Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, October 30, 2009

This Week in Publishing 10/30/09

A heads up: I'll be in New York next week so blogging will be sporadic.

But this week!

People are still working their way through the week that shook publishing, with WalMart slashing prices and all kinds of e-readers debuting, and are digesting what it all means.

First up, some people have noted that with WalMart, Amazon and Target drastically slashing prices on some upcoming bestsellers and taking losses it may make sense for independent booksellers to just go ahead and stock their books by ordering direct from WalAmaTargEars, thus getting their books more cheaply than they would be able to from publishers and ensuring that WalAmaTargEars take as many losses as possible for this stunt. Smart, right?

Well... not so fast. First, WalAmaTargEars are onto you and are limiting how many discounted books you can buy. And at the WordHoarder blog, a bookseller cautions against the WalAmaTargEars end-around as a long term strategy. According to the post, sales reps for indie booksellers are already dwindling, and such a move hurts distributors, whom indies really need. (via Booksqure)

Meanwhile, Mike Shatzkin surveys the landscape and considers the implications of a gradual publishing transition to smaller print runs and greater electronic market share. This transition is already rocking the newspaper world, and publishers, bookstores, and the entire print distribution chain will all be challenged by this transition because they require a certain critical mass to be sustainable. The winners according to Shatzkin? Agents and the top 500 authors, who will be able to sell e-books directly because of their personal brands.

And how is all of the pressure on publishers trickling down to the editorial side? As Kristin Nelson says, agents and authors on submission are hearing these frustrating words a lot these days: "I just don't see how I can break this out in a big way."

Oh, and Philip Roth thinks novels are going to have only a cult following in 25 years. Who's feeling the optimism???

Perhaps exhausted by the last couple weeks of news, Publishers Weekly decided to go ahead and just call it a year and released their top books of 2009. Sorry books published between now and the end of the year! (via Scribbly Jane)

But with all of this big and slightly unsettling news, let me just say it now: don't panic. Things are changing, it's going to be an interesting/challenging couple of years as we gradually succumb to our coming e-book overlords, but it doesn't mean the novel is going to disappear or that we're all going to hell in a handbasket. Things aren't going to be worse (at least in the long term), they're just going to be different. And in 50 years when we're making the transition from reading e-books on screens to having them beamed directly into our heads we'll wax nostalgic about the charming blink of electronic pages and the smell of plastic and people will get angry about the change and say that you can pry their e-books from their cold dead hands.

Also there's more news! Martin Amis has taken aim at popular British author and model Katie Price/Jordan for, among other things, being, shall we say, cosmetically enhanced. He even memorized the poem she read at her ill-fated wedding. A case of hating the player instead of hating the game? Or is Amis himself such a high level player that he is playing the game and the press fell for his trap? (via Greg Peisert)

Over in the Huffington Post, Rob Asghar thinks self-publishing has an image problem and wants to rebrand it "indie publishing." Interesting, but..... aren't there already independent publishers, i.e. strong non "Big 6" houses like Soho and Kensington?

Reports of VS Naipaul's death have been greatly exaggerated. Um. BY THE FBI.

My awesome client Natalie Whipple has written an instant classic post just in time for NaNoWriMo: advice on writing a first draft. First and most importantly: don't worry about how others write, write how YOU write. SO TRUE.

Janet Reid passed along her outline on a class she gave on writing effective queries.

Almost finally, via Jeff Abbott, a patron of a library in Maury County, Tennesee has taken upon him/herself to black out the curse words in mystery novels. Because with so many problems in the world, if there's anything worth spending your time on it's surely blacking out naughty words. Way to save America! Anyway, I would say that the newscast on the incident is priceless, but that would be a complete understatement. It's amazing.

And finally, this video is just.... I mean..... love love love:

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Reverse Snobbery of Low Literary Aspirations

First of all, the title of this post is admittedly hyperbolic, which was necessitated by my desire to echo Michael Gerson's famous line about "the soft bigotry of low expectations," as delivered by our 43rd president.

And such a hyperbolic title necessitates the caveats up front. If people are setting out to write pulp and pure entertainment: more power to them. I think that's great. Not trying to criticize pulp. There are people who call their books "trashy" with pride, and I think that's awesome. Fun/unpretentious books = cool by me.


A funny thing happened with my post on Tuesday about themes: people agreed with me. And the more people agreed the more I started having this weird feeling like, "Wait. Stop. Don't agree! Stop agreeing!!!" And then I found myself nodding along with some of the dissents.

What happened in the comments thread is that people took my caution against writing queries like English class-y term papers and my opinion that the marketplace is moving toward accessible literary fiction, and then some used that as ammo against what they perceive as a culture of snobbish literature that is difficult to understand.

As I mentioned in the comments section, I think we're in a cultural period that celebrates mass appeal and democracy and devalues experts. I'd bet that more people read Amazon reviews than the New York Times Book Review. More people check Yelp for restaurant recommendations than a city's local restaurant critic. People don't particularly listen to the judges when they vote for their favorites on American Idol and they certainly don't listen to movie critics when they decide which movies to see. The Internet has opened up all kinds of ways for the crowd to be king.

And I think this has resulted in a cultural moment that celebrates mass appeal rather than the elite. Which definitely has its benefits: I happen to really like literary fiction that is both meaningful and accessible, such as KAVALIER AND CLAY, and I don't know that bringing literary fiction down from a lofty perch is necessarily a bad thing.

At the same time, there is definitely something that is lost in the over-celebration of mass appeal and the lowest common denominator and the dismissal of experts, and I really think it can be taken too far. What about aspiring to create something that is great, rather than merely popular? What about pushing the envelope even when it's not what's currently in fashion? What is wrong with being elite and appreciated by experts if not by the masses?

And when writers start thumbing their nose at dense and challenging literature solely because it's hard to read it really starts verging on reverse snobbery.

I understand that everyone has different tastes, but there is no pride in ignorance of literary fiction. Genre writers can learn from literary fiction, just as literary writers can learn from genre fiction. There's a middle ground.

Now. Does someone who wants to crank out genre novels need to spend all of their time reading Proust? Probably not. But to thumb one's nose at literary writing because it's hard to understand is to stop learning about what is possible with words.

Writers ignore good writing at their peril. In order to have a book published it doesn't have to be literary literary literary, but the writer has to do something very well. While there is an insanely common sentiment in the comments section that so many books published are trash and oh well anyone can do it: that's really not the case. You may not like it, but quite a few people along the way did in order for it to find its way to the bookshelf.

Not every talented writer is a published author, but (nearly) every published author is talented. Even if you think they suck.

For now, in order to have your book published you're going to have to impress the experts, i.e. the literary agents and editors who demand a certain level of quality in the writing. And the current culture that treats everyone as an expert shouldn't be taken too far: Not everyone is an expert.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Themes Schmemes

I have reached some sort of blog milestone in that I was halfway through writing a blog post about some writers focusing too much on the themes of their book in queries before I realized..... something felt a little familiar.

Then I realized: I'd written the exact same post before. Right down to the blog title. Whoops! Luckily I remembered before I unconsciously plagiarized myself.

Here is the original post, from March 29, 2007, which most definitely still applies, this time with feeling:

So you know how you spent four or more years in college learning about what books mean and how to analyze novels for hidden meaning, and where you learned that the best books are the ones with subtext upon which you can write a twenty page paper on the use of metaphor as an elucidation of the philosophical constructs of the protagonist's society?

Yeah. Forget all that.

