Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Along with vampires in my Inbox, I've also noticed an explosion of prologues in partials. I also get quite a lot of questions about whether prologues are necessary, whether agents frown or smile at them, whether they should be included in partial requests. So consider this a post on all things prologue.

What is a prologue? Typically it is 3-5 pages of introductory material that is written while the author is procrastinating from writing a more difficult section of the book.

Ah, I'm kidding.

The most common question I get about prologues: are prologues necessary? Personally I think the easiest litmus test is to take out the prologue and see if your book still makes sense.

If you can take out a prologue and the entire plot still makes perfect sense, chances are the prologue was written to "set the mood". But here's the thing about mood-setting: most of the time you can set the mood when the actual story begins. Do you really need to set the mood with a separate prologue? Really? Really really?

Sometimes the answer to those four reallys is: "yes, really." Or the prologue is to be used as a framing device around the plot or to introduce a crucial scene in the backstory that will impact the main plot. So okay, prologue time.

What makes a good one?

Short, self-contained, comprehensible.

The reader knows full well while reading a prologue that the real story is waiting. A prologue makes a reader start a book twice, because it doesn't always involve the protagonist, and starting a book is hard because it takes mental energy to immerse oneself in a world. You're asking more of a reader, so they'll want to make sure it's worth it.

As for the more nuts and bolts concern of whether it should be included in partials sent to agents: yes. It should.

I want to see the first 30 pages as you want me to send them to the editor. If that involves a prologue... let's see it.

Do you like when authors use prologues? What makes good ones work?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Can I Get a Ruling: Are Vampires Finished?

We have seen quite the string of vampire novels in publishing the last few years. From Anne Rice to THE HISTORIAN to TWILIGHT, every time I have heard someone in the publishing business say the whole vampire thing had run its course... along came another successful vampire book to prove that it had not.

America apparently loves vampires! And I'm still getting more vampire novels in my Inbox than perhaps any other genre/trope.

What do you think? Is the public still ready for fresh takes on vampirism? Or is it time to break out the garlic?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Blog Tournament Challenge Update #2

With Michigan State's win, Jody-Feldman is now 18TH out of 5,000,000 in the ESPN overall Tournament Challenge.


UPDATE: With North Carolina's win, Jody is now #12 in the nation. If UConn beats Villanova in the final, as she predicts, SHE WILL WIN THE WHOLE THING AND $10,000.

Also a query critique or book.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Blog Tournament Challenge Update

What a fantastic finish to the Pitt/Villanova game.

And a special "wow wow wow" goes out to Jody-Feldman, who is not only atop the Blog Tournament Challenge, but is 66TH IN THE ENTIRE ESPN TOURNAMENT CHALLENGE.

66TH. Out of 5,000,000+ entrants.


Wow wow wow.

Friday, March 27, 2009

This Week in Publishing 3/27/09

Another busy week in publishing, so let's get started.

First off, my wonderful client Jennifer Hubbard and some of her blogging friends are hosting a fundraiser for local libraries! All you have to do is click over to her blog and leave a comment on her blog or one of the other participants, and they'll donate an extra 25 cents.

Also on Jennifer Hubbard's blog recently was some of the best first draft advice you'll ever receive.

And our good friend Conduit/Stuart Neville, author of the forthcoming novel THE TWELVE (UK)/GHOSTS OF BELFAST (US) (can we start calling Conduit/Stuart "Slash" for short?) posted about a common sentiment about embarking upon the all-important second novel. Angst and nervousness sometimes (often) involved.

In the category of "holy crap, why didn't anyone tell me this blog existed???", I came across Picador creative director Henry Sene Yee's blog, which is mainly devoted to talking about how book designers create their jackets, their inspiration and source material, and some of the drafts and false starts along the way. IT. IS. FASCINATING. The most recent post is about the cover for COLUMBINE by Dave Cullen. (hat tip Book Design Review)

Moonrat took a look at a Richard Curtis article from 1986 about the way the conglomeration of the publishing industry has resulted in editorial turnover that leads to less author and book commitment, which is still, shall we say, still relevant. Curtis also created just a partial list of the publishing mergers and acquisitions of the past 20 years, which is eye-popping.

Good news for the indispensable site Writer Beware, a judge dismissed a lawsuit by a supposed literary agent against the site, with prejudice. I've always wanted to type that. I just took out the trash WITH PREJUDICE. It has a ring to it. Anyway, as you may recall a literary agent sued the site's organizers claiming libel, but the judge was having none of that.

The Bookseller recently reported on a reader study (market research?? publishing??) in the UK that concluded that 20m (which I think means 20 million, although it could mean 20 males) readers are currently being left behind by a publishing industry that they think conveys a certain type of society and lifestyle. They also regard reading as an "anti-social activity". Well, YEAH. And thank goodness, too.

Also in "those wacky Brits" news, the annual award for the Oddest Book Title was announced. This year's winner: THE 2009-2014 WORLD OUTLOOK FOR 60-MILLIGRAM CONTAINERS OF FROMAGE FRAIS. Sorry, BABOON METAPHYSICS. Not weird enough for first place.

In agent advice news, you may have noticed a recent article in The Beast about how some big short story collections are defying industry conventional wisdom that says collections don't sell. So agents are probably all over them now, right? Miriam at Dystel & Goderich says not so fast.

Meanwhile, after all this talk about the death of publishing, do you still want to work in the publishing business? Jessica Faust has some advice: pack your bags for Manhattan. Oh. And you might want to brush up on your drink mixology skills for your night job (yes, you may need one).

And in another crucial question answered, Jessica Faust tackles what an author can really do to help sell their books. A must-read.

