice. In particular, I really respect the second sentence: "Of course, he’s says it all ninja-like, but that’s the gist." A paragraph about ninja school itself might make a good opener, but this sentence builds a character: the narrator's father adopts a ninja-like voice to say something as simple as "keep it simple stupid." Hilarious! Natalie's paragraph also shows a deft touch by conveying a unique voice without being too chatty. It has a breezy style, but note that other than the above-quoted sentence and the word "dude," the rest of it is not chatty. Just enough to get to sense of the voice without being over the top. Very well done.
Morgan's paragraph balances a couple of different elements in a way that I find very effective. This paragraph packs in quite a lot of plot, but that's not all that it accomplishes. It also conveys a keen sense of style -- there's a breathlessness to the writing that lends a feeling of importance to the descriptions. Also, normally I don't like it when a series of unknown words and concepts are thrown at me right away, but in this paragraph they are described and named in a way that I can get a taste of the meaning and deduce enough of the world to stay within the paragraph without worrying that I don't understand everything. And the idea of a twin within a twin.... intriguing.
Steve Axelrod (not the agent, btw) steadily builds a memorable image: a girl walking onto a Cape Cod island without knowing the effect she's going to have. The details are evocative and memorable, and the flow impeccable. Quite a few people have asked about the closing simile. Normally I don't care for big bold similes, but this one really works for me. It didn't take me out of the world because everyone knows what an avalanche is, and it also, in an effective way, contrasts directly with the sun-drenched imagery. It's also evocative to think of setting an avalanche off with a sigh. It just works.
MA's was the shortest of the bunch, just two sentences. It wasn't just the image of blood in the shape of a butterfly that led me to choose this paragraph. Rather, it's the combination of an evocative opening image along with the description of the blood sparkling on the kitchen floor (two pretty descriptions that contrast with the fact that it's blood). Plus there's a certain casualness and distance on the part of the observing character. It accomplishes a great deal in just a few words.
Alexa's paragraph is a study in steadily building a memorable character. Having read so many paragraphs that began with the weather (particularly bad weather), I was sucked in by the feint that the narrator is describing how the weather would be in one of her mom's novels. Combine that with a perfectly-described and memorable fashion choice at a funeral ("defiant yellow and movie star sunglasses" just flows), and you have a sense of a very unique individual. It's all built through imagery rather than straightforward description.
Lastly, Chris' paragraph snuck in precisely at the Thursday 4pm deadline. It's an intriguing setup -- a group of heliophobes meeting in a strange place with some interesting animosity toward the sun. It's the combination of a big idea (heliophobes) with small details (the z-shaped ramp, the eggs in the belfry) that makes this come alive.
In the course of reading 1300 paragraphs, certain patterns began to emerge. Now, I'm not saying you CAN'T start a book this way, but there were three prevalent patterns that kept creeping up again and again. Here are some approximations:
1) Surprising sentence. Well, not the surprising sentence per se, but rather the surprising sentence is made more complicated by the fact that it is followed, in fits and starts, by conversational prose that, in its casualness, contrasts with the shocking statement and sets a breezy tone despite the shocking statement. That is, until the reversal.
2) Small, finely rendered observation. This is followed by the particular shape of the moon or the wisps of grass and the particular temperature that still night or perfect sunset that lulls us into a sense of place and setting. And then we linger in that scene still longer to see one more even more finely rendered detail, and still another, leading us to the very thing the author seeks. That is, until the shocking statement.
3) The tough protagonist shudders against whatever bad weather they are enduring. They check their timepiece, or weapon, and go back to the task at hand. Pithy comment. It's not easy being the tough protagonist.
Again -- anything can be done properly, even a conventional setup. But unless it's deliberate or subverted in some way, it can come off as cliched. So if your paragraph follows one of these forms, be careful!
Thank you thank you thank you to everyone who entered! I hope everyone had a good time, and I'm looking forward to having the next contest. Once I've recovered.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Hello. I'm Donald Draper, partner at Sterling Cooper, America's leading independent advertising firm, and subject of the hit television show Mad Men. You can call me Don once we've had a few martinis.