I get quite a few query letters that sound like this (btw this is made up, I will never make fun of your query letter in this space, agent's honor):

"My novel explores themes of love and themes of passion. The protagonist fights against the evils inherent in our society and must come to terms with his inner sense of frustration and futility. But ultimately the novel is about how we as human beings must develop a sense of self and prevail in the face of society's obstacles."

No offense to myself for writing that, but that does not exactly make me want to read more of my own writing.

It's really the oldest writing advice in the book: Show don't tell. College teaches you to tell. It teaches you to look for subtext and it conditions you think you should pack your novel full of references and themes so future scholars will have a job. And then people write their query like it's a term paper.

I'm not (praise Tyra) planning on writing a twenty page paper on your novel, so don't tell me what your novel is about. Tell me what happens. And hopefully you've written a novel in which things actually do happen. Because I like novels where things happen. Happening is good.

To expand further on this topic, I recently attended a football game, (chronicled hilariously here by my friend Holly), and we were talking about how much some aspiring authors want to leave behind books with artistic integrity that they're proud of even if they don't sell, and I definitely respect this. (What else would you talk about on the way to a football game??).

At the same time, it got me to thinking: are writers artists or artisans?

I think the drive to write Literature/art sometimes leads some very talented writers, especially young ones, to write books that as an agent I can't sell because there's too much attention paid to the themes and the subtext and the meaning and other English-class-type concerns, rather than the narrative and the plot and the craft and other sausagemaking-type concerns. And this is reflected in how they think of and describe the work: these types of novels tend to correlate with queries that read like the aforementioned college papers.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with artistic integrity and thinking deeply about the meaning in your book and writing books that are dense, weighty, and/or wildly experimental. But particularly in this day and age, the audience for novels where too little attention is paid to narrative and plot and storytelling was already small and seems to be shrinking by the moment. There are definitely a few places that still are open to this type of writing, but they tend to be small presses/collectives and you don't necessarily need an agent to find them.

I also think that some of these writers have a bit of a mistaken belief about the books that are published these days that are instant Literature, like GILEAD and ATONEMENT and OSCAR WAO. These books have plots. They are not impenetrable. The narratives are complex and they flow. Yes, the writing is beautiful and meaningful and there's so much to take away, but Robinson and McEwan and Diaz also not only prose artists, they are fantastic storytellers and craftsmen who keep their readers spellbound.

Please know that I'm not making value judgments about writers as artists vs. artisans - I love all types of books and they all have their place. But as an agent, I have to follow the market. If you want to write Literature and also be published by a major publisher, these days it's rare to find a book that just has deep themes in an otherwise impenetrable book. It also takes a story that people can't put down. While there are some exceptions, for better or worse mainstream literary fiction is increasingly found at the intersection of quality and accessibility.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Can I Get a Ruling: Twenty-something

Greetings! It's another edition of Can I Get a Ruling, aka that time when you vote on whether my pet peeves are signs of prescience or insanity.

Next up: twenty-something. Or thirty-something, forty-something, or a hundred-and-forty-something. As in a character is "[age in factor of ten]-something" years old.

I have to admit: when I see the phrase [number]-something my brain kind of shuts down.

Here's why (I think). It's just so unspecific. There's a huge difference between a twenty-one year old and a twenty-nine year old. I suppose twenty-"something" is supposed to be somewhere in the middle, but why not just say how old they are? "Something" is longer than every number from one to ten, so it's not as if you're saving characters.

At the same time, maybe saying "twenty-seven" is too much information and the specificity is somewhat distracting?

If you're reading this by e-mail or through an RSS reader, please click through for the poll:

Friday, October 23, 2009

This Week in Publishing 10/23/09

This (crazy) week in publishing...

For a rundown of the really big news in publishing this week, please see yesterday's post.

But there's more!

Jofie Ferrari-Adler continued his series of fascinating/awesome/cool interviews with publishing people, this time with Twelve editor Jonathan Karp. Among the nuggets: some great anecdotes about CB clients and NURTURESHOCK co-authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, a really interesting take on the author/agent relationship, and the publishing philosophy that led him to create an innovating imprint.

In political book news, LA Times' book blog Jacket Copy (which is awesome, please check it out) noticed twin Sarah Palin books, one called GOING ROGUE the other called GOING ROUGE, both featuring covers of Sarah Palin staring purposefully off into the distance. Only: ROGUE is subtitled "AN AMERICAN LIFE" and is the actual Sarah Palin autobiography. ROUGE is subtitled "AN AMERICAN NIGHTMARE." Annnnnnnnnnnnnd.... cue the political anons in the comment section.

The New Yorker's Book Bench blog linked to a rather fascinating and thought-provoking post in Seed Magazine about how we humans are writing more than ever before, and are verging on a future of potential universal authorship. What I want to know is: if everyone's busy writing, how are they going to have time for reading?

INDEX//mb left some serious bait for Eric from Pimp My Novel: an argument against book sales forecasting (via @chriswebb). INDEX believes that sales forecasting is at the minimum useless because it ignores the likelihood of unforeseen random events (aka "black swans"), and argues instead that publishers should focus on being agile and responding more quickly to swings in demand rather than trying to be overly accurate with initial forecasts. Your move, Eric.

Meanwhile, the INTERN has wrapped up her stint at a NY publishing house and rounds up what she learned. Very interesting topics from someone on the inside.

In contest news, recently crowned stupendously ultimate first paragraph winner Travis Erwin is having a contest to celebrate Agent Appreciation Day on November 1st. Very nice! And my very excellent client Natalie Whipple is having a Halloween fiction contest. Very spooky!

National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, is coming up, in which people frantically attempt to write 50,000 word first drafts (hear me: FIRST DRAFTS) in one month. Lots of people ask me how I feel about NaNoWriMo, and basically, I agree with agent Kate Schafer Testerman. Some great first drafts of successful novels have arisen out of NaNoWriMo. Remember: Thanksgiving is for ignoring your family members and cranking out a first draft, December is for ignoring your family members and cranking out the first of many revisions that you will probably need until March at least to polish. Cool? Cool.

Even though I don't rep picture books, I get this question a lot: do you need to find an illustrator for your picture book ahead of time? Editorial Anonymous says: FOR THE LAST TIME: NO! (that's a direct quote).

You may have been wondering how the new FTC guidelines about disclosing free stuff is going to affect book reviews. My very awesome client Jennifer Hubbard (author of THE SECRET YEAR) recently attended a session at the Kidlitosphere Conference with FTC representative Mary Engle, who clarifies that the FTC should not affect book review blogs. Whew! Jennifer also recapped the conference for Shrinking Violet Promotions.

Jessica Faust at BookEnds checked in with a great reminder for all authors out there: we agents do the things we do for a reason, and if you don't like or aren't good at writing queries/synopses or revising: well...... it's basically your job to be good at it.

In posts about the writing life, Alexander Chee wrote a moving article about taking a writing class with Annie Dillard, which has some truly fantastic writing advice (via John Ochwat), and Cynthia Leitich Smith has a post with advice for debut authors on dealing with nasty reviews.

And finally, the Onion checked in with a local San Francisco author who is at this moment writing very deep thoughts in a Moleskin notebook.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

And Then Everything in Publishing Changed All At Once.... Or It Was More of the Same

It was the best of weeks, it was the worst of weeks....... and no one knew which.

This was, quite simply, a massively huge week in the publishing industry. All of the various pressures on the industry seemingly came to a head: the steady rise of e-books, downward pressure on book prices (due to bad economy/presence of e-books/competition with free content/used books/inevitability), the rising clout of e-tailers, an increasingly difficult landscape for independent bookstores, and the industry's creeping dependence on a small handful of mega-bestselling authors.