And finally, take a beloved picture book classic, add Dave Eggars and Spike Jonez, mix in a dash of the Arcade Fire (Mom, that's a popular band among people my age), and what you have is pure hipster crack. I can tell you from personal experience that Gen Xers and Yers across the nation are currently losing their minds over the trailer for WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE:

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Andrew Sullivan and the "Death" of Publishing

Journalist Andrew Sullivan has one of the biggest and best blogs out there on the Internet, and I am constantly amazed by his ability to write so eloquently and instantaneously about the issues of the day. He's a pioneer of the form, one of our brightest intellectuals, and someone I admire a great deal.

And the other day, he wrote, "If any industry deserves to go under, it's the publishing industry."

Huh. And here I thought the whole "fake hedge funds that are actually a Ponzi scheme" industry was first in line.

The quote in question that spurred Sullivan's salvo was from Kassia Krozser's rundown of the SXSW "future of publishing panel," and she came away unimpressed by the responses from the publishing professionals. But even Krozser, although she is frustrated with the way DRM is often currently employed (UPDATE: see comments section for more), acknowledges in the article that there are publishers trying new things. And while she certainly often posts of frustration with the industry's glacial adoption of new technology, I wouldn't characterize her as overly pessimistic about the business. She just wasn't impressed with the particular panel.

Sullivan subsequently allowed a dissent from someone in the business who thinks we aren't so horrible after all, then published a rejoinder from someone who is in publishing and thinks that even if we don't deserve to die per se, we are at the very least in the process of committing suicide.

I bring all of this up because it's merely a high-profile example of an extremely common sentiment: glee at the supposed impending demise of the publishing business. Some people can hardly wait to stomp on our graves.

People have some resentments toward the industry for a variety of reasons. Maybe, like Andrew Sullivan, they had a publishing experience they found unsatisfactory.

But Schadenfreude, while perhaps fun, isn't particularly constructive. Couldn't we at least have a dialogue about what needs changing and some good suggestions for ways of changing it?

There are definitely problems with the business. Bookstores are struggling, imprints are closing, bottom lines aren't looking great, and I'm particularly concerned that the industry is thinking far too short term with the current retrenching around established authors and celebrities at the expense of growing authors over the long term and investing in new voices.

But the industry is not stupid. Like any massive industry that is comprised of tens of thousands of individuals, it is a human institution with some institutional problems and weaknesses. But despite a reading public whose appetite for books is not growing at a particularly fast rate, despite tremendous competition from other media, we're still here, and we're doing way better than a lot of industries, including ones comprised of supposed geniuses and masters of the universe.

We're currently undergoing a massive transformation to keep up with the times. There are people all over the industry trying new models, whether it's Vanguard's no-advance model, HarperStudio's limited-advance model, Jon Karp's book a month model, or, you know, blogging and Twittering publishers and agents. Books will always be around, and so will the industry.

Sullivan is considering self-publishing a book based on his popular View From Your Window series of posts. I think it's a terrific, terrific idea. He has the the time, the marketing platform, and the resources to do this and make it a success. He probably doesn't need a traditional publisher.

Now it's just a matter of getting the book to readers. Maybe he's content to sell strictly through his blog, but his sales would be limited. To go through online vendors he'll have to deal with online booksellers, yes, part of the publishing industry. To get into bookstores he'd need a distribution deal, which would be best handled by an agent with experience handling those types of deals -- my e-mail address is on the right side of the page, Andrew.

We can only hope the publishing industry doesn't die before Sullivan's book is published.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How Do You Deal With Writer's Block?

Writer's block is a clever foe. It sneaks up on writers and gets in their heads. It creates a wall that feels like it can't be climbed over nor smashed through.

Do you get writer's block? How do you deal with it? What's the best strategy for beating it?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Knowing What Your Words Mean

One of the easiest and fastest ways to tell whether or not I'm interested in reading an author's manuscript is to simply look at the first paragraph and see whether I've been insulted.

Now, I do get my share of intentionally insulting e-mails, which is fine and goes with the territory. But that's not what this post is about.

I receive a surprisingly diverse array of backhanded compliments, unintended insults, and unintentionally aggressive "praise" from authors who stuck their thumb in the Thesaurus and pulled out a recrimination.

If you're going to be a writer it's imperative you know what words mean. And not just what they mean, but what they connote.

This is one reason why queries are such a window into the soul of a book. An author who calls me "savage" or who praises my "abrupt" blogs (those are made up, btw, but very close to real life examples) probably doesn't make the best word choices in their novel. It's a serious stretch to think that they can mess up a word choice in the first paragraph of a query and still have the ability to write a publishable novel.

And let's start with what you're reading. It's a blog, or, if you want to get fancy, a weblog. It's not a Blogger or a bloglines or a bloge or a blogjournal, all of which I see on a regular basis. You gotta know this stuff. You're supposed to be a word person! You have to know what jargon the kids are using!

Now, I'm not saying that someone who struggles with grammar or word choice or who struggles with a learning disability can't write a good book. Storytelling is storytelling, and it's a gift possessed by many different types of people.

But if you are someone who struggles with word choice and grammar you must must must 1) know who you are and 2) have someone check and double check your query and manuscript for word choice issuances.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Authonomy (possibly hilariously) Hijacked

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - According to numerous sources around the Internet and my Inbox, the popular site Authonomy has been attacked by what appears to be a flash mob led by someone codenamed Klazart, which is overwhelming Authonomy servers and distressing numerous Authonomy followers.

According to reader John Minichillo, Klzart is the author of the book LESSER SINS. The novel quickly rose to the top Authonomy's rankings in only a few days, backed by the author's legion of fans, who were spurred to log in and vote for it via a YouTube video.

Authonomy employs a user-generated method of ranking titles, and theoretically the ones who generate the most esteem from other members of the ardently passionate community rise to the top, where they are supposedly reviewed by Harper UK editors.