You may know me for my good looks and penetrating yet soulful facial expressions, as demonstrated by this picture. You may also know me for my ability to mesmerize executives with ruminations on the American Dream during smoke-filled advertising pitch sessions. They usually buy it. And if they don't buy it we send them to the gentlemen's club until they'll buy anything.
Nathan asked me to help him judge this contest. I must say, being from the ad world has taught me a few things over the years. For instance, don't let a broad get hysterical. And bad news should be taken sitting down, with a stiff drink in your hand. Thanks. I'll have another.
As an ad man, I was reading these paragraphs for clues. Clues on whether someone has a novel that I can sell. Because selling is the thing. People want to be eased into a novel. They don't want to be throttled by first paragraphs. They want the scene to be set and the characters revealed. They want subtlety, and proper word choice, grammar, sentence structure, and seamless readability. Clues that the rest of the package is a sure thing.
Let's talk about voice. I'm a man of few words. Too much chattiness wears me down, especially at the dinner table, where talking is strictly forbidden. If you look closely at your favorite novels, they are not that chatty. Just a hint goes a long way. Like paprika.
I have chosen six finalists, which are coincidentally but conveniently spread among several different genres. Please vote on your favorite in the comments section of this post. You will have until Monday at 4pm Pacific to vote, and anonymous votes will not be counted.
And look. I like to give everyone a fair shake. No e-mails to 10,000 of your closest friends asking them to vote for you, and no open campaigning on the internet.
Here are your finalists:
According to my father, the first rule of ninjutsu is KISS: keep it simple, stupid. Of course, he’s says it all ninja-like, but that’s the gist. If you can walk down the street in normal clothes, there’s no need for black garb and grappling hooks. If you can kill a dude in two moves, don’t waste your time with three. And that’s why we run a karate school for all those little kids who get beat up at school—two ninjas hiding in the most obvious place, and the last spot anyone looks.
The world is different now. What once was a time of wealth and security now is an unforgiveable Thunderdome world without heroes. I was born into this world like no other, a singular blue and brown eyed abnormality without equal—a Tetragametic Chimera with Heterochromia eyes. My mother had carried two fertilized eggs that should have become fraternal twins, one twin with blue eyes and the other with brown but our separate cells fused together inside her womb. Instead of the eggs connecting as one immediately, creating the more common Tetragametic Chimera anomaly, they formed independent of each other for the first seven days of gestation and then bonded into that rarest of rare miracle. It took God seven days to create the world and it took seven days to create what I am—two independent savant minds born inside one body, a single being with two completely different sets of DNA, one eye brown and the other eye blue—a twin inside a twin.
On a bright humid morning in June, a sixteen year old girl named Deborah Garrison stepped off the boat from Hyannis, walked ahead of her mother down into the crowded summer streets and set everything in motion. She didn’t seem special; just one more pretty girl on a summer island crowded with them. And she didn’t actually do anything; nothing that happened later was her fault. The simple, irreducible fact of her presence was enough. Even years later, the consequences and implications of Debbie’s arrival seem bizarre and implausible, far too much to balance on those thin sunburned shoulders. It was like setting off an avalanche with a sigh.
The blood pooling under the dead man’s back reminded Nicholas Avery of butterfly wings. It spread from the twin wounds, sweeping to each side in graceful arcs that sparkled beneath the kitchen lights.
If the funeral were taking place in one of my Mom’s novels then it would be winter and it would be raining. The sky would be overcast and there would be the distant rumble of thunder as the casket was lowered into the ground. The weather can’t always match the occasion though. Today the sky was a blinding blue and in the manicured graveyard there was no escape from the sun. I could feel my black dress growing damp and my feet, enclosed in unaccustomed heels, expanding by the second. I glanced at my Mom, standing ramrod straight beside me, dressed in defiant yellow and movie star sunglasses. Despite makeup her face was pale. Her bloodless lips were clamped together in the expression she had worn for the last two days, ever since she had walked into our newly rented apartment and announced, “Pack everything up, we’re going home, your Grandfather died.”