First, several new e-readers are giving the Kindle a run for its money in both its functionality... and its bizarre name. Meet the Alex (yes, THE ALEX), the Que (yes, THE QUE) and the Nook (yes, THE okay that one doesn't bother me so much). Also: I call dibs on ¿Qué? jokes for the next five years.

The Nook is perhaps the most notable of all as it is backed by Barnes & Noble, features wireless that you can use in a physical B&N to read/preview basically anything, and also allows you to "share" a book with a friend for 14 days, during which you can't actually read it. Kind of like a real book.

It remains to be seen how popular all of these devices will be, but certainly e-book adoption is moving ever closer to the mainstream.

Meanwhile, WalMart dropped a megaton bomb more faster than you blink and sparked a ruthless price war with Amazon by announcing that they would sell 10 hotly anticipated titles for $9.99 through Amazon quickly matched and announced same-day delivery in 7 cities, then WalMart countered by lowering the price to $8.99, which Amazon also matched. Then Target jumped in the fray, and so did Sears, who announced that if you by a $9 book from Amazon, Target or WalMart they will reimburse the entire amount if you buy something on and spend $45. So, basically, you can get a free book when you buy your dog a pirate costume (come on, you know you want to click through to see that one).

Where does this end?

Where indeed.

Right now, even as WalMart, Amazon, Target and Sears fight it out for e-tailing primacy, publishers are still receiving the standard amount for every copy sold, or roughly 50% of the hardcover list price, meaning WalAmaTargEars are the ones taking a loss. So, assuming the deep discounts spur sales, in the short term this has turned into a huge cash cow for the few publishers/mega-bestsellers WalAmaTargEars have chosen.

But who loses? Well... potentially just about everyone else. In the words of literary agent David Gernert:

If readers come to believe that the value of a new book is $10, publishing as we know it is over. If you can buy Stephen King’s new novel or John Grisham’s ‘Ford County’ for $10, why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25? I think we underestimate the effect to which extremely discounted best sellers take the consumer’s attention away from emerging writers.

And as Eric at Pimp My Novel notes, this could have huge impacts on independent bookstores, who simply can't compete with the discounting. He also notes that if a few e-tailers cement their dominance over the bookselling market, they could have increasing clout to dictate terms and discounts.

There are some who are cautiously optimistic about the price war. An anonymous publishing executive told the Times: "If this is a short-term statement to let hundreds of millions of people know that they will be able to buy books from, it’s a good thing."

But surely this isn't temporary. These trends have been in the makings for years, from deep discounts (now something everyone takes for granted) to competition with other cheap media to the rise of e-books to the industry's shedding of mid-list authors, their simultaneous aversion to small risks and dependence on big risks, and their increasing reliance on bestsellers, who they often overpay.

This doesn't have to mean the end of publishing as we know it. As former editor Marion Maneker writes, this could spur publishers to reevaluate their deals with their top sellers, and he also notes that people are already accustomed to paying more for different products. Just because James Patterson's latest is selling for $10 doesn't mean someone won't pay more for a book by someone who sells less.

But it looks as if book prices are coming down, one way or another. And that shift is going to send major shockwaves through the industry. Already Stephen King, an early e-book champion, announced that S&S will be delaying the release of the e-book edition of his new book, citing a desire to help bookstores, while simultaneously expressing concern that the deep print discounting "threatens the industry's pricing structure."

So is it the best of times or the worst of times? It's too soon to know. Lower prices don't have to be a bad thing provided people buy more books. Smaller authors don't have to lose out provided consumers don't flock en masse to the deeply discounted bestsellers.

But things are changing very, very quickly. The longtime trends that have been shaping the industry are only accelerating, and everyone in the business is holding on for the ride.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When Is Writing Unhealthy?

In yesterday's discussion about writers and sensitivity, Gordon Pamplona left a comment that stuck with me:

"...a lot of times the sensitivity about the writing is a stand-in for sensitivity about something else: you spent so much time chasing this pipe dream that you lose your job, your marriage, your kids; your kids don't respect you because you didn't write Harry Potter or Twilight; you charged a lot of money on the credit card for conferences and classes with no tangible results, and now the family is eating beans and rice. For many of us, writing is an addiction, no different from alcohol or drugs or gambling. And maybe people who are angry, bitter, stressed out, or despondent should take a hard look at whether this is something they should be doing--if it's gone from a hobby to something that's ruining their lives and their relationships with others."

As a society, we often celebrate tortured and struggling artists who finally make it big despite their obstacles, and yet we don't often examine the flip side of this, which is that the vast majority of tortured and struggling artists don't actually make it. We tend to encourage everyone to write (Person 1 tells an interesting story, Person 2 says "Wow, you should write a book about that"), and there are very few people out there willing to tell any writer they don't have what it takes and should probably try pursuing something else with their time. I'm guilty of this as well - who am I to say whether or not someone will or won't be published?

But is this the right approach? Is writing, especially when the odds are long and the cost to a personal life is high, sometimes akin to addiction? When does it cross the line from hobby to "habit?" And should we be encouraging everyone to write?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Writers and Sensitivity

One of the many things I have discovered in the course of being a blogging agent is the intense sensitivity of many writer types.

And actually, the mere fact that I typed that sentence will probably get legions of anonymous commenters up in arms about my gross insensitivity. Steel yourselves, sensitive writers! Steel!

To take the most obvious example, there's a proud and distinguished history of authors losing their minds over bad reviews and acting badly, to the point an author has to really, really act badly for anyone to surprised anymore (but writers also happen to be inventive types and manage to find new ways).

To take another example, I can't count the number of times in the course of writing this blog I've been accused of hating writers or looking down on writers or otherwise being reflective of all that is wrong with publishing today. Even aside from the fact that I'm actually a writer in my spare time, why in the world would I spend my time blogging about writers and books if I hated them? Why would I have spent seven years in this business to begin with?

Now, to be clear and fair, I've written a lot of words on this blog and anyone who spills this much e-ink is going to misspeak or state things inartfully from time to time. So I'm not criticizing people for taking offense occasionally. I also don't intend to absolve agents everywhere of bad behavior or attitudes that don't deserve to be absolved.

But still, there's a small, vocal portion of the Internet writing community who will seize upon any teeny tiny perceived slight and use it as proof that agents really truly are haters of writers/scum of the earth/enemy of Literature with a capital L/Philistines/Luddites/Carthaginians (is that a thing?)/you name it.

It's worth remembering during these times: agents have devoted their working lives to writers, they have typically worked their way up for years while living in expensive cities and making less than some part time temp workers, and they often work for hours on end with writers whose books they can't sell, for which they receive absolutely no compensation. I've never met a single agent who is in this business for any reason other than the fact that they love writers and they love books.

But there's just something about writing, where it's almost as if writer types feel things more deeply and need a channel for that passion and the inevitable frustration that comes with the business. And frustration really is inevitable. No matter how successful you are there are always going to be challenges, needlessly personal bad reviews/rejections, and any number of road blocks along the way.

Channeling it into frustration with the business side of publishing, against literary agents, editors, reviewers, bookstores... you see it so often, and yet it's just so clearly not the most productive way to be.


Michael Jordan is the one of the most notorious competitors and cataloguer of slights of all time. Rumor has it he never missed an opportunity to feel slighted. The sensitive soul of an artist!

And yet: he didn't complain (at least not publicly) when he was supposedly frozen out when he was a young All Star or when the Pistons created the "Jordan Rules," which basically entailed knocking him senseless at every opportunity, or about the height of the rims or the length of the court or David Stern or fans or anything else. Instead he set about destroying the competition on the court.