Blog commenter Trashy Cowgirl sums up thusly: "A group of gamers following a guy who calls himself Klazart, flashmobbed the site. He is backed by 880 people, and on 233 watchlists. He is now ranked ninth. Not bad considering he only posted his ms on the 19th. Of course the flood managed to jam the site and create an enormous uproar."

Such a big uproar, apparently, that as of this writing I can't even open the Authonomy website.

According to Minichillo, Klazart is popular in the Internet gaming community for "narrating videos of Starcraft tournaments and popular players."

Further research conducted by your intrepid reporter shows that Startcraft is apparently a video game. Who knew!

Klazart's actions apparently caused Authonomy's zealous nongaming followers to go completely bananas in the forums.

Is this the future of user-generated aggregators or will this be a hiccup along the way? Should we begrudge Mr. Klazart his Starcraft-backed following?

Stay tuned.

UPDATE: "Klazart" weighed in in the comments section. His real name is Vineet and he's a nice guy. It wasn't a flash mob per se, and Authonomy's shutdown doesn't seem to be (or at least shouldn't be) related to his followers joining the site. Authonomy posted a statement clarifying matters and confirming that Klazart/Vineet didn't break any rules.

Friday, March 20, 2009

This Week in Publishing 3/20/09

Lots and lots of links this week, so let's get this started, shall we?

First off, I'm as surprised as you are that my bracket wasn't completely busted by 3 PM yesterday, which probably means that I'll be dead in the water by the end of the day. There's currently a nine-way tie atop the Blog Challenge -- we'll see how things shake out by Sunday!

In other literary sports news, ESPN columnist JA Adande wrote a terrific article about the relevancy of Malcolm Gladwell's book OUTLIERS to sports, and in particular he talked to the extremely intelligent Celtic star Ray Allen about his thoughts on the book. Allen reflected on the unique advantages that put him on his path to NBA stardom.

Given how many dreams we have to dash in a given day, and, yes, how many bad literary agent apples there are in the publishing orchard, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that literary agents have aroused so much antipathy out there on the Internet lately and lots of finger-crossing about our supposed impending demise. The Self Publishing Review took issue with my statement in my interview with Alan Rinzler that we're always on the side of authors because Henry feels that we first have our eye on the market.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin is Maya Reynolds, who went on a rant of her own about against anti-agent rants.

Victoria Strauss also pushed back against some of the agent-related Internet negativity and checked in with the ultimate, hilarious queryfail: querying someone who isn't even an agent.

Also, I love Seth Godin, who has an article about how important it is for literary agents to specialize and stand for something in order to add value (and I agree), but he begins with a foreboding comparison to how travel agents have disappeared, which only made me think of the rejection letters: "I'm really sorry, but Hawaii said they won't let you in. Sigh. It's just such a tough travel market and they say they can't take on yet another person from Indiana. I'll try Fiji next."

Lastly in agent news, Curtis Brown client Gretchen McNeil recently posted an awesome interview with ICM children's book agent Tina Wexler, a fellow faculty alum of the Atlanta Writers Conference and an excellent agent.

At SXSW this week, Penguin UK won awards for Best in Show and an experimental prize for their website We Tell Stories, devoted to experimental stories told through web tools, including a story told through Google Maps. Very cool.

Also on the web, reader Teresa Miller pointed me to WriteTV, which is a web compilation of interviews with authors such as Sue Monk Kidd, Amy Tan, and more.

Reader Mary Ulrich pointed me to a seriously terrific article by Kevin Kelly about the uneven adoption of new technology, and how different groups sometimes have irrational reasons for refusing to adopt superior technology even when it would be to their direct benefit. Hmmm.... A group with an illogical attachment to outdated technology..... grasping for a book-related example....

Speaking of new technology, Sony and Google got their deal on and you will soon be able to read 500,000 public domain books on the Sony Reader. For free. Wow. Your move, Kindle. (And yes, publishers weep for their backlists).

The David Foster Wallace tributes are making their way through the magazineosphere, and you probably can't do better than D.T. Max's profile in the New Yorker. And in the chiding-but-we-still-love-ya category is James Tanner's diagram of how to create a Foster Wallaceian sentence.

Still with me? Lots more to go.

Also in New Yorker profile news is blog favorite Ian McEwan. Daniel Zalewski's profile of McEwan is, shall we say, comprehensive. In fact I'm pretty sure it's longer than ON CHESIL BEACH. And ATONEMENT. Combined.

In presidential book news, via Publishers Lunch (subscription) comes word that former President Bush got himself a book deal, to be published by Crown, about making decisions. Commence sniggering or reverential expectation depending on one's political persuasion.

And also via Pub Lunch (subscription) comes word that current President Obama has contracted with Random House for more books post-presidency, and his book earnings now total...... close to $9 million. Commence "Holy crap that's a lot of dough" no matter one's political persuasion.

Amid a really big year for Hachette, one bookseller is none too pleased that they have cut back on the co-op programs, including their Emerging Voices program. Check out the post in case you're curious about what those co-op programs constitute, and yes, another example of publishers coalescing around established authors at the expense (potentially) of new voices.

Almost finally, Happy 40th Birthday to THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR, which Google is honoring today with a cool homage with a caterpillar logo.

And finally finally, you know how I like to end with puppies, and this week I get to end with a bestselling author's puppy. I give you... Jeff Abbott's insanely cute corgi. (UPDATE: oops, it's a cardigan. Not just a sweater anymore.)

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

On Conflict

When I said I was going to blog about conflict on Tuesday, I'm sure at least some people assumed that I was going to say that you need conflict everywhere in a book: on every page, from start to finish, in every scene, passage of dialogue, etc. etc. etc.

I don't actually believe this! Sometimes a character needs to just stare at the water and contemplate the meaning of life and other great imponderables, like stock derivatives. Novels have quiet moments where there's not a hint of conflict that are serene and beautifully written and I wouldn't ever urge a writer to rip those out to introduce a gun battle.