My heliophobia support group met in an old schoolhouse whose main doors had been welded shut and painted blue. You entered around back, up the Z-shaped wheelchair ramp. I’d been attending for years and knew every hall and every stairwell in that place, even saw the belfry once, having shimmied up a ladder hidden in the supply closet. Nothing up there but dust and bird shit and some failed eggs, not even a bell. Just wooden slats through which the sun broke like streaky clown tears. Which didn’t scare me. It’s not that any of us feared the sun, it wasn’t that simple. We simply loathed its intentions. We had already betrayed its destiny and, like everything else in our lives, it was born just to expire.
Congratulations to the finalists. Please e-mail Nathan to discuss your prize.
Have a good weekend. I'm going for a drive in my Studebaker. It should be lovely.
I tell you what, HarperStudio's blog The 26th Story has been BRINGING IT lately. Completely indispensable. Anyway, HarperStudio editor Julia Cheiffetz has an awesome interview with former Random House Editor in Chief Dan Menaker, and Mike Shatzkin sent HarperStudio an interesting napkin graph to show what the Long Tail means for the death of the middle.
Also, Collins started their own blog, and Penguin launched a whole slew of new features with a Penguin 2.0 site, including an iPhone app, enriched e-books and more.
Legendary Jossey-Bass editor Alan Rinzler also has a terrific blog, and this week he provides the inside scoop on how publishers (and authors and agents) choose and argue over covers.
In this week's depressing publishing news, Chronicle announced layoffs, while Macmillan and Perseus announced salary freezes. Let us all bang our heads on our desks.
Jeff Abbott has continued his awesome Organized Writer series with a post on his Trusted System for keeping track of ideas.
Over at Buzz Balls & Hype, guest blogger Anne Mini talks about... how to be a gracious guest blogger!! Sage wisdom.
And finally, reader Josephine Damian pointed me to a hilarious article in the NYTBR by Paul Greenberg about a bailout plan for writers that even Sean Lindsay would love: pay people to stop writing.
Have a great Thursday!
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Now that I have your attention, I thought I would solicit your opinion on what could/should be done to improve and possibly expand this site. This community has really grown this year. Which is great! Trust me, I'm not in this for the page loads (look Ma, no advertising!), but it's been great to have more opinions, more participation, more news tips, and more perspectives.
So what now? What should be done, if anything, to expand? New features? Topics? Contests (flinch)?
Oh! And you may have noticed that when you go to http://nathanbransford.com..... it is no longer a bunch of random links! Actually it should lead you right back here. Hello again!
That is because I very recently retrieved my domain from web squatters! So now that I have more than just a blogspot address, it's possible to expand in the non-bloggy realm. (Forums?)
So you tell me: what would you like to see?
Thank you very very much for your feedback, and thanks even more for stopping by and adding your wisdom and taking the time to add to the site. I really really do appreciate it!
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
While I was away last month, Stephen Barbara, promising young Donald Maass Agency agent and contracts director extraordinaire, published a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article in PW about the writing world's obsession with the "perfect query letter" and the accompanying rise in query quality, and how in the good old days two or three years ago things were easier because "bad writers wrote bad query letters," whereas now the obsession with queries results in higher quality queries from mediocre writers.
Several people have asked me about the article, but even before then I have heard loud whispers about whether I'm concerned about the fact that (hypothetically), if everyone writes a good query, doesn't that make my job more difficult? Am I bringing on my own ruin? (Well, besides this contest)
Nope. Good queries make my life far easier. And in fact, I am pleased to report that query quality, personalization, and professionalism have been dramatically on the rise lately, and I'm extremely excited about it. Why?
Let's go back to the archaic days of five years ago, pre-Miss Snark, other agent blogs, and before the birth of so many writing websites devoted to quality queries and the publishing process. In other words, Mr. Barbara's query utopia. In this time, did the best writers really write the best queries? Did they divine the format and spill their talent onto the page?
Or did the writers who had enough (at that time very hard-to-come-by) information to grasp the purpose, intent and proper technique of query letters still write the best ones while some perfectly good and talented writers stubbed their toes because they simply didn't know what they were doing? I think it's the latter.
Here's why today's brave new query world is good for me. A couple of years ago, as I was reading queries I always had to wonder if the author was a good writer with bad query technique or a bad writer with, uh, bad query technique. I requested a lot of manuscripts that turned out to be subpar because I didn't want to miss out on someone whose idea I liked but who, I had to assume, just may not have known better.