This is probably some of the most obvious advice you've ever seen on the Internet, but still! I think it's worth remembering that if you're a writer you are most likely also a sensitive type who must steel yourself from time to time and remember to channel your passion into the proper vessel: your writing.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Winner Is... (And Thoughts on First Paragraphs)

The..... winner...... is...... atthebottomofthispost.

But first, I promised to discuss more about what went into my decisions. And before we begin delving into the ins and outs of first paragraphs, I think I should probably state this up front for the record:

It's just a first paragraph.

Lots of really great books have very quiet and/or unremarkable first paragraphs. Your book is not going to succeed or fail based solely on its first paragraph. While I do think a good first paragraph can help grab a reader, I hope the takeaway from this contest isn't to elevate the first paragraph more than it deserves or convey that it's essential to cram the entire plot into the first paragraph or to make it overly clever or to treat it as anything but it what it is: your reader's first impression of the book.

I also want to emphasize, as I did in the last contest, that I think I read these first paragraphs differently as an agent than a lot of readers do. Lots of people look at the paragraphs and think, "Is this a book I want to read? Am I hooked? Would I buy this?" When I'm reading a paragraph (or a partial), I'm looking for execution more than I'm looking for whether there's a catchy plot introduced right off the bat. If the writing isn't there it doesn't matter how much I like the concept.

Also, have I mentioned how hard it was to choose the finalists? It was hard. In order to show you the kinds of decisions I was making as I was whittling the 2,500 down to the longlist and the longlist down to 10, I thought it might be helpful to discuss some of the honorable mentions, both to give them credit where due for being awesome, and to show the kind of hairsplitting I had to engage in to reduce the list to just the ten finalists.

There were paragraphs, like John Askins', where I really loved the concept. What isn't there to like about a novel opening with a toilet-trained monkey in some bar in Guadalajara? But I felt that the transition between the second sentence and the third was a little choppy, and I didn't feel that "potty trained" needed to be repeated in two sentences in a row and instead thought those sentences could be combined. Like I said, splitting hairs.

There were paragraphs like Jenny W.'s, which opens up such an appealing world. I love the idea of a man casually shooing away a monster going to the bathroom in the front yard. But while at first blush it read so smoothly and has such a great voice, there was a contradiction in the paragraph that I couldn't quite get over - if it was the narrator's first time seeing the monster, why were they on a first name basis and seemed so familiar with each other? It seemed like the catchy first line contradicted the rest of the paragraph.

There were other paragraphs, such as L.T. Host's and Vanessa's, where there's a high concept hook right off the bat. These are classic "I want to know more" openers, and seriously, I really want to know more please e-mail me. But in a competition for best first paragraph, I had to leave out ones that had an interesting, straightforward concept but mainly left it at that. I really liked these paragraphs and don't want/need a paragraph that's overwrought or needlessly florid, but I couldn't help but feel that there could have been something just a little bit more to invite the reader a further into these worlds even if there's a high concept idea introduced right away.

Can you tell how subjective this gets when you're choosing between 20-25 of the best written paragraphs? It is.

Now. Circling back: do I have an overarching philosophy when it comes to first paragraphs?

Sort of.

I was pretty surprised at the specificity of many of the people who weighed in on the You Tell Me on what makes a good paragraph, not to mention how contradictory many of the opinions were. Some people only wanted in media res, some hate in media res. Some want description, some don't. Some like beginning with dialogue, some hate beginnings with dialogue. Some want to be grabbed by the throat, some want to be led in gently. Some want spare, some want florid. It definitely explains why there are such wildly divergent opinions about the paragraphs.

I don't have any set preferences when it comes to structure and approach. frohock left a great comment that sums up my feeling about first paragraphs almost entirely. Essentially, I think the first paragraph has three important functions: it establishes the tone/voice, it gets the reader into the flow of the book, and it establishes trust between the author and reader.

The concept of flow and rhythm is especially important. It's hard to begin reading a book. The reader is starting with a blank slate and doesn't have much context for understanding what is happening. It takes a lot of brain power to read the opening and begin to feel comfortable in the world of that book. So even if the novel starts with action, or especially if it begins with action, it's very important to draw in the reader methodically, with one thought leading to the next. The flow of the words and a steady building goes a long way toward hooking the reader. Quite a few paragraphs jumped around or felt scattered, and it made it difficult to stay engaged.

And on the trust issue: I shy away from anything that feels like a gimmick. A novel is simply too long for gimmicks. Not only do they get exhausting, anything that is clever merely for the sake of being clever comes at the expense of trust between author and reader. To put it another way: if a first paragraph is how an author makes their first impression, using a gimmick in the opener is kind of like going to shake the reader's hand while wearing a hand buzzer. There might be a quick thrill, but they're probably not going to trust you after that. There was a feeling of forced cleverness in many of the entries where I wasn't able to lose myself in the paragraph and forget the hand of the author who was writing it.

In any contest where someone is reading 2,500 paragraphs basically in one setting, originality is probably more important than it would be normally. While there were plenty of openings in this contest that were very good, there were stretches where things kind of blended together. The ones that were different tended to stand out in the contest, even though I fully recognize that you can write a perfectly competent but unremarkable first paragraph and still write a very good book.

Lastly, I would urge everyone to read as many of the entries as possible. There really is no substitute for reading them until your eyes bleed and see what begins to jump out at you once they've begun to blend together. Manning a slush pile is a tremendous learning opportunity for any writer, and reading a couple thousand of these is the closest approximation.

And speaking of blending together, here are some of the things I saw a lot of as I read through the entries. Bear in mind that I'm not saying you can't use any of these elements in your first paragraph. Anything can be done well. But these are common tropes that I picked up on:

- There were quite a lot openings with setting/rising suns and characters bathed in red colors, as well as moons and characters bathed in twilight.
- Girls looking in mirrors/brushing their hair/looking in mirrors while brushing their hair
- Holy cow, or should I say Holy Dead Bloody Cow were there a lot of corpses and blood in the first paragraphs. "Blood" was used 181 times, and that doesn't count the euphemisms. Not necessarily a bad thing (and one of the bloody ones made the finals), but wow.
- You wrote a lot of paragraphs in the second person.
- One common trope involves a person who is dying but feels all detached from the experience. Sort of like: "I am dying, but I feel nothing but a bemused disinterest about it. Isn't it curious that I'm dying? I suppose I should be scared right now. This is peculiar indeed."
- Waking up/waking up in a panic/waking up in a burning down house/waking up from a really good dream/waking up from a really bad nightmare/waking up and not wanting to wake up/waking up and realizing actually dead.
- Gripping the steering wheel tightly
- Contemplating the depth of an important moment, especially: "If only this one thing hadn't happened, then everything would have been different." "It was just like any other day, only then this one thing happened." "This was the precise moment when everything changed."
- The pull the chair out from under the reader several times paragraph, like this: "Statement. Well, it wasn't that per se, it was somewhat like this. Or should I say rather more like this. Still, it was indeed kind of like that original statement. Only kind of not really."
- Common phrases: "consumed with fear," "last thing I/he/she wanted/expected, "washed over me/him/her, "top of my/his/her lungs," "farthest thing from my/his/her mind," "(blank) - literally," "they/my mom/my grandmother say(s) that (aphorism)."

Like I said, any of these things can be done very well, and I'm not trying to say you shouldn't use any of them. It's just difficult to make something unique out of elements that are very common, and I think we're all generally drawn to something that feels different.