But conflict is essential. I think of conflict sort of like a book's oxygen:

1. Your book needs it to survive. It doesn't need it constantly, but a book without conflict is pretty much DOA. It's not even really a book without conflict. It's just paper with words printed on it.

2. If any stretch your book goes too long without it it will also die (or rather, your reader will die of boredom).

3. You can use a lot of conflict to create a bright flame of a book that is relentless and charged, or you can create a slow burn that is more muted. You can also vary the degree of the conflict to do the same thing.

On this last point, some might also say that thrillers and other genre novels tend to put a lot of intense conflict on the page and the conflict comes fast and intense, whereas literary fiction tends to have less conflict. As a general rule this may be so, but it's not always the case. When you look at Ian McEwan's books, for instance, ENDURING LOVE in particular is a book where every word, exchange, moment... everything on the page is intensely filled with conflict. The characters are constantly in conflict with each other and with themselves, and it's an extremely intense reading experience as a result.

Now, there are two types of conflict in novel. There's conflict that happens above the surface, demonstrated through the actual actions and thoughts of the characters, and then there's conflict beneath the surface, which is more implied and unsaid. By way of example, there's the gun battle that happens above the surface, but there's also the character who is, say, freethinking in a 1984-type world. Even when he's not explicitly thinking about the world he lives in he's in implied conflict with the rest of that world.

So. Does your novel have enough conflict?

I personally feel that unless you are intentionally and specifically choosing to have a quiet moment you should always look for ways to introduce some degree of conflict. A character at peace with their surroundings and the characters they're interacting with is, well, completely boring.

A lot of times in novels it becomes necessary for things to happen that connect Plot Point A to Plot Point B, or to otherwise provide background information or motivation. Sometimes Character A just has to have a conversation with Character B where a certain thing happens so the rest of the book makes sense.

Too often though, writers focus on connecting the dots in a way that gives the reader the information they need to know without trying to tie the threads in a fully-realized scene that's interesting and engaging. Almost always it's best to try and introduce conflict to a scene in order to make it interesting and advance other aspects of the plot.

Ultimately, conflict is the reason we read novels. It forces characters to make decisions, it tests their strengths and weaknesses, it reveals what makes people tick. Conflict, ultimately is revealing.

A man serenely walking down the street is not a story. It only becomes a story when he is captured by space monkeys who try to force him to root for Duke. Now that's conflict.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What Do Authors Owe Their Readers?

Josephine Damian passed along a pretty interesting article from The Globe and Mail about the rise of author websites and specifically fantasy author George R.R. Martin's. You see, fans are waiting on the next installment of Martin's series, which has been a bit delayed, and some are rather impatient, to the point that they are begrudging him his vacations and trips to football games (which he blogs about).

The article then goes on to assess the impact of legions of fans/detractors as they interact with authors through websites and reviews. Clearly the era of sending a book into the ether is over. Everything is public, and authors especially.

But this got me thinking. Is there an implied contract between an author and their readers? Does an author owe their readers, whether that's a timely delivered manuscript or a certain quality threshold?

And yes, would that we all be authors who are getting assailed because readers can't bear to wait another day to read our books.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What Do Your Characters Want?

Motivation. It's the powerful emotion that inspires people to get off the couch and grab a tub of ice cream. It's the only thing that is strong enough to pull me out of a very warm bed when it's still dark and cold outside. And it's what inspires Mario to save the princess, despite all sorts of finely rendered cartoon characters standing in his way.

How does this relate to books? Every good book begins with a protagonist who wants something.

I know that this kind of seems obvious (and it probably is), but there's a reason you don't generally see books about characters cast about by the whims of fate without any sense of purpose or desire whatsoever. Even Odysseus, essentially a powerless character blown about by the gods, has a rock solid motivation: he wants to get home.

Now, your character doesn't have to know what he/she wants on page one, but it should be conclusively clear by page 30, preferably earlier. And then, every step your protagonist takes after that point should be a step toward that goal, only they are thwarted at every step by obstacles and characters who have their own set of desires.

Many novels, especially genre novels, have a built-in motivation. Think: "save the princess" fantasy novels. It's built into the plot. The protagonist wants to save the princess. There's your motivation.

But better yet is a novel where a character wants more than one thing, and these two things are at odds. The main character might want to save the princess, but he might just have his eye on the king's throne as well, so he has to decide by the end of the novel which is more important to him. Better still is a character that wants things that are internally contradictory so that they not only have to battle the exterior obstacles to get what they want, but they have to battle conflicting desires within themselves as well.

Here's a way of illustrating that, Super Mario Bros. style.

Good: plumber wants to save the princess.
Better: plumber wants to save the princess while besting green-clad brother with similar goal
Best: plumber wants to save the princess while besting green-clad brother with similar goal, but although he is brave he is plagued by the creeping sense that the gamer controlling his every move might want him dead

Every time you introduce something your character wants, internal or external, whether it's saving the princess, acceptance from their parents, or snaring a white whale, you're introducing a plot arc. The main arc should open at the beginning and close conclusively in the climax of your novel. Smaller arcs may be introduced and closed somewhere in between.

Every single character you introduce, major or minor, should also have their own plot arc(s) with defined goals and motivations. The more important the character the longer and more complex the plot arc(s): i.e. your main villain's plot arc is probably introduced toward the beginning and closed at the end, and we probably have a rather nuanced sense of their own desires and contradictions.

This is often where writers miss opportunities: every character, big or small, has to show motivation, agency, and desire. They have to have their own plot arcs. And it's important that the arcs have a beginning, middle, and end. Unless you're under contract for book two, make sure those plot arcs are closed!