And in fact, in years past it was very, very difficult for the proud residents of Nowheresville, Indiana to have access to the publishing industry because they lacked the connections, information, and network to penetrate what was then an extremely opaque and insulated publishing world. Well, that opacity had a big ole stiletto punched through it, and the rest is history.
Now even writers who do even a cursory amount of research on the Internet are besieged with techniques for writing queries and guidelines for conducting themselves professionally. This hasn't tilted the playing field in favor of the mediocre, it's leveled the playing field for everyone, the talented-but-far-flung particularly. Now that I'm getting almost uniformly good queries it's much easier for me to spot the best ones without worrying I'm missing out by passing up on the bad ones.
Trust me. It's still relatively easy to spot the ones with a special zing that, for whatever reason, connect with my interests and taste.
And as for the people who think the query system isn't worth following, just talk to the scores of published writers who started off writing bad letters, got nowhere, found some information on how to do it the right way, and are now very successful. All that was standing in their way was equal access to the information that is now readily available.
I have no regrets! I am not worried about bad authors writing good queries. There's no formula for the best ones, and truly good writing can't be imitated or faked.
Monday, December 8, 2008
So. Last time we had a contest we had some problems because people were concerned with silly things like "rules" and "things Nathan promised" and "this blog isn't worth the paper it isn't printed on, and in fact, if you were printed on paper you wouldn't be worth the paper you were printed on either, Meanie McMeanieagent."
Let's be clear up front: this is a for-fun contest that I conduct in the free time that I normally spend bathing and attending to personal hygiene. Rules may be adjusted without notice, as I see fit, in ways in which you might find capricious, arbitrary, and possibly dangerous to the Baby Jesus. Let's be clear: no angst this time. You have been warned.
Are we having fun yet?
Now then! You remember how this works right?
1. Please post the first paragraph of any work-in-progress in the comments section of THIS POST. The deadline for entry is THURSDAY 4pm Pacific time, at which point entries will be closed. Finalists will be announced on Friday, at which time you will exercise your democratic rights to choose a grand prize super awesome winner.
2. You may enter once, once you may enter, and enter once you may.
3. Spreading word about the contest is strongly encouraged.
4. I will be sole judge this time. Bwa ha ha.
5. A word on word count: I am not imposing a word count on the paragraphs. However, a paragraph that is too long may lose points in the judge's eyes. Use your own discretion.
THE PRIZES: The grand prize super awesome winner of the SUFPCx2 will win their choice of a partial critique, query critique or 15 minute phone conversation in which we can discuss topics ranging from reality TV shows to, you know, publishing. Your choice. Runners up will receive query critiques and/or other agreed-upon prizes.
On with the show!
Friday, December 5, 2008
Just to review the top stories... Layoffs at Simon & Schuster (subscription), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Thomas Nelson, reorganization at Random House, wage freezes at HarperCollins and Penguin. Sorry sorry sorry to everyone affected.
In the meantime... books are still being published! And while I was away, the Tor blog had a great rundown of what happens after your book is acquired, written by bestselling author Jane Lindskold.
The New York Observer talked to a 26 year old former editorial assistant who is now some sort of hedge fund finance person to weigh in on what's wrong with publishing (because finance people must be smarter than publishing people, just look at the economy!) in an article entitled What Makes Moguls Believe They Belong In the Book Business? (to which Booksquare rejoined: What makes the New York Observer give so much credence to a 26-year old who admittedly spent very little time in the publishing business?) In case you're curious, said former editorial assistant cites “expensive brand-name flops” and “overpaying for prestige … unproven hype … and countless small, unprofitable ‘passion’ acquisitions that distract people from profitable operations but are the reason most people—at least at the literary houses—stay in publishing" as problems. To which Mr. Bob Miller of HarperStudio responds: "If Wolff had spent decades in the business instead of months, he may have noticed how maddeningly often the expensive brand names actually pay the bills, and the small literary “prestige” projects turn into the next brand names." Pwned, people. Pwned.