For instance, someone along the way pointed out that SATURDAY opens with the protagonist waking up. So it can be done, particularly if your novel takes place over the course of one day and particularly if your name is Ian McEwan. And if anything, the same trope in the beginning can result in wildly different results. "Dark and stormy night" can lead to WRINKLE IN TIME or it can lead to this paragraph from PAUL CLIFFORD, originally written by the long-dead Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the inspiration for the bad-writing contest of the same name, which I assume someone entered in an attempt to trick me.


Here is why I ended up choosing these ten finalists:

Josin L. McQuein pulls you in with the geometry-teacher-as-devil idea, and then keeps it going with a great punch line. I really love "I want to strangle myself with a hypotenuse," not only because it's funny, but it's geometrically accurate! Great voice.

Alanna. Confession: I am not generally a fan of the second person. But I thought the writing and the concept here are quite spectacular and I didn't hesitate to include this paragraph as a finalist. I thought it was moving to have the action going in reverse, the prose was top notch (love: "The dust falls out of the beam of light from your window and settles back on the scarred wooden floor"), and I found the interplay between the writing and subject very evocative. I might have liked it even better if it were third person, but this is some serious raw writing talent on display.

K and A. What I love about this paragraph is how fully-realized this world is and how effortlessly the details are melded into the paragraph. I was drawn in by the list of people and how they aren't what they say they are, but what really drove this paragraph home for me was that the new arrival shows up with a protest sign that says "Peace not plasma." K and A didn't stop with the plot concept, there are small details throughout that creates a very convincing and interesting world. This is a great example of how a world can come alive with small details.

M has an instantly memorable setup: a protag with a changed name on the run from some murders. But it's more than just an interesting concept, there's a great voice too. I love that the character is looking out for the reader. Now. Is Mara the culprit or a witness? I guess we'll have to read on to find out.

Jackie Brown. I really liked the interplay between inside and outside in this paragraph. At first it seemed like the child was perhaps dangerous (she's wearing a mask and we see her staring in the door and is compared to a ghost), but then the action subtly shifts and we're seeing things from the perspective of a very human-like child staring inside at a mysterious veiled figure. I found the experience of reading it very unsettling in a good way, almost like, "Hey, wait, my brain was just in that house what in the heck is in there?"

miridunn. I thought this paragraph had very strong writing, great rhythm, and it's about a very wrenching subject. Quite a few people who read the first couple hundred paragraphs mentioned this one as a standout, and I think it's a reflection of how gripping it is right away.

Travis Erwin. The humor and sense of place just shine right through. The joke about the titles of other coming of age stories is hilarious and instantly memorable. Very clever and very funny.

Simon C. Larter. This is another paragraph that combines great rhythm with great details, which suck the reader into the story. I thought the writing was smooth and the tension palpable.

Lisa Marie gave an immediate, gripping sense of grief, and I thought the contrast between the precision with which the protagonist moved on and the mystery of the note was interesting and moving. A very nice progression throughout the paragraph.

Maya. There were a whole lot of paragraphs that began with a character outside in nature and contemplating where they are in life and thinking about what's next. I chose Maya's to represent this group because I thought the different elements came together very nicely - the pomegranate juice, the sound of the orchard, and the bark in her back all meshed with what she is thinking about her past. I found it to be an elegant and nicely balanced paragraph that appealed to all of the senses and evoked a place.

Congratulations to all of the finalists!

And now...

I have tallied the votes.

The four runners-up are....

Josin L. McQuein

Congratulations! Please e-mail me about your query critique and signed THE SECRET YEAR bookmark.

And now, the author of the stupendously ultimate winning paragraph and the winner of a prize of his choosing and a galley and our undying admiration is....


Congratulations to Travis, and thanks so much to everyone who participated!

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Finalists! (as announced by Dwight Schrute)


Hey all, if you don't watch the American version of The Office then this might not make sense. Thanks to Cory Clubb for inspiring the idea.

Greetings. I am Dwight K. Schrute, Assistant Regional Manag... fine, Assistant to the Regional Manager, Dunder Mifflin Scranton.

I have been... you haven't heard of Dunder Mifflin? Ugh. Hello? It's only the third largest paper supply company in the Northeast Metro Region. Have you heard of paper? You probably don't even know the difference between a dagger and a throwing knife.

I have been asked how a human being could read over 2,500 paragraphs in a few days while also having a job.

FACT. I am not a human being. I am the Scranton Volunteer Assistant Deputy Sheriff.

Okay, fine. I'm human. But soon I will officially be a wizard in training. I recently accepted an invitation to attend wizard school, and it was left on my desk by Dumbledore's apprentice himself. All I have to do is make my own wizard costume and wand and arrive at work to be transported to Hogwart's for training. The first spell I will learn is demoting Jim to Assistant to the Assistant to the Regional Manager. The second spell I will learn will be to turn my hands into claws.

Choosing these paragraphs was difficult. Very difficult indeed. None of the paragraphs involved Battlestar Gallactica and I was forced to rely on other criteria. Such as: perfection. Or as close to perfection as a paragraph could be if it's not about the different species of bears and their genetic superiority to humans.

Writing a good paragraph is much like making a lovely beet stew. It must have the right amount of spice. It must not be overcooked or undercooked. Too much blood can overwhelm the natural umami of the beet. It must bode well for the roast rabbit entree and make you hungry for more. It must feel authentic and have a fine consistency. No one likes instant beets or other cheap tricks.

While judging this contest I made a unilateral decision to announce the individuals who made the longlist with their first paragraphs. These individuals win a free night's stay at Schrute Farms and honorable mention (in chronological order):

David Kubicek
L. T. Host
T. Anne
Chuck H.
Barbara Sissel
Miss Tammy
Jenny W.
John Askins
Bill Baynes
John UpChurch
Kate Johnston
Henriette Power
Kerri Ladish

Congratulations. I will spare you the next time Michael lets me fire someone.

The ten individuals below are the finalists. They win a weekend's stay at Schrute Farm, a year's supply of beets, and a 90 minute Swedish massage by my cousin Mose. He's practicing for his massage license.

In order to vote for the winner, please leave a vote in the comments section of this post. You will have until Sunday 6pm Pacific time to vote. Please not e-mail me your vote.

Also: No campaigning for yourself or your favorites out there on the Internet. Don't make me bring out my nun-chucks.

Because I expanded the number of finalists, I'm afraid only the top four runners up will receive the prize of query critique and signed THE SECRET YEAR bookmark (if you're in the US). The grand prize winner will receive their choice of a query/partial critique or phone conversation, and a galley of the incredible THE SECRET YEAR. When I read it I cried. Then I captured the tears and dried them to use for Schrute Farm table salt.

Anonymous comments have been closed.

The finalists (in no particular order):

Josin L. McQuein:
Time works different in purgatory. I'm absolutely certain of this. Sure, they call it Geometry and there's a man in slacks at the front of the room instead of some red guy with a pointed tail and pitchfork, but it's still torture. And after forty-one minutes of equilateral something-or-others getting mixed up with isosceles what-cha-ma-call-its , I want to strangle myself with a hypotenuse.