At every step of the way, on every page, with every exchange of dialogue and every action, characters are trying to achieve their desires but run into obstacles, whether internal, external, or because they're encountering characters who want something different than they do. This is conflict.

More about conflict on Thursday.

Monday, March 16, 2009

It's Bracket Time!!

First up, Wiley editor Alan Rinzler interviewed me last week for his blog, so please check that out if you like your info in Q&A form. His blog is a terrific resource for writers, so while you're there, click around and enjoy its awesomeness.

Now then.

It is on, people. It is definitely on.

I know we have plenty of literary-minded sports fans out there, so in honor of this year's NCAA basketball tournament (aka March Madness, aka the greatest sporting event in the entire universe), I thought we'd make things interesting. I'm pleased announce our 1st Annual Blog Bracket Challenge!!

Here's how it works: You'll fill out your NCAA bracket online by picking the winners of all the games. The winner with the most points at the end of the NCAA tournament will win their choice of a free query critique or a book from one of my clients.

And if I win, I don't need a prize because I'll get plenty of satisfaction out of never letting you all hear the end of it.

But don't worry, I never win.

Oh, and for those of you who don't know anything about basketball: Congratulations, you have a much, much better chance of winning.

Here's how to enter:

1. Go to the front page of the ESPN tournament challenge:

2. If you have an ESPN username and password you can login, otherwise you may need to create a new user ID and password. But don't worry, it's not onerous and you can decline to receive updates in case you're spam conscious.

3. Click "create entry," and enter the name of your bracket (such as your blog handle). Choose whether or not you want to sign up for the sweepstakes, and then click "submit entry settings."

4. Make your picks and enter the tiebreaker score, and when you're finished, under the name of your bracket you'll see a link that says "create or join a group." Click that.

5. Search for "Bransford Blog Challenge." Enter the password, which is "rhetorical" and then click Join Group.

Then you're all set! You can make changes to your bracket by clicking on it until it locks on Thursday.

Please limit yourself to one entry.

And keep tuning back into the comments thread of this post for updates and/or trash talk. Good luck!

Friday, March 13, 2009

This Week in Publishing 3/13/09

Lots of links this week, and they don't all fit neatly into the theme of Negativity Week, so in lieu of an actual theme to the news I will instead be saying "Bah!" at the end of every paragraph regardless of my feeling about the news I've just relayed. Consider it negativity, old man style. (Or sheep-style, I suppose, but that would be baaa. It's all in the inflection.)

Reader/commenter Rick Daley has started a blog devoted to critiques of queries submitted by participants. It's also a good time to remind everyone about agent Janet Reid's indispensable/awesome/generous ongoing resource Query Shark. Bah!

Attention suspense fans, Barry Eisler, author of the very awesome and popular John Rain series, has a new standalone thriller just out this week called FAULT LINE. Barry also has a very interesting blog, and this week he reprinted a fascinating interview about his work. Bah!

And in case you needed proof that books or still selling.... well, just ask Pilot Sully, he of the artfully downed plane in the Hudson, who scored a reported $3.2 million two book deal, one for a memoir and the other rumored to be a collection of inspirational poetry. Bah!

Also scoring a big book deal this week was Audrey Niffenegger for her completely written follow up to THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE. After agent Kristin Nelson blogged about it and speculated on who triggered the leak. Niffenegger's agent, Joe Regal, later chimed in and insisted they didn't want the amount to leak, but also used the opportunity to say how much he admires that Ms. Niffenegger took her time to completely write a brilliant follow-up. Which, I agree, is admirable. Bah!

Among the great BookEnds LLC blog posts this week was one on a successful nonfiction query sample. Poor neglected nonfiction queries, they are so rarely used as examples! Jessica Faust also posted a list of query don'ts -- you wouldn't want your agent doing them, so don't do them yourself. Bah!

Also in the hizzy is my colleague Tracy Marchini, who I reckon be droppin' a hella wicked post on some fings to consider when writing slang (and yes, I tried to incorporate as many disparate dialects as possible in that sentence). Bah!

Lastly but not leastly in agent news is blogging agent extraordinaire Jennifer Jackson, who posted some of the wonderful things about being an agent. Bah!

Experimentation is definitely in the air, and from always-indispensable GalleyCat came word that Lexycle and Macmillan are teaming up to produce a book in standalone iPhone App form. Could this be a harbinger for more self-contained reading apps? Bah!

Also in that vein, reader Margaret Welman Paez was kind enough to direct me to an post in the Paper Cuts blog of the New York Times about a book by Clay Shirky called HERE COMES EVERBODY. Within the post there is a tremendous quote that I think sums up the coming deluge of content in the e-book era that I've blogged about before: "It’s going from a world of ‘filter, then publish’ … to ‘publish, then filter." Well said. Bah!

And finally, Andrew Sullivan linked to this amazing short film by Bruce Branit, which I think captures what it's like to be a writer:

World Builder from Bruce Branit on Vimeo.

Have a great weekend! Bah!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dealing With Frustration


Confession time: I'm having a frustrating day. But hey, it completely goes with the territory. This is a frustrating business. There are more books than slots at publishing houses, and that's the case now more than ever. Frustration happens. It's the nature of life in the book funnel.

It's also just built into the business. When you hear about a publisher jumping from $2.5 million to $3 million in an auction for a celebrity book, it's easy to think, "Uh... that publisher just nickle and dimed my client and refused to give them even $1,000 more when they really deserved it. And they passed on another project because they didn't want to take a risk on a debut. But they won't even blink at jumping $500,000 in an auction for a book about Paris Hilton's chihuahua?" (Okay, it is kind of a cute dog. Also I'm kidding, that's not an actual book. Yet. UPDATE: Oops! Yes, it is.)

And then of course, there's the aforementioned rejections, bad reviews, negativity, and strange whims of fate.