So just to be clear: publishing had a bad week. So did, you know, the entire economy. As Motoko Rich notes, Hachette (parent company of Little Brown and Grand Central) is riding James Patterson, David Baldacci, Michael Connelly and Stephenie Meyer to a banner year. The same article does cite no less an authority than superagent Esther Newberg, who says "It is seriously going to be a time for known commodities," which is scary for newcomers, but... not all bad! No time for panicking.
And speaking of a banner year... E-BOOKS. Sony announced that they have sold 300,000 digital readers, and it will soon be easier to read books on your iPhone (well, as easy as it can be to read on a tiny screen) as iPhone app Stanza is partnering with Fictionwise to provide content.
Bestselling author Jeff Abbott is starting a series of posts extolling the benefits of the organized writer. This may or may not involve waking up at 4 AM to write your book.
And finally, in case you think that self-help book you're reading could have been written by a nine year old.... well, maybe it was. Yes, Collins has published a dating guide written by a nine-year-old called HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS. The mere title of this book would have blown my mind at age 9 because... I mean, talking to girls? Ew!! I would have been busy penning HOW TO THROW ROCKS AT GIRLS.
Have a great weekend!
PS: Contest next week.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Authonomy is, basically, a manuscript ranking system combined with social networking, and it's backed by Harper UK, who is hoping to use it to find gems among the books that have become the most popular. With its different features, user-generated content and much more, Authonomy feels very much like the future. Here's what I want to know: is it?
In a brave new world swimming in e-books and manuscripts, are user-generated ranking systems the way the best books will rise to the top? Is a masses-governed system better than the (supposed) expert-driven system that has ruled for the last two hundred years? Is this, frankly, going to work? Or is it going to favor those who best game the system?
And yes Harper, I do intend to collect that free toaster for plugging the site.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Your imprint musical chairs is as follows. There are now three big umbrellas on the adult side. "Little" Random (retaining the title Random House Publishing Group), Knopf (now the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group) and Crown (the Crown Publishing Group). Random is absorbing Bantam Dell and Doubleday's Spiegel & Grau, Knopf is absorbing Doubleday, and Crown is absorbing Broadway and Doubleday's business/religious imprints. Publishing veterans Irwyn Applebaum and Steve Rubin will be stepping down.
And of particular note (and the subject of much agently wondering): the groups will still be bidding independently in auctions, meaning a hypothetical three possible group bids. Although, of course, there are now fewer groups, meaning that there are fewer possible industry-wide bidders than there used to be. Editorial imprints within will still remain independent, but, of course, will not be bidding against each other within their group.
My heart goes out to anyone affected by the restructuring.
UPDATE: Layoffs have also been announced at Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Thomas Nelson. Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
I have a few thoughts.
1) This is hugely depressing
2) Step awaaaaaay from the computer
Yes, we've all heard the story of authors who were dressed in rags and eating cans of beans before they wrote a hit novel and became richer than oil barons.
But honestly, this is kind of like trying to resolve your financial problems by attempting to win the lottery. Only a lottery ticket costs a dollar and doesn't take hundreds of hours to buy.
There is no such thing as getting rich quick in publishing. It takes forever! Let's say you DO write a book that becomes a big hit. First you have to spend hours and hours and hours writing it, then you have to find an agent, then you have to find a publisher, then you get maybe half the advance, then you have to wait a long time until it's published, then you have to wait for it to take off, then you have to wait for the royalty period to end and maybe four months after that the publisher will pay you. By the time your money actually comes in we could all be using some currency of the future and novels could be BEAMED DIRECTLY TO OUR HEADS.
But. At the very least, if you are trying to escape penury through publication, do not mention it in your query. I get enough bad news every time I open Publishers Lunch.
Wait. That was a depressing post. PUPPIES!!
Monday, December 1, 2008
So what did I miss?? The economy is back on track and the book business has completely recovered, right? Um. Please tell me it has recovered.
And for those of you participating in the "how many e-mails will Nathan have in his inbox upon his return" office pool, whoever had the lucky number 650 wins a big ole cigar.
Needless to say, if you queried me in the last couple of weeks I'll be getting back to you when I get back to you.
Thanks again to the intrepid guest bloggers, and... now I'm going to go wade into that inbox. Wish me luck.