You imagine time flowing backward, back upstream. The apartment door swings open and the messenger from the lawyer’s office comes into your living room, loads up the boxes onto a dolly, and leaves with them. The dust falls out of the beam of light from your window and settles back on the scarred wooden floor. The boxes wait again in the corner of the lawyer’s office. In the hospital, long wiry hairs suddenly lift up from the musty pillow, reimplant themselves in your mother’s dented skull. (The abiding image, for some reason, is her hair at its healthiest: dark glossy coils of it. You had a dream recently that you came home and found it winding like a rope around dream-lengthened hallways, and you followed it with the growing sense that what it would ultimately lead to would be unfamiliar, not really your mother at all, some demonic reverse Rapunzel, and yet nevertheless propelled forward, as though someone were tugging at the other end.) Eventually she sits up, combs her long hair, more hairs returning from the brush to her head. Doctors remove the morphine drip. Her flesh puffs back into firmness. She leaves the room, sucking the sick air into herself, drives to the office to retrieve the boxes. At home, she opens one and takes a sheet of paper. Ink flows from cramped cursive on the page into her pen; words into her brain. Her thoughts curl once more inside her, unform themselves into vague image, memory, piled heavily atop each other like drifts of snow. As you back into her house at the end of your visit, she tells you she thinks it will be all right. That you can go.

K and A:
Adelaide walked swiftly along the street, past the pirate who didn’t own a ship, and the Scot who’d never been to Scotland, and the librarian whose home didn’t hold a single book. Contemplating her own strange circumstances, Adelaide realized she was absently twisting the ring on her finger. As she gazed thoughtfully at it, a bright flash of light reflected off the largest diamond. Turning to the source of the illumination, Adelaide watched warily as the light began to fade, and finally blink out, leaving in its place a New Arrival. The young woman, not distant in age from Adelaide, wore a tight body suit of unearthly hues, and clutched a sign that read, "Peace Not Plasma!" But it was the woman’s eyes that captured Adelaide's full attention, for they were bewildered, confused… and fearful. Adelaide understood; she had worn the same expression herself—the day she'd Arrived.

My name is not Mara Dyer, but my lawyer told me I had to choose something. A pseudonym. A nom de plume, for all of us studying for the SATs. I know that having a fake name is strange but trust me, it's the most normal thing about my life right now. Even telling you this much isn't good for my case. But without my big mouth, no one would know that a seventeen-year-old who likes Death Cab for Cutie was responsible for the murders. No one would know that somewhere out there is a B student with a body count. And it's important that you know, so you're not next.

Jackie Brown
The masked girl was back at the screen door. The smooth mahogany full face mask was sculpted to her face, its carved slots allowing her eyes access to witness what sat before her on the other side of the door. Like a small brown-skinned ghost, she had appeared and disappeared throughout the long day, each time pressing her hands and hidden face against the ragged screen straining for a better view, each time stinging her fingers on the sharp shards jutting out around the holes in the sorry screen. She snatched her hand back when pricked, shaking it in a finger-whipping motion, sucking the offended fingers to lessen the sting of the tiny wire splinter, all the while never taking her eyes from the small veiled figure sitting in the middle of the floor.

Her mother told her a bed was for three things: loving, sleeping, and birthing babies. She had not warned her that a bed is also for holding new babies, cold and blue, against an aching breast, moving them from the safeness of the womb to the frigid air they will never learn to breathe. She did not warn her that in her bloodied bed she would witness the worst kind of death – the death of her soul; the loss of her children. But now she knew -- for the third time.

Travis Erwin:
Coming-of-age stories are often fraught with symbolism, hidden metaphors, and a heaping mound of other literary devices. Not this one. I came of age while working at a dusty, Texas feedstore. A place where To Kill a Mockingbird involved a twelve-year-old and a BB gun. Of Mice and Men was a problem easily solved with rat poison. And David Copperfield was nothing more than a dude that made shit disappear.

Simon C. Larter:
It was one of those painfully trendy restaurants staffed by skinny hipsters in tight jeans and shirts that left nothing to the imagination, and she had brought me here because she knew there would be many opportunities to make me uncomfortable. We were seated by an effervescent pixie of a girl with long blonde hair and a bright smile who asked if we were from the area or just visiting. Margot said that we lived in the area but had heard nothing but good things about the food here and simply had to try it for ourselves. “My husband likes his food, as you can tell,” she said, and laughed. The pixie’s grin froze on her face. She wished us a good evening then pressed through the crowd of bodies at the bar and headed back to her station by the front door. I didn’t watch her go. Margot was looking at me with a smile on her lips that could have chilled every martini for a three-block radius. Her eyes were bright and very hard, and it had been three days since she found out about my addiction.

Lisa Marie:
Philip had cleaned and put away the wine glass that had her mauve lipstick print. He collected the half used make up jars that littered the bathroom counter and recycled the glass and plastic containers. He donated her clothing to Goodwill and dispersed her jewelry evenly between their two daughters. He even gave her African violets, in their cheery hand painted terracotta pots, to their neighbors. Yes, Phillip had removed nearly all the remnants of his deceased wife from their home. He hoped that the great cleaning, as he referred to it, would ease his depression and overall feelings of despair and hopelessness. Yet there still remained the grocery list on the refrigerator. Her loopy cursive letters in black ink floated on the page like a secret poem he could not decipher. The list had items that Phillip did not recognize. What on earth was she going to make? He needed, more than anything, to find out.

Maya / מיה:
The pomegranate seeds burst between my teeth, releasing tart-sweet juice. The wind licked my eyelids, and the orchard rustled and creaked. I relaxed into the fork of the tree. In that moment, nothing mattered-- not marriage, not exile, not my mother's pursed lips. Persia became smaller than the nub of bark digging into the back of my leg.

Congratulations to the finalists. Almost as impressive as achieving a purple belt in Goju-Ryu karate.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to set off some fireworks.

More about the picks and thoughts on first paragraphs on Monday!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Stupendously Ultimate Word Cloud

While you're waiting for me to finish reading the entries and decide on the finalists, I thought you might enjoy this word cloud of all the entries. I pasted all 2,651 comments/entries (which translated to about 247,000 words) into the word cloud generator on

Here's the result:

The prominence of "like" is a reflection of how many similes there were in the first paragraphs.

I'll be back tomorrow with the finalists!

This Week in Publishing 10/15/09

This week! Publishing! Thursday!

Here's the schedule:

- The contest is open until today at 4pm Pacific, at which time I will close it to entries faster than you can say "thank goodness no more please thank you mercy."
- Tomorrow I will announce the paragraphs I have chosen as the Stupendously Ultimate Finalists, most likely in the form of a character in a television show, so as to keep with tradition. Prepare yourself.
- Voting will commence in that thread and will be open until Sunday at 6pm Pacific.
- The winner will be announced on Monday, and I'll also discuss my thoughts/reasons/observations/errata/postulations for all things first paragraph.

Before we get to the abbreviated week in publishing, a little plea:

I have now conducted enough blog contests to know the life cycle of every contest. At the beginning of the contest: everyone is excited excited excited! Then the finalists are announced, and a vocal minority goes from: excited excited excited! to mad mad mad! Throwing things! Shattered glass! Riots in the streets! I don't like any of the finalists Nathan is an idiot ZOMG he didn't choose the Charles Dickens paragraph I slipped in there to test him I think I'll go eat mud!

So here's my plea: please remember when the finalists are announced that this is just a contest on a blog, it's not a referendum on your skills as a writer, it's not the difference between getting published and not getting published, and with 2,300+ entrants, choosing only a couple out of such a huge number is a laughably difficult task. Let's not overestimate the importance of a paragraph in the grand scheme of things. Just because previous finalists have a good track record (he brags) doesn't mean that you also won't go on to be wildly successful. Remain confident in your abilities! If you're confident in your own work there's no need to hate on the finalists. Yes? Okay then.