Depressed? Don't be!

Here's the only way to deal with the frustrations of the publishing business: don't become fixated on the publishing business.

You'll. Go. Mad. if you place all of your eggs in the basket of publishing, following the ins and outs, letting it consume your entire being, and living and dying by your rejections, reviews, and what mean anonymous commenters are saying about you on any given day.

It's soooo easy to let publishing become an all-consuming force in your life. It takes so much time to write, and then there are the blogs to follow, the agents to research, the publishers to keep track of, the industry news, the rejections to track... it takes a lot of time. Combine that with a day job and there aren't many hours in the day left.

But it just can't be everything.

The best way to deal with the frustrations: ignore it for a while. Take a walk! Spend time with your friends and family! (Remember them? It's okay to ask them to remind you what their names are. They'll just be glad to have you back.). Take up a second, less frustrating hobby, like sunflower photography. Better yet: start rooting for the Sacramento Kings to see what frustration really feels like. The publishing industry has nothing on being a Kings fan.

If you find yourself becoming down in the dumps about your prospects or the business or the state of things: It's probably a sign you're spending too much time focused on it. It's perfectly okay to tune out for a while. When you clear your head and come back: all of a sudden the industry will magically seem like a place of hope and possibility.

Because the difference between seeing opportunity and frustration in this business is all in your head. It's just a matter of how your brain is looking at it that day.

Please share your favorite method of distraction in the comments section!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How Do You Deal With Rejections?

Next up in HTRPITFONBTTLOABTW (or Negativity Week if you're into that whole brevity thing): dealing with rejection.

Everyone in this business has to face rejections. A lot. Everyone talks about how (insert bestseller here) was passed on 27 thousand million times before it became a bestseller, so you know even bestselling authors face it.

So how do you deal with it? How do you move on? What helps?

Any favorite strategies to share with your fellow writers?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dealing With Negativity

Next up in Negativity Week (which is actually short for How To Remain Positive in the Face of Negativity But That's Too Long of a Blog Title Week, or HTRPITFONBTTLOABTW for short): one of the greatest challenges authors face. Dealing with negativity.

It used to be that the worst negativity an author was subjected to were rejections or, for the fortunately published, bad reviews in newspapers (ha! Remember those? What innocent times we lived in three years ago). Even the toughest of authors struggled to maintain a level head in the face of reviews they felt were unfair. Norman Mailer, so tough his corpse could probably still beat me up, sent a letter to the publisher of the NY Times in 2003 complaining about his bad reviews.

But now in the Internet age, rather than the big dagger in the heart courtesy of the Times Book Review, it's more like a death by a thousand Internet paper cuts. If you are out there with any sort of presence on the Internet you will feel it. People will try and cut you down to size, to get to you, to leave you nasty Amazon reviews, to take out their frustrations on you.

I feel it constantly, every single day, and I'm not even an author.

But I'm not complaining! You know why? Because the cardinal rule of dealing with negativity is: Don't complain about negativity.

No one wants to hear someone complain about how they're being picked on. And the more successful someone is the less people want to hear about how they're being picked on. Who knows why. Human nature. I once saw a pack of pigeons ganging up on one pigeon and pecking him like crazy. I'm guessing the fight started when that pigeon complained about how the other pigeons were a bunch of meanies.

But once you have been picked on: try try try to care as little as possible.

This can be hard to do. It hurts when someone says something truly mean about you, particularly when it contains a grain of truth that has been blown up, distorted, or turned around. Or especially when it's a blatant falsehood, like the time someone said I looked like Chace Crawford only with fetal alcohol syndrome (Um... that's false, right? Please?). But it's so important to see the meanness for what it is: meanness. It's not even about you.

(The word "Whatever," spoken aloud, works wonders as well. So does this video.)

And most importantly: don't respond.

Okay, sometimes it's too tempting to resist responding. But if you are going to respond, there is only one way to do so: with a perfectly clear head.

This takes some self-reflection. It takes asking oneself, do I really have a clear head or am I still ready to throttle this person and dip them slowly into a pool of magma? If it's the latter, your anger will come through in your response and you'll wind up looking shrill or passive-aggressive and not at all how you are intending. If you have a clear head: the perfect comeback will present itself.

The only way to respond is through genuine humor, humility, or selflessness. Not passive-aggression. Truly funny or humble or both. If you can't bring that because you're too upset: then just don't do it. Better to put out a tough front and just not respond at all.

All of this boils down to one thing: negativity is a test of strength. If you show weakness in the face of negativity: you lose. If you show strength and character in the face of negativity: you win.

The Internet smells weakness. Be strong. Be magnanimous. Be virtuous.

And then you'll beat those &*$^@*$ into a &*(^&^$ virtual pulp.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Introducing Negativity Week

Boo! You suck! Boo!!

Just kidding.

I am, however, very swamped today, and in lieu of an actual blog post please accept this haiku:

Queries pouring in
Flood, ye electrons, flood on!
My raft sprung a leak

UPDATE: litgirl01 requested a Negativity Week video. I give you.... DOG NIGHTMARES (actually it's completely hilarious)

Friday, March 6, 2009

This Week in Publishing 3/6/09

This Week! Publishing! Positive style!

Thanks so much to everyone for participating in positivity week. Judging from the feedback and comments, in these tough times people definitely could use some more positivity, so consider this a humble request to go out and spread it.

It's also why I didn't participate in the Twitter-fest #queryfail, in which agents and editors Twittered in real-time yesterday about the queries they were rejecting. Seems like a good opportunity to remind everyone who is thinking of querying me that you do not have to fear becoming blog/Twitter fodder. Ever. Never ever. Not when you're querying, and not when you're a client.

First up, it seems fitting to link to an end-of-publishing-as-we-know it article, this time by former book editor Marion Maneker. Why during positivity week? Because even though he believes there are going to be major changes at the publishing houses, ultimately the digital era will be good for writers.

While we are thinking positively, you'd better start preparing yourself for success, right? Well, agent Rachelle Gardner has a post about some steps to consider as you contemplate the time commitments that come with being a writer.

In case you need proof that the mainstream publishing industry is increasingly gravitating toward celebrity books and bestsellers, HarperCollins this week launched an imprint devoted to celebrity books and bestsellers. Why is this good news for positivity week? I have another place to send book projects!! Imprints opening: good.

Reader Neil Vogler pointed me to a new e-book experiment by UK publisher Faber and author Ben Wilson, who are attempting the Radiohead "pay what you want" model. According to the article, only 38% of users paid anything for Radiohead's album "In Rainbows" and the average among those who paid was £2.80. But hey -- experimentation: positive.

As mentioned on Wednesday, Amazon entered the iPhone app fray with a Kindle-linked application, and Wired surveyed the other book app companies. The consensus: unafraid. I find all of this extremely gratifying. Anything that can get on-the-go people to buy books is going to be a major boon to the book business.

Do you have a publishing emergency? Author Lynn Viehl is (hilariously) standing by.

The new edition of MentalFloss contains a list of the 25 most influential books of the past 25 years, and the Washington Post's Short Stack blog took issue with some of the choices. Here's hoping your book make the next list!

And finally, we opened positivity week with Muppets and it seemed only fitting to close positivity week with Muppets. I give you: a Bert & Ernie gangsta rap mashup:

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer

Writers aren't generally known as the happiest lot. As a recent Guardian survey of some top writers shows, even the best ones don't particularly enjoy it all that much. And in case you think this is a new development, an 1842 letter from Edgar Allen Poe to his publisher recently surfaced in which he was found apologizing for drinking so much and begging for money.

But believe it or not, writing and happiness can, in fact, go together. For our Thursday entry in Positivity Week, here are ten ways for a writer to stay positive:

1. Enjoy the present. Writers are dreamers, and dreamers tend to daydream about the future while concocting wildly optimistic scenarios that involve bestsellerdom, riches, and interviews with Ryan Seacrest. In doing so they forget to enjoy the present. I call this the "if only" game. You know how it goes: if only I could find an agent, then I'll be happy. When you have an agent, then it becomes: if only I could get published, then I'll be happy. And so on. The only way to stay sane in the business is to enjoy every step as you're actually experiencing it. Happiness is not around the bend. It's found in the present. Because writing is pretty great -- otherwise why are you doing it?

2. Maintain your integrity. With frustration comes temptation. It's tempting to try and beat the system, whether that's by having someone else write your query, lying to the people you work with, or, you know, concocting the occasional fake memoir. This may even work in the short term, but unless you are Satan incarnate (and I hope you're not) it will steadily chip away at your happiness and confidence, and your heart will shrivel and blacken into something they show kids in health class to scare them away from smoking. Don't do it.

3. Recognize the forces that are outside of your control. While it's tempting to think that it's all your fault if your book doesn't sell, or your agent's fault or the industry's fault or the fault of a public that just doesn't recognize your genius, a lot of times it's just luck not going your way. Chance is BIG in this business. Huge. Gambling has nothing on the incredibly delicate and complex calculus that results in a book taking off. Bow before the whims of fate, because chance is more powerful than you and your agent combined.

4. Don't neglect your friends and family. No book is worth losing a friend, losing a spouse, losing crucial time with your children. Hear me? NO book is worth it. Not one. Not a bestseller, not a passion project, nothing. Friends and family first. THEN writing. Writing is not an excuse to neglect your friends and family. Unless you don't like them very much.

5. Don't Quit Your Day Job. Quitting a job you need to pay the bills in order to write a novel is like selling your house and putting the proceeds into a lottery ticket. You don't have to quit your job to write. There is time in the day. You may have to sacrifice your relaxation time or sleep time or reality television habit, but there is time. You just have to do it.

6. Keep up with publishing industry news. It may seem counterintuitive to follow the news of a business in which layoffs currently constitute the bulk of headlines. But it behooves you to keep yourself informed. You'll be happier (and more successful) if you know what you're doing.

7. Reach out to fellow writers. No one knows how hard it is to write other than other people who have tried to do it themselves. Their company is golden. If you're reading this it means you have an Internet connection. Reach out and touch a writer. And plus, the Internet allows you to reach out to writers without smelling anyone's coffee breath.

8. Park your jealousy at the door. Writing can turn ordinary people into raving lunatics when they start to believe that another author's success is undeserved. Do not begrudge other writers their success. They've earned it. Even if they suck.

9. Be thankful for what you have. If you have the time to write you're doing pretty well. There are millions of starving people around the world, and they're not writing because they're starving. If you're writing: you're doing just fine. Appreciate it.

10. Keep writing. Didn't find an agent? Keep writing. Book didn't sell? Keep writing. Book sold? Keep writing. OMG an asteroid is going to crash into Earth and enshroud the planet in ten feet of ash? Keep writing. People will need something to read in the resulting permanent winter.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What Do You Love About Writing?

First off, big news today as Amazon has released a Kindle application for the iPhone. It is, well, kind of mindblowing. I downloaded the app, signed into my Amazon account, and every book I purchased on my Kindle was instantly available to me on my iPhone. Better yet, I navigated to the book I'm currently reading and it picked up to the exact page where I had left off on my Kindle!! Wow. Wow wow. My apologies to SF Muni employees, who are probably still finding pieces of my exploded head.

Of course, I don't find iPhones particularly easy to read on for long stretches, so I'm still glad I have a Kindle and its e-ink screen, but this will be awesome in a pinch. The main drawback is that they don't have direct shopping through the App and you have to buy books either through your Kindle or on the Internet.

Now then. To continue positivity week: a simple question with an infinite range of possible answers.

What do you love about writing?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why I'm Optimistic About the Future of Books

For the second installment of positivity week: the future.

You don't hear very much optimism about the future these days, what with the stock market looking like the Grand Canyon and the Bachelor breaking hearts on national television (except my heart -- I loved every minute).

We're just over the horizon from the digital age of books. It will be a major transition. It is going to cause some heartache and displacement and layoffs, as it is already. We're seeing old models break and die. And right now in the world of books, the shrinking shelf space due to closing bookstores (not to mention closing wallets) isn't yet being replenished by the new possibilities that are afforded by the digital marketplace. Right now there are still all sorts of bottlenecks in the system that are resulting in good books not being published (or under-published) and all sorts of stress. Plus, change is scary.

(And yes, I know that paragraph may violate the terms of positivity week. Don't worry, I'm getting to the good stuff.)

Don't fret over your beloved paper books: they will always be around in some form. But here's why we, as lover of books, should embrace the coming eBook future: distribution will no longer hold writers back.

Writers from the beginning of time have been faced with one essential physical challenge: you had to get the books to the people. Thus, you either owned a printing press or you had to find a publisher (who owned you). Without the publishers: there was no way to reach an audience.

This physical barrier has already eroded somewhat with POD and self-publishing, but as anyone who has self-published knows: good luck getting your self-published book into a bookstore. You may be able to print your own book these days, but without a publisher's backing or pre-existing fame it's ridiculously hard to find an audience.

In sum: throughout the past two hundred years, someone could write a perfectly good book, but there was one big barrier standing in between the author and their readers: publishers. As much as I'd like to think the publishing industry is always right, well, it's not.

But here's what's going to happen in the digital era: anyone will be able to publish their book, and there will be no distribution barrier. The same eBook stores that stock Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown will stock, well, you. Readers will be the ones who decide what becomes popular. There will be no intermediary. It will be just as easy to buy a book by you as it will be to buy the HARRY POTTER of the future. Your book will be just a few keystrokes away from everyone with an internet connection (and their tablet/eReader/iPhone/gizmo/whatchamacallit of the future).

Just think about it: no wondering how in the world your book is going to find its way past a publisher into a bookstore. No more print runs! No one will be doomed by a publisher and bookstores underbetting on their success. No more bottleneck. No more que......... well, there will always be queries. Sorry!

Books will finally be able to live and die by, well, themselves, not by the best guesses of the publishing industry.

Now, am I, the agent, writing my own obituary? Nope. I don't think so. If anything things are getting more complicated, and authors will still need agents to navigate the business and negotiate with the Amazons and Sonys and Apples and whoever else rises up in the future. There will still be subrights to negotiate and distribution deals and all sorts of challenges that authors will be hardpressed to face on their own. We'll still be here.

Am I writing the major publisher's obituary? Nope. I don't think so. Although their business will change a great deal, they're probably correct to be coalescing around a blockbuster model. They will still be offering an unrivaled package of services: they'll edit, copyedit, typeset, and promote your book, and better yet, they'll pay you an advance. For the busy bestseller and celebrity it's a very, very attractive package.

Am I writing the small publisher's obituaries? Nope. I don't think so. Small publishers will thrive around collectives like McSweeney's, who help each other promote their likeminded books, and serve as tastemakers in the ensuing deluge of books. Readers will gravitate towards the sites on the Internet with books they like, and enterprising small publishers will have a greater opportunity than ever to become major players.

People, the future of books is exciting! Right now it's scary and chaotic and is making me regularly pound my head on the desk. But when you look at the big picture: greater access will be the best thing that has ever happened to writers in the history of books.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Introducing Positivity Week

On Friday an anonymous commenter accused me of being too bleak and challenged, nay, dared, nay, triple-dog dared me to devote a week to nothing but positivity about the publishing industry, books, and the future.

My friends, I have two words for you: it's on.

Let's face it. This winter is feeling a little bleak. We could all use some more kittens and rainbows in our lives. Also puppies.

Everyone is here because of one reason and one reason only: we love books. We love the heck out of them. And last time I checked: they're still here.

Um, right? They are? Yes. Okay. Whew.

So to kick off positivity week, I would like to devote this post to an ode to you.

Yes, you.

I am so incredibly thankful for the people who read and comment on this blog! Honestly, when I started this thingamajig I had no idea what to expect. These queries poured into my office and I sometimes stared at them thinking...... who are these people?

Well, now I know: You all are smart, intelligent, lively, funny, hardworking, supportive, caring, and if I may say so, you have been looking quite dashing lately.

Most importantly: Anyone who writes has my undying admiration. Writing is HARD. It's not hard like dig a ten foot trench with a plastic spoon hard, but still, it's HARD. It takes concentration, time, patience, and a whole lot of delayed gratification. There are things that are more fun to do than write a novel, like going to Disneyland or watching Mad Men or eating bacon (or all three at once -- basically how I envision heaven), but you put those things off and stare at your notepad or computer and put words down. You're making something.

And many of you have written novels!! Do you know how hard it is to write a freaking novel?! So many people say they're going to write a novel someday and never do it. Many of you have done it. It's an incredible accomplishment. It doesn't matter how many people read it: whether it's one person or a million it's something that should be a source of immense pride.

Even if I sometimes feel like the Angel of Death when I'm answering queries, I hope you know that I am very thankful for the people who query me and I don't take it at all lightly that people are putting themselves out there with their life's work. I even (usually) get a kick out of the people who send me angry e-mails accusing me and my generation of being vain and vapid and everything that's wrong with literature. Hey, buddy, my generation HAS our depression. We're building character in spades. You got nothin' on us anymore.

So check that negativity at the door. We're getting positive, people.

Related Posts with Thumbnails