Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Franzen, FREEDOM and the Era of the Blockbuster

You may have heard from, oh, I don't know, the Time Magazine cover or the Vogue profile or the rave reviews or the Picoult/Weiner spat or the author video where Franzen says he doesn't like author videos or the fact that the President of the United States was spotted with it..... anyway, you might have heard that Jonathan Franzen has a new novel out today, his first since The Corrections, and it's a pretty big deal.

I haven't yet read Freedom, but from the early reviews this novel is everything that our Internet-manic, high concept craving, supposedly dumbed down culture is not. It "[deconstructs] a family’s history to give us a wide-angled portrait of the country as it rumbled into the materialistic 1990s." (NY Times) It explores "the unresolved tensions, the messiness of emotion, of love and longing, that possesses even the most willfully ordinary of lives." (LA Times).

You can't exactly Tweet a summary of what this book is about. Whether you like Franzen's books or not (as you can probably tell: I'm a big fan), it's a novel that punches a gaping hole through the remarkably persistent idea that the publishing industry, and the culture as a whole, is only interested in high concept schlock and the lowest common denominator.

On the other hand, Freedom, in its bigness, in its You Must Read This To Be a Thinking Person in America, is already a novel of the times - the big books getting steadily bigger, accumulating hype with gravitational pull, and then there's everything else fighting for attention.

We seem to be a culture that is simultaneously craving books that fit our exact specifications at the same time that we want the shared experience of reading something, loving it, and sharing that experience with our friends (virtual and real life). Culture seems to be moving two contradictory ways - fracturing into ever-smaller niches at the same time that it's coalescing around a few massively popular books and movies. We normally think of the blockbusters in terms of James Patterson, Suzanne Collins, and Stephenie Meyer, but even in literary fiction you have your Freedoms and Oscar Waos.

And in a still further sign of the time, even though Franzen once said of his disdain for novels in e-book form, "Am I fetishizing ink and paper? Sure, and I'm fetishizing truth and integrity too," Freedom is available for sale as an e-book simultaneously with the hardcover.

What do you think? Will you be reading Freedom?

Monday, August 30, 2010

What High Concept Means

High concept
Ah, high concept.

If high concept were a person it would be a teenager because it's often totally misunderstood. If high concept were a tool it would be a sledgehammer. If high concept were a okay I'll stop now.

So what does high concept mean?

High concept means that a novel/movie/TV show's plot can be described very succinctly in appealing fashion.

Kid wins a golden ticket to a mysterious candy factory? High concept.
Wizard school? High concept.
There's this guy who walks around Dublin for a day and thinks about a lot of things in chapters written in different styles and he goes to a funeral and does some other stuff but otherwise not much happens? Not high concept.

High concept is very often misunderstood because what it sounds like it means and what it actually means are basically completely opposite. It doesn't mean sophisticated (opposite), it doesn't mean cerebral (opposite), it doesn't mean difficult to describe (opposite). And it's very important to know what it means because although high concept is often a term used derogatorily, I am hearing from more and more editors that they want high concept novels, even for literary fiction.

Why? Well, my hunch is that the more media, the more Tweets, the more links we're constantly besieged with, the more readers are drawn to hooks that we can easily understand and digest.

So not only do you need to know what high concept means, you might also want to consider embracing it if you're thinking of a new project. But only if it's true to the story you want to tell.

Friday, August 27, 2010

This Week in Publishing 8/27/10

Thissssssssss Weeeeeeek... InPublishing

Page Critique Friday is alive and well!! It's happening over in the Forums. You do not need to register in the Forums to check out the Page Critique thread, but you will have to register if you'd like to leave a comment. To register, just click here and it should be quite self-explanatory. Other than that it's the same as before, so stop on by. UPDATE: My critique is posted here.

Lots and lots of news this week, so let's get started.

First up, the most comprehensive review I have ever seen about the relative environmental benefits of e-books vs. paper books was published by Slate's The Green Lantern. The winner? E-books on every count, provided you read more than 18 books on an iPad and 23 books on a Kindle. Even on chemicals/metals, often cited as a problem with e-readers, the Green Lantern judged the side-effects of producing ink more harmful than the metals that go into e-readers. Worth a read.

Random House and agent Andrew Wylie have settled their standoff over the rights to backlist e-book titles that Wylie had announced would be exclusively published by Amazon. In the end, Random House and Wylie came to terms, and the e-books will be published by Random House after all. Word this morning is that Wylie and Penguin are negotiating as well. Bloomsbury publisher Peter Ginna has a great analysis of some of the implications. While early reports tended to characterize this as a "win" for Random House, Ginna points out that it really depends on the deal that was struck (and the ones yet to be struck).