I trust everyone to conduct themselves with professional decorum. But I'll be closing anonymous comments when the finalists are announced all the same.

This week in publishing!

Former Collins president Steve Ross penned the rarest of rare species: an article about how book publishers aren't actually idiots/Luddites (via Pub Rants). He points out that publishers have every reason to want e-books to succeed, even if too-cheap e-books presents quite a daunting challenge for business models.

Everyone in the world pointed me to this New Yorker Shouts & Murmurs piece about a publisher's fictional marketing plan. If so many people loved it it must be funny!

Galley Cat is breaking out its inner muckraker and is investigating an industry scourge: why isn't your agent returning your phone calls? Not this one, mind you. I call people back right quick.

Christian publisher Thomas Nelson made big waves this week as they announced a self-publishing program that has many people wondering if it's the future or simply a head-scratcher. The program is appropriating the name Westbow Press, which up until recently was an actual Thomas Nelson imprint. Thomas Nelson CEO/blogger Michael Hyatt writes that they see growth potential in self-publishing and will be looking for new voices. Rachelle Gardner, Maya Reynolds, Mike Shatzkin, and Victoria Strauss/Writer Beware all have must-read takes on the new venture and the many questions that have so far been left unanswered. Their responses range from cautious excitement to skepticism.

In e-book news, Gizmodo got their hands on some possible images of the Barnes & Noble e-reader, which combines e-ink with an iPhone like display for navigation. Well played, B&N. I wants one.

In other e-book news, JA Konrath peels back the mystery of publishing yet again with another blog post about his royalty statements. Turns out he's earning more from cheaply priced Kindle books that he self-published than from the ones that are published by Hyperion and have a higher price. THE FUTURE???????????

National Book Award nominees were announced! Congrats to publishing powerhouse Wayne State University Press for scoring a nominee. Take that, NYC!

John Ochwat passed on this really cool article in the NY Times about a woman who read a book a day for a year. That's pretty intense.

And finally, Esquire Magazine is always there with the pressing questions: are vampires so popular because women love gay men? (via Bookslut, naturally)

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What Makes a Good 1st Paragraph?

Now that we have a.... healthy sample size of first paragraphs (1,758 at the moment), it's possible to get a good glimpse inside an agent's inbox and to simulate the experience of reading lots and lots of different story ideas in one sitting.

So. What do you think makes for a good first paragraph? What types of openings draw you in and which kinds leave you cold? Have you spotted any favorites? What was it about them that piqued your interest?

I shall be withholding my thoughts as the contest is still ongoing, but I'd be curious to know what you think.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

3rd S-o-A SUFPC Update #1

Yeah, so, wow.

We've already blown well past 1,000 entries, and... I am unfazed! Bring it! Bravado!

Please do continue to spread the word about the contest, because after all: the only thing more fun than winning a contest is winning a contest that has very strong competition. And then bragging about it.

A few updates and requests from your contest organizer:

- E-mail subscribers: you must must must must must enter in the official contest thread. Please do not e-mail me your entries! If you need help leaving a comment, please consult this post.

- Please please check and double-check your paragraph before posting. If you spot an error after posting: please do not re-post. I go through the entries sequentially and the repeated deja vu repeated deja vu from reading the same entry only slightly different makes my head spin. But fortunately:

- I'm not worrying about typos. A certain winning entry had a typo last year and that turned out just fine.

- Several people have noted that quite a few of the entries are not actually paragraphs and are instead strings of dialogue, poetry, multiple paragraphs, and other non-paragraph concoctions. All I can say is: welcome to my world.

- I'm on Twitter! You can find me at @nathanbransford. I will be posting assorted updates as I'm reading the entries. Also probably complaining about the crazy rain we're having in SF. Because that's what Twitter is for.

Thanks again to everyone who entered! I can't wait to read the paragraphs. And read and read and read and read......

Monday, October 12, 2009

The 3rd Sort-of-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge

Fun fact: The person who thought of the last contest we had (Be an Agent for a Day), is now a client of mine: hello Jim Duncan! Also, the person who won the contest before that (The 2nd Semi-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge), is also now a client: hello Natalie Whipple!

We've also had three finalists, Stuart Neville, Terry DeHart, and Victoria Schwab go on to be published/soon-to-be-published authors respectively.

In other words: NO PRESSURE.

(Bonus fun fact: I didn't actually call the inaugural first paragraph challenge "stupendously ultimate," it was actually "largely indispensable," which throws into doubt whether this could properly be called the "third sort-of-annual." We'll just agree to forget that part, hmm?)

Now then!

It is time. Time to test your paragraph against... other first paragraphs. Time to see if your sentences can wage successful word combat in order to defeat other sentences and emerge victorious on a field of battle.

Oh, and there are prizes. Let's start there.


1) Their choice of a partial critique, query critique, or phone consultation

2) A very-sought-after galley of THE SECRET YEAR by Jennifer Hubbard, which will be published by Viking in January:

3) A signed THE SECRET YEAR bookmark

4) The envy of their rivals

5) The pride of a job well done

6) I think you get the picture


a) Query critiques

b) A signed THE SECRET YEAR bookmark (assuming you live in a place that is reached in a reasonably affordable fashion by the postal service no offense forraners)

c) Pride. Lots of pride.

On to the rules!!

I) This is a for-fun contest that I conduct in the free time. Rules may be adjusted without notice, as I see fit, in ways in which you might find capricious, arbitrary, and in a possibly not fully comprehensible fashion. Complainants will be sent to the Magister, and trust me, you don't want to get sent to the Magister (who's been watching True Blood? This guy)

II) Ya hear? Angst = prohibited.

III) Please post the first paragraph of any work-in-progress in the comments section of THIS POST. Do not e-mail me your submission. 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 stupendously ultimate winner.

IV) You may enter once, once you may enter, and enter once you may.

V) Spreading word about the contest is strongly encouraged.

VI) I will be sole judge. Unless I chicken out.

VII) I am not imposing a word count on the paragraphs. However, a paragraph that is overly long may lose points in the judge's eyes. Use your own discretion.

VIII) Please remember that the paragraph needs to be a paragraph, not multiple paragraphs masquerading as one paragraph.

That is all.

And now I shall retreat to my stupendously ultimate bunker.

UPDATE: CONTEST IS CLOSED!! Thank you so much to everyone who entered.

Friday, October 9, 2009

This Week in Publishing 10/9/09

The publishing this week.

More big news from Amazon this week as the Kindle is going global. Except, sadly, to Canada. The Kindle's lack of presence in Canada presents me with a severe challenge, as I don't know whether to make a joke about "aboat," hockey, Quebecois separatists, eh?, or Celine Dion. Oh Canada, must you have so many objects of hilarity?

In his ongoing effort to give you all of the information you need to know about everything that is important, Eric at Pimp My Novel has a great post on all you need to know about comp titles. Also co-op.

The FTC made headlines for the first time in.... basically ever, as they announced a crackdown on the great scourge sweeping the nation: blogs blogging about stuff they got for free. This has opened up a can of worms so big it could swallow Idaho, and Ron Hogan in particular has written a great series of posts about what it means and what the ruling leaves unanswered. Since this doesn't affect journalists and talking heads on TV, who will still be free to say whatever they want no matter who is giving them free stuff, one has to wonder why the FTC decided to single out bloggers.

Also, in the wake of the ruling, Mark Cuban wants to know if he can still blog about omelets.

@PublishersLunch passed along news that Egmont UK will soon be publishing e-books for the Nintendo DS. Very very cool!

The blockbuster that is the Google Book Deal has announced a new target date of November 9th.

Meanwhile, this week's End of Publishing As We Know It article is brought to you by the New York Times, which reports that very-good-but-not-extraordinary sales of some recent big books have the industry wringing hands. Agent Miriam Goderich is not impressed.

Meanwhile, The Rejectionist has a guest blogger with some words on the industry that have most definitely not been minced. Said poster worries about what e-books will do to the business, does not care too much for a certain fake memoirist, and perhaps most importantly, wonders why the industry is busy overpaying a handful of authors instead of building a sustainable business.

And finally, in important agent advice news, Kristin Nelson reminds us that even when they end up looking really smart, agents are not seers.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

On the Pointlessness of Questioning Whether "X" Classic Book Would Be Published By Today's Publishing Industry

You know how whenever someone gets disgruntled with the publishing industry they invariably name a classic book and say, "Well, [insert James Joyce, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, other dead white male/Jane Austen here] would NEVER have found a publisher today." And this is supposed to remind us about the fickleness of today's crass publishing business, the shortsightedness of its employees, and the general debasement of literature? As opposed to "back in the day" when they appreciated Literary Genius and Weighty Books and all the rest?

What I want to know is: how come no one does the reverse? Here's a fun exercise: let's instead think about all of the books published today that would never have found a publisher in a previous era. You think they would have published Toni Morrison in the era of Herman Melville? (nope!) What about Jonathan Franzen in the era of Jane Austen? (nope!) Or an openly gay author like David Sedaris in any closeted era? (nope!)

Why would previous publishers not have recognized the genius of these authors?

They would have been a) worried about the bottom line and b) busy publishing books that were reflective of their own times.

You know. Like today.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Does Creativity Trump All?

Kia Abdullah suggested this topic a few weeks back.

In her words: "Should writers know their dangling modifiers from their past participles or does creativity trump all?"

In my words: how important is creativity over craft?

And if your answer is "they're both important," what's the mix? Could someone carry a story through sheer storytelling creative genius alone or do they need some adherence to novel-writing conventions?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Making Taste Overly Personal

In the annals of Great Ways to Annoy Literary Agents (TM), saying you wrote your book because you couldn't find any good books to read (or, its crass corollary: because so many books are "trash") may not be in the top 10, but it is at least in the top 5,000. (The list is infinite, by the way - this blog may be here a while).

Let's examine why calling most or all or even some books "trash" is akin to slowly inserting a sliver under your prospective agent's fingernail while hitting them over the head with a wet fish:

1) The agent is currently working their gluteus maximuses to the maximus to sell books that are actually really great, and is probably having a hard time with some of them because this business is too tight to sell all of the really good books agents come across, let alone anything that could remotely be considered "trash."

2) The agent has represented any number of incredible, awesome books that are just sitting on bookshelves waiting to be discovered by people who are overly quick to dismiss everything or lots of things as "trash" and not quick enough to go looking for said gems when in fact there are way too many good books published in a single year for anyone to read in an entire lifetime.

But let's be honest, hmm? Avoiding the list of Great Ways to Annoy Literary Agents is not the real reason aspiring writers should hesitate before bashing swaths of literature as "trash."

Here's why: when a writer calls a book "trash" they have closed themselves off from learning anything from that book.

Taste is extremely personal. Amateur cultural anthropologist Nathan's theory (that's DOCTOR Amateur Cultural Anthropologist to you) is this: we are hard-wired to want to be a part of the "In" group. We want people to like us, and we want people to like the things that we like. When something that we can't stand becomes very very popular some sort of survival instinct kicks in, and we want to tear that popular thing to shreds so that we are not left out of the group. And we will even turn ourselves into Crazy Raving Lunatics in order to make this happen.

Horrible Amazon reviews, irrational hatred of Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, slandering of books as "trash": one part jealousy, five thousand parts making taste overly personal.

People very quickly forget that every book they consider "trash" is someone else's most favorite book ever. And what happens when writers of all people do this is they turn the book they hate into the "other." The book (and the author who wrote it) becomes the enemy. And then they learn nothing from it.

Every popular book is popular for a reason. Sure, chance is a big reason, but if thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people like a book and are talking about it and passing it along to their friends: the author has done something right.

It may not be a great work of literature, it may not be something that you personally would want to read, it may have some typos, it may drive you to the brink of insanity. But the author has done something well if they are published and their books are selling. If you have hopes of reaching a big audience someday you would do well to absorb and learn from what that "something" is.

In other words: sure, go ahead and irrationally hate something. It's in your DNA! (Note: probably not true) But try and resist the "trash" syndrome, especially if you're a writer. Not only have you probably stopped learning, but don't forget: someone else thinks your books are trash too, and they're no more right than you are.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Should You Pay Someone to Edit Your Work?

Only if you need to.

I really think it's a good idea for authors get some sort of editorial feedback on their manuscript and/or query letter from someone they trust before trying to find an agent. That could be a significant other, a critique partner, a friend, a mortal enemy... someone. The advice should be positive, useful, strike you with the occasional, "Why didn't I see that?!" moment, and, perhaps most importantly, should be consistent with your vision for the project. In other words, the critiquer shouldn't simply be telling you how they would have written it.

On the other hand, if you don't have someone you can show your work to and you need feedback or if you would like some input from someone who has worked in the business: by all means, consider a freelance editor. There are some wildly talented editors out there who can really help authors with their manuscripts for a fee.

However, before you mortgage the farm to pay a freelance editor, keep the following in mind:

1) Don't spend any amount of money you can't afford to lose. If it feels like too much money it is definitely too much money. Feedback is helpful, but not at the expense of funds that could be better used elsewhere. If you can spare it and it won't hurt a whit, go for it. Otherwise: there are plenty of free ways to get good feedback.

2) Check the editor's credentials. Find out what their experience is, who they've worked with in the past, and whether the amount they are charging is commensurate with their experience. Do your research and only work with an editor with whom you are completely comfortable.

3) Bear in mind that the mere fact that you've worked with an editor is not going to boost your chances with an agent (or at least, not with me). A few agents I have been on panels with feel that it is a benefit if an author has worked with an editor. Me? Not so much. I assume an author received feedback and edited accordingly to make it better. I don't think you get a bonus because you paid for it.

4) Agents don't care about typos. Copyediting is not really very necessary prior to submitting to agents. Barring a learning disability, your own grammar and spell-check-assisted spelling skills should be sufficient to ensure that your manuscript has only the occasional typo, which an agent will not worry about.

5) Do not let an editor submit to agents on your behalf. I occasionally get submissions directly from paid editors who submit for their clients. This is a really, really bad idea. I want to hear directly from the author I'm potentially going to be working with. If you're going to engage an editor, do so only for manuscript feedback. You should be handling the rest on your own.

6) Know what you're paying for. Make sure you have a very clear understanding of what you're paying for and what you're getting up front. Make sure you and the editor have a clear understanding about what you hope to get out of the edit. And make sure you're communicating well.

7) Watch out for scams. There are quite a few unscrupulous fake agents and fake editors out there. Google the person you're thinking of working with, and, again, check their credentials. Beware of anyone overpromsing what they can really deliver.

8) There's no magic bullet. Keep your expectations in check. The editor is helping you with your manuscript: it's up to you to make the changes, and their help is no guarantee that your project will find representation or publication. The goal is to help you improve your manuscript, but the rest is ultimately up to you.

Basically: Do your research, keep your eyes open, but don't be overly paranoid either. There are freelance editors out there who provide a valuable service, and assuming you find the right match their feedback can be a real help as you keep on plugging away toward representation.

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