In further e-book news, PWxyz spotted a good explanation from Wired about the economics of e-book pricing, another e-book domino has fallen as Laura Lippman's brand new bestseller is selling more e-books than hardcovers, there's a color e-reader called the Literati coming, the Wall Street Journal took a look at the reading habits of e-book readers (hint: they read more), Seth Godin made some publishing waves as he said in an interview that he will no longer publish the traditional way (citing the frustration of the long wait and filters of traditional publishing), and oh yeah, the NY Times had an article about digital devices and learning and attention spans but I've already ohmigod how awesome was Project Runway last night????

And yeah yeah news news, what about e-books and author revenue? Well, Mike Shatzkin has a really great post explaining how the royalty math breaks down (with helpful charts!) based on different formats and models.

And finally in e-book news, the NYTimes' David Pogue reviewed the new Kindle and came away a fan, calling it "ingeniously designed to be everything the iPad will never be: small, light and inexpensive."

The Franzen/Picoult/Weiner, um, well, not sure what to call it, but anyway, that discussion has kept right on going this week. Writing on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog, new Paris Review editor Lorin Stein defended literary fiction against "fake populism," and argues that formulas are death in literary fiction. In an interview in the Huffington Post, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner continued their broadside against what they see as a culture of snobbery and favoritism toward white male Brooklynites, and attacked Stein as well. Laura Lippman also tackled the question, bringing some facts to the table and noting that considering how much more women read fiction than men, "All fiction is women's fiction." And there you have it.

Meanwhile, Salon profiled author Tao Lin and wonders if he is the future of literary fiction, or at least whether he embodies the future role of the literary author. He trespasses in bookstores, is featured in Gawker, sells shares in his books, holds experimental contests, and writes books as well. Is this marketing, a side-effect of the Internet age, crass commercialism, literary performance art, all of the above? (via The Millions)

Eric at Pimp My Novel had some great posts this week, one that delves into the situation at Barnes & Noble, and another that gives some insight into some reasons why the practice of returnable books still persists in the modern book world.

With NaNoWriMo just a few months away, Ian T. Healy has some ideas on expanding it: agents should take on ten clients in November, (NaNoSignMo), publishers should acquire ten books in November (NaNoBuyMo), and readers should buy and read five books in November (NaNoReadMo). Great ideas, but I think I'm going to be taking a break during my Thanksgiving weekend and participating in NaNoSleepMo.

This week in the Forums, did I mention Page Critique Friday?, is "the call" really a call, how you choose a book, discussing MOCKINGJAY (with spoilers), teenagers writing, and don't forget about the feedback forums if you'd like some help with a query, synopsis, or excerpt. Just remember to give some feedback before you take some feedback.

Comment! of! the! Week! There were lots of really great and thoughtful comments this week, but I thought I'd choose two from the post about children's literature and violence. What's interesting about these comments is that they are both by people living in South African, and yet it illustrates how differently we humans cope with and react to violence. Fiona Ingram worries about the effects violent stories have on young people, while Misha notes that it's almost always hatred, not stories, that breed the worst violence and puts the onus on parents.

And finally, my client Lisa Brackmann, (who by the way had a really great post on how life-changing and disorienting it is to have a book come out coupled with the pressure of the second book), sent me this utterly mesmerizing video that I most definitely had to share.

I give you..... Bunny Show Jumping:

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Violence in Children's Literature: Is There a Line?

Today's Shelf Awareness includes a post by Sheryl Cotleur from the fantastic bookstore Book Passage about the uneasiness she felt when reading the final installment in the incredibly popular Hunger Games series, Mockingjay. From the post:

I am an adult book buyer, but our children's buyer convinced me to read the three Suzanne Collins books. I have just finished Hunger Games series, Mockingjay. I admit they are compelling and one reads steadily to learn what happens next. They are even inventive and the characters are fascinating people, yet the more I read, the more uneasy I became until I could barely get through to the end of the third book. Why, I wonder, is no one (that I am aware of) talking about how violent these books are? [Ed: emphasis mine. The post goes on to describe some of the violent scenes in Mockingjay, which I won't quote out of spoiler concerns, but which you should click through to read if you're curious.]

Well, let's talk about it.

Some of my absolute favorite children's books of all time are violent -- beloved characters dying, murder committed, danger around every corner. And certainly going all the way back to Aesop's Fables and the Brothers Grimm, instilling morality in children by way of scaring the bejeezus out of them is a very old tradition.

But is there a line? If so, where's it at? How much is too much?

Speaking personally, ever since a high school classmate of mine was murdered I've tended to be more squeamish about violence in books and movies than the average American, but that's not to say I don't ever enjoy violent stories provided the violence is true to the story and not gratuitous. It's all case-by-case for me.

What about you?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How Do You Feel About Websites Poking Fun At Queries?

As surely as the changing of the moon and the appearance of new seasons of Survivor, there always seems to be a website out there devoted to poking fun at bad queries. These come and go, with varying levels of humor and angst.

The most recent iteration has been the subject of some debate on various blogs in the past week, and I'm curious what people think. Do you find these sites rude, funny, educational, malicious, informative, privacy-invading, entertaining, possibly a combination?

And, just FYI, my personal policy that I will never ever make fun of a query that is sent to me, nor will I quote from one without your permission. Query freely.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Package of Services Publishers Provide Authors and How This Is Changing

As you probably know if you have ever been asked to ponder the relative benefits of trim size and paper stock and e-book conversions, there is whole a lot more that goes into a book than just writing it.

Another way of thinking of publishers is not as companies that decide your fate as an author, but rather as companies that offer the authors they've chosen to work with a comprehensive package of services.

Here are the basic services traditional publishers provide for an author, why these services matter, and how this is (and isn't) changing:

Editing and Copyediting:

While the myth that editors don't edit is alive and well, the truth is that books are edited and copyedited at traditional publishers (please please please know the difference between editing and copyediting). This affords a certain degree of quality control. Now, sure, we've all spotted typos in books, which infect us temporarily with disproportionate outrage and a jolt of smugness. It happens. But all you have to do is read this blog on a regular basis to see the horrorshow of typos that results from text published without copyediting.

Editors and copyeditors (yes, still), provide professional editorial expertise that improve books. I'm sure you've heard they don't edit and copyedit anymore. It's not true.


Cover, trim size, interior design, illustrations/photographs, font choice, paper choice, etc. The best-designed books are works of art.

Printing and Distribution:

Once the books are actually produced, someone has to get them into bookstores and e-bookstores. Traditionally this has been the irreplaceable service offered by publishers. Not only would they make the books, they would draw upon their reputation, sales teams, and infrastructure to get print books into bookstores in large numbers.

Even in the e-book era distribution still matters. There are new e-book vendors cropping up every day, and publishers have the scale to sell their e-books in as many venues as possible while dealing with all of the accompanying electronic conversion headaches.

Publicity and Marketing:

At minimum publishers get their books sent out for review and do some basic advertising. When a publisher turns on the publicity and marketing fire hose for their biggest books, they will manage book tours, author appearances, giveaways, major advertising campaigns, co-op, and much more. Publicity and marketing aren't everything, but they can provide a major boost.

Patronage (i.e. an advance):

While debut novelists almost always have to figure out how to write a novel on their own time and dime, publishers nevertheless offer nonfiction authors and previously published novelists money in advance of writing the actual books, which both rewards authors before their book actually comes out and theoretically supports them as they're writing it. Obviously the degree of support this affords the author depends on the amount of the advance, but money up front that the author doesn't have to pay back even if the book tanks ain't nothin' to sneeze at.


Aside from all the tangible services publishers offer authors, there is one intangible element: cachet. There is something to be said for the selectivity and track record publishers have demonstrated and for the endorsement they still lend to traditionally published books. While the name of the publisher on the spine of a book doesn't matter to everyone, it does still matter to many bookstores and readers.

Now then. The key element in all of this that is changing is, of course, printing and distribution. In an e-book era, it is no longer be necessary to have extensive physical infrastructure in order to make a book available, and when it comes to e-book distribution publishers are no longer the only game in town. Authors can either deal directly with Amazon, Apple, etc. or work with third-party digital distribution services.

But that just covers one element of the book-making process. Every other basic element that goes into a successful book is still pretty much the same. Books may be edited on Microsoft Word instead of with colored pencil, but you still need editing. Your marketing may be more Twitter-based than newspaper-based, but you still need marketing.

Thus, an author dealing directly with an e-book distributor has to figure out how to handle patronage, editorial, quality control, design, marketing and publicity, and must possess (or build) cachet. They'll have to either tackle all of this themselves, or farm some or all of it out to contractors and must possess the financial and time-consumption wherewithal to do it.

For some authors (most recently Seth Godin), the flexibility, control, and greater back-end revenue afforded by self-publication is worth it. Other authors may feel that they don't want to be bothered with the nuts and bolts of figuring out their own copyediting, cover design, interior design, marketing, and may still want the imprimatur of a publisher.

Personally I think this is the reason why publishers aren't going to disappear even in an era where they no longer possess a virtual monopoly in distribution. Many authors don't want to be bothered with the nuts and bolts of book-making so they can focus on writing and marketing and their day jobs, and are willing to part with revenue on the back end in order to have these tasks handled by seasoned experts.

What is inevitably changing, though, is that authors will have a choice: handle it all themselves, contract some elements out, or go with a publisher offering a comprehensive package of services.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Programming Change

Hello! Nice to see you this Monday morning.

As much as I have been enjoying the Monday Page Critiques, I'm afraid there's been a noticeable downward tick in participation, comments, pageviews, etc., and I worry that it was getting a little stale as a regular blog topic. Ratings were too low, alien plotline didn't catch on with viewers, had to make room for new J.J. Abrams show, you know how it goes.

So rather than devote every Monday post to the page critiques, I shall be returning Monday to original topics.

BUT! Weekly Page Critiques will live on in the Forums, where I'll host weekly Friday Page Critique threads with the exact same idea. I'll link to them in This Week in Publishing to remind everyone to click over, and hopefully the Forums will be a better place for the critiques. Please continue to enter one page in this thread if you'd like to have your work critiqued.

And now, since this could hardly thus far be considered a proper blog post, I will leave you with the most hilarious cat video I have seen on the Internet. Everything is better with hilarious cats:

Friday, August 20, 2010

This Week in Publishing 8/20/10

Lots of links! Let's get to them.

There were a few controversies this week in publishing. Firstly, if you have ever attended a conference with the fabulous YA Author Ellen Hopkins, you know that in addition to being a brilliant writer and storyteller she's also a terrific, honest, and inspiring speaker and devotes a huge amount of time to mentoring up-and-coming writers. So it was very distressing to hear that she was dis-invited from the Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas, due to a librarian's complaint. In the wake of the news about Hopkins, several additional writers subsequently withdrew from the event in protest.

Secondly, bestselling author Jody Picoult made some waves this week when she accused the NY Times Book Review of a white male literary fiction bias in the wake of Michiko Kakutani's rave about Jonathan Franzen's upcoming novel FREEDOM. While I leave it to you the reader to agree or disagree with this characterization of the NYTBR, PWxyz's Jonathan Segura recalled the Kakutani/Franzen spat of 2008: After Kakutani slammed Franzen's memoir THE DISCOMFORT ZONE, calling it, "an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed," Franzen shot back, calling Kakutani "The stupidest person in New York City."

And in further controversy (or is it?), industry sage Mike Shatzkin wrote a post that characterized print books, as "On a path to oblivion." The crucial takeaway: "Indeed, the insistence by some people that they will “never” give up the printed book — which leads to rather ludicrous glorification of the smell of the paper, ink, and glue and the nonsensical objections that the screen would be unsuitable for the beach (depends on the screen) or the bathtub (I can’t even imagine what the presumed advantage of the printed book is there) — must ignore the fundamental dynamic. Print books aren’t getting better. Ebooks are." No doubt there will be lots of reactions to this article, and we have already been discussing this in the Forums.

In further e-book news, Saundra Mitchell has a thoughtful take on a WSJ Journal article that speculates that ads and product placement could soon come to the e-book world, Apartment Therapy Unplggd surveyed the different e-reader apps on the iPad, and two new iPad-esque tablets seem to be on the horizon: one from Google (link via PubLunch) and one from HP.

Ever wonder if editors (or agents) have second thoughts after passing on projects? Well, of course we do. This week veteran editor Reagan Arthur wrote a very candid post about how she passed on Alexa Stevenson's memoir HALF BAKED, which was recently published by Running Press, but ultimately trusts that it found the right home. (via Dystel & Goderich)

In financial book news, Forbes released its list of the Top 10 Author Earnings in the last year (James Patterson coming in first with a cool $70 million), a new academic paper claims to be able to predict box office revenue through an analysis of the script (most important variables: the genre, how conflict builds, whether conflict is multidimensional), the Millions surveys Time Magazine's choice of authors on the covers from way back when, and B&N CEO Len Riggio bought a million more shares of the company.

And in writing advice news, my client Natalie Whipple has an awesome and inspiring post that uses the Japanese snack umeboshi as a metaphor, my client Jennifer Hubbard has a terrific take on the author/agent relationship, Tahereh has a hilarious interview with Eric from Pimp My Novel, and guest posting on PMN, Henriette Lazaridis Power surveys some great first lines and the different approaches the authors took.

This week in the Forums, the care and feeding of an introvert, does agenting need to evolve?, unagented author websites, just a few more days until MOCKINGJAY, and do you like or dislike thinking of titles?

Comment! Of! The! Week! Goes! To.... There were some really great ideas and responses to the post on what you would do if you were King/Queen of the publishing industry (some more practical than others), but I especially enjoyed Mark Terry's suggestion of publishers creating a rival to Amazon called His comment is definitely worth reading in full because he has some very interesting ideas.

And finally, this is one of the most hilarious and effective political ads I've ever seen, in support of a bill in the California state legislature that would do as San Francisco has already done and eliminate plastic bags in grocery stores and pharmacies. I give you: a nature video on the life cycle of a plastic bag, narrated by Jeremy Irons (via @TravelForGood):

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

How to Write a Query Letter

Proper technique
UPDATED: April 13, 2017

In order to have your novel published you will probably need to write a query letter. Here's how.

Once you have followed the gentle suggestions in the How to Write a Novel post and/or my book How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel You Will Love Forever and you done gone and written yourself a novel, (or if you've written a nonfiction book proposal), it is then time to see what the world thinks of it. The first step in this process if you are seeking traditional publication is to find an agent.

Please check out this post about how to find a literary agent, since a query letter is not the only way of going about it. But chances are you will at some point have to sit down and write one of these beastly missives.

Here's how you do it:

What to Know Before You Start

A query letter is part business letter, part creative writing exercise, part introduction, part death defying leap through a flaming hoop. (Don't worry, you won't catch fire and die during the query process though it may feel precisely like that at times). In essence: it is a letter describing your project.

The first thing to know about writing query letters is that there are as many opinions out on the Internet about query letters as there are, well, opinions on the Internet. You will find lots of dos and don'ts and peeves and strategies and formulas. The important thing to remember about this is that everyone is wrong except for me. (Just kidding. The important thing to remember is that you will need to choose the ideas that work best for you).

As the immortal Douglas Adams said, don't panic! Write the best letter you can, be yourself, don't overthink it too much, don't sweat it if you realize the second after you sent it that you made a typo or accidentally called an agent Vicky when their name is Nathan. If an agent is going to get mad or reject you over something trivial like that they're probably not the type of person you'd want to work with anyway.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.

For Further Reading:
Get the Big Stuff Right
Can You Query If You Are An Unpublished Novelist and Your Novel Isn't Finished?
The Common Sense and Decency Rule
Why It's So Important to Learn to Summarize Your Work

Research and Personalization

The second thing to do before you write the query is to research. Here is a comprehensive post on how to research an agent. But the short version is that you need to do your darndest to:

1) Figure out which agents would be the right fit for your work - Three basic things to figure out: a) does the agent represent your genre, b) do they represent something too similar to your project, c) do they seem like they would be a good fit for you. The answers should be a) yes, b) no, c) yes.
2) Figure out the agent's submission procedure - Submission guidelines are like snowflakes: no two are alike. Also they melt. (Not really.) You will need to Google the agent and/or the agency in order to figure out where to send the query (it may be through the mail or via e-mail or via an online form or via a query service) and what the agent wants included with the query. Follow these guidelines!
3) Include a personalized tidbit about the agent in the query to show you did your research - Personalize the query! Show the agent that you put in the time and have targeted them in your search. Mention an interview or a book they've represented or that they seem inordinately attached to the color orange.
4) Make sure they're reputable. - There are tons of scam artists out there, so do your research. No agent should charge you a fee upfront. Know your rights as an author.

How do you research all of this? Firstly via The Google, but there are also online resources such as Publishers MarketplaceAgentQuery, Query Tracker, the AAR database, the Absolute Write message boards, Twitter, and many other places.

And please please please PLEASE familiarize yourself with Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors, which help authors sort out the legitimate agents from the scammers. Check out Absolute Write if you're unsure about someone.

If you can't find additional info about an agent but know they are legit, do the best you can personalizing, and send the thing.

For Further Reading:
Personalizing vs. Kissing Up
Hoops vs. Hints
Don't Get Caught Up In The Rush
Make an Agent's Life Easier
Don't Fake a Personalized Query
The Batch Querying Theory
Taking a Chance on a Young Agent
When In Doubt, Query Me

Writing the Darn Thing

Ah, the fun part. Only not really.

Once you have determined who you are querying, then it is time to write it. As I mentioned, there are tons and tons of ways of going about this, but you are in luck as I have a handy dandy mad lib to get you started. Just plug in the details of your novel into this formula and it will give you a basic query to start with. From there expand on it, personalize, and make it your own.

You are trying to accomplish two important tasks with the query:

1) You are trying to make the plot/subject of your book sound awesome
2) You are trying to show the agent that you write well

Especially for fiction I highly recommend that you try as much as possible to write the query so that it embodies the spirit of your project. If your book is funny, write a funny a query. If your book is written with beautiful lyrical prose, write your query accordingly. An agent is looking at your query to determine whether they want to read more and whether they think you can write professionally.

As you're doing this, be as specific as specific as possible about the plot, rather than descending into generalities.

For nonfiction, it's very important to give a sense of your level of expertise, your platform, and how much publicity you could bring to bear in the promotion of your work.

I highly recommend having queries out with around seven agents at a time, which doesn't leave you hanging endlessly with one agent, but also gives you some time to adjust course if you feel your query isn't getting the attention you would have expected.

Other things I would suggest:
- Don't go crazy with the formatting.
- Keep your query between 250-350 words.
- Keep the focus on the project you are querying about, even if you're a previously published author
- Be as specific as possible about plot details without overwhelming the agent with unnecessary detail (tricky balance, I know)
- Always include a sample of your work (5 pages is a good rule of thumb), even if the agent doesn't ask for it. No one is going to reject you for this, so this is the one place where I think it's permissible to break with submission guidelines. If you are e-mailing your query, be sure and paste this in the body of an e-mail. No attachments.

For Further Reading:
Query Letter Mad Lib
Examples of Good Queries
The One Sentence, One Paragraph, and Two Paragraph Pitch
How to Format a Query Letter
Query Letter Subject Lines
The Key to Good Queries: Summarizing Through Specificity
Comparing Your Book to Other Books in the Query
Themes Schmemes
The Importance of the Pitch
Things Agents Don't Need to Know
How and Whether to Mention Blurbs and Referrals
How and Whether to Mention Your Publishing Credits
How to Mention a Series in a Query

What Happens Next

After you've sent that bad boy off, you sit back and wait for the agent to consider it. And wait. And wait some more.

Here's what's happening on an agent's end: First they print out all the queries and stack them up. Then they spread them around the room until they're a few inches deep. Next they lie down, wave their arms and legs, and make query angels.

Actually it works kind of like this.

What you want is a request for a partial or a full manuscript, in which case your query has done its job and you have moved on to the next step. If you've sent out a dozen or so queries and haven't gotten so much as a nibble, there might be something wrong with your query and you may wish to tweak it a little and give it a second look.

Bear in mind that many/most agents have a no-response-means-no policy, so if you do not hear back after a couple of months you have your answer. It is not customary to follow-up if you haven't heard back on a query. I personally try to respond to all e-mailed queries within 24-48 hours unless I'm out of the office, so if you haven't heard from me in a couple of weeks please contact me again, mention that you didn't hear from me, and include your original query.

Also please remember that agents are positively besieged with queries - you have one query you are worrying about, agents have 15,000 or more to answer in a year. Keep your cool, stay calm, and be professional throughout the process.

For Further Reading:
The Query Deluge
How to Respond to a Request for a Partial
The Five Stages of Query Grief
All About Re-querying
Why Agents Aren't More Specific About What We're Looking For
Why I Can't Answer Follow-up Question After Queries or Provide Referrals
How to Understand a Rejection Letter
It's Not You, It's the Odds
Don't Forget That Every Writer Gets Rejected At Some Point

And that's it! Query letter writing doesn't have to be a horribly frightening experience. Just remember to be professional, do your research, and keep writing in the meantime. Don't forget the 10 Commandments of the Happy Writer.

If you need feedback on your query or if you have further questions, there is a Query Feedback section in the discussion forums, and I am always happy to answer your questions in the Ask Nathan thread.

Also, there are many great resources regarding query letters out on the Internet. Writer Beware had a great post on it, and I highly recommend Janet Reid's indispensable query critique blog Query Shark. Please also share your favorite links and resources in the comments section.

Happy Querying!

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

If You Were King/Queen of the Publishing Industry, What Would Be Your First Order of Business?

You know. Besides giving yourself a billion dollar advance for your work in progress and more marketing hype than a new Apple gadget.

Would you rule with an iron fist or a tender hand? What would you want to see accomplished first?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How to Write a Novel

My guide to writing a novel has all the best advice I know: How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever. But hopefully the post below helps you in the meantime!

How to write a novel. We should probably first agree that this is a rather large topic. One might even call it rotund, ginormous, massive, weighty, of-gargantuan-proportions, etc. But lately I have heard from several would-be writers with a very common sentiment:

I want to write a novel, I think I can write a novel, but for the love of Tim Gunn, how in the world do you write a novel?

And that brings us to the most important advice I can offer in this How to Write a Novel overview. If you try and hold the entire novel in your head all at once and attempt to imagine it in its entirety and all of its various ins and outs, your brain will suddenly become so heavy that you will topple over backwards and pass out.

Don't be intimidated by the bigness of the task. As Donald Trump would say: It is a 'UGE task. 'uge. The best thing you can do is to break a novel up into some comprehensible components that you can think about in a coherent fashion and try as hard as you can not to be intimidated.

Contrary to the myth of the writer sitting down blindly and letting their inspiration spill onto the page, whether you're a thorough outliner or an adherent to the school of write-as-you-go-I'll-edit-later, I highly recommend having at least a rough sketch of the below elements in place before you sit down and type "Chapter 1: It was a dark and stormy night."

The Main Plot Arc

This right here is the spine of the book. It's what happens, it's what you build around,  it's the main event. When people ask you what your book is about, this is what you tell them.

I like to think of every novel, whether it's literary fiction or genre fiction, as a quest. Every quest has:

1) a starting place
2) a first step
3) a journey (the biggest chunk of the novel)
4) an ending

Take a look at all of your favorite novels - they have a starting place, then something sets the main character's world ajar, then the character embarks on a literal or figurative journey with significant obstacles, and then an ending, where the character either ends up somewhere new or ends up back where they started but irrevocably changed.

There are millions of variations on this quest, whether it's a journey through the mind, battling personal demons, or flying through outer space, but every single novel is about a character or characters who start in one place and end up somewhere else. That journey, physical or emotional or hopefully both, is the heart of the novel.

(For further reading):
Do you have a plot?
Archetype vs. Cliche

Along the quest, the characters face...

Obstacles of increasing intensity, with ups and downs

If the most challenging obstacle your main character faces happens in the first half of the book: the reader will be bored in the second half. If your character gets everything they want and always has "up" moments: the reader will be bored with the predictability. If your character only has "down" moments and things get steadily worse and worse with no hope whatsoever: your reader will either be horrifically depressed or start to think everything is unintentionally funny.

Whether the main obstacle is an arch-villain, their own personal demons, or a powerful army of rhetorical questions--the biggest battle is in the end, and there are gains, setbacks, and smaller obstacles along the way. Better still if the obstacles and the intensity of the emotions steadily increase and swing back and forth as the novel goes along.

(For further reading):
On Conflict
John Green and Dynamic Character Relationships

The Protagonist

At the center of a novel's quest is a protagonist, or possibly a small group of protagonists, but for the purposes of this section let's just stick with the protagonist as a singular. Said protagonist can be a man, a woman, a child, an alien, a Chihuahua, a mold spore, or anything else you can think of trust me it's been done before.

But every single protagonist, no matter what species, has one thing in common: they want something. The novel is about trying to get that thing they want.

Now, the best protagonists are complex individuals who may want multiple things. They may think they want one thing but in reality want another, or they may want two things that are at odds with each other. But once you know what a character wants, their personality (funny? brave? weak?) becomes an expression of how they go about getting it.

Every additional character also has something they want, and that may perchance be at odds with what your protagonist wants. The villain, if you have one, either wants the same thing as your protagonist (competition) or the exact opposite of what your character wants (adversarial), and is nearly, but not quite, as powerful as your protagonist.

(For further reading):
Character and Plot are Inseparable
Sympathetic vs. Unsympathetic Characters
What Do Your characters Want?


The setting is more than just where your novel takes place. A great setting is woven into the very fabric of the novel. The best settings have:

- Change underway - Something is happening in the world that is changing, whether war is coming, new moral values are ascendant, or something else that is roiling the calm. Whether the novel is a massive multi-country canvass or a very personal coming of age story, something is changing.
- A personality - The setting is different than the real world not just in where it's set, but also in its value system and character. Maybe it's a funny world, maybe it's ruthless world, maybe it's all totally punk rock YEAH MAN, but it has its own personality.
- Unfamiliarity - A great setting shows us something we haven't seen and makes us look at our own world in a new way.

(For further reading):
What Makes a Great Setting

Style and Voice

Much like love, style don't come easy. Our first attempts at crafting a signature style inevitably feel like imitation. But if you write enough and keep trying and keep pushing yourself, eventually you will arrive at your own personal style that is nothing like anyone else's and voila, your novel will have a voice.

(For further reading):
How to Craft a Great Voice
Do You Suffer From One of These Writing Maladies?

The Climax

And at the end of the novel (it is near the end, yes?), your characters will face their biggest obstacles, and all of the simmering conflicts and plots and subplots all come to a head. It helps if the climax is your best, most dramatic scene, when the moments have the biggest weight and the characters are experiencing their highest highs and their lowest lows. A great climax will have your reader cheering or crying or laughing or all of the above. Hopefully in a good way.


If you have a sense of these six components before you sit down to write you will already have the most difficult elements in place. You will have a sense of who your character(s) is/are, you will have a sense of where they are and where they're going, and a rough idea of how they get from Point A to Point B.

To be sure, the characters will surprise you along the way, certain things won't make sense when they're on the page and you'll have to adjust on the fly, but as long as these key elements are in place there is no reason why the idea of your novel should make your brain shut down.

Then all you have to accomplish is the mere trifle of spending hundreds of hours writing it.

Oh. And don't forget to revise like crazy.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Page Critique Monday: My Critique 8/16/10

Thanks very much to the intrepid WilliamJJones for offering his page for critique! has been very good to Mr. Jones lately as he was also randomly selected to be a participant in Be An Agent for a Day II. Now if he would just buy a lottery ticket for me we should be all set.

This is a solid page and it's hard not to be struck by the essential question: is the voice in the protagonist's head their own or someone else's? Who is this mysterious other person? Where are the voices leading the protagonist? There's some good mystery here that will keep the reader wanting to find out what happens next.

This page gets off on solid footing and I think it works reasonably well as is, but aside from the usual tightening-up edits, I have one sneaking worry about it: vagueness.

It's so difficult to build mystery in an opening. There's a very tricky balance between giving the reader what they need to know to understand the mystery vs. leaving some questions unanswered so it's mysterious vs. holding out on the reader by leaving out too many details, and I feel like this page may tilt just a bit too much to the latter. The (very) rough rule of thumb about building mystery, especially with first person narratives, is that the reader should see/know roughly what the narrator see/knows. When a first person narrator isn't letting the reader in on what they know they risk feeling like the author is holding out on them.

There are moments in this page that feel like the author is cheating a bit with a first person perspective (e.g. "The cameras had not detected this person." - how does the protagonist know this?), and there were other times when it felt like the protagonist was unnecessarily withholding detail from the reader. The mechanics of this: "The classroom door opened easily despite being locked." go unexplained (though perhaps will come later). This: "If this person was like me, I would get an answer" will have the reader saying "like what?" "what answer?" And this: "I thought I knew where the person was going" had me saying, "Well, why can't I know where the protagonist is guessing this person is going?" One or two of these on their own would probably be fine and contribute to a sense of mystery. Add them up together and the reader might feel like the narrator is being overly coy.

The last point I'd make on vagueness is that while the narrator seems to be aware that they are listening to voices in their head, aside from casually wondering if they're going crazy the character seemed oddly ambivalent about the voices, and I wasn't sure I fully believed that - if you were aware of the voices in your head wouldn't you be scared/awed/trying to get rid of them/something by them? And I was similarly confused by how nervous/apprehensive the protagonist is. While he/she quickly hides and breathes a sigh of relief when he/she isn't caught, he/she then feels no urgency to leave. So is this character scared or not? Why would they nearly escape and then feel no urgency to leave?

Overall, while I think this page is already in a reasonably good place, I feel like it would be just a bit stronger if the reader were let a bit more inside the protagonist's head and that just a bit more personality and emotion were infused into this opening.


Title: I'm a Nobody
Genre: YA Fantasy
250 Words


I obeyed the voice in my head without question. The classroom door opened easily despite being locked I was confused by this - at first in a good way, but then as the mysteries accumulated I started feeling a bit held out on. I closed it silently and turned to the dark room. Moments later the sound of footsteps came from the hall. They were fast and sharp. They grew closer, until they were just outside the room, and then they began to fade. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I had almost been caught trespassing "knowing I had almost been caught trespassing" reads just a tad awkwardly to me. Maybe break this up into "I breathed a sigh of relief. I had almost been caught trespassing" or otherwise show that the character is trespassing" (i.e. If I had been seen it would have meant X consequence).

It was nearing midnight, and the school’s security system was working, but I felt no urgency to leave I found this confusing - if they're scared of being caught why no urgency?. The cameras had not detected this person How does the protag know?. “Someone else can do it too?” I asked. Does the narrator ask this inside or outside of his/her head? If inside need to clarify, if outside, why would the narrator risk being caught by speaking?


I obeyed, throwing open the door are they no longer worried about getting caught? Wouldn't "throwing open" the door make a bigger noise than slipping through it? and chasing the source of the footsteps through the dark halls.

I knew that hearing voices meant someone was crazy, and obeying the voices without question "without question" feels repetitive from the first line made them dangerous. But I wasn’t crazy or dangerous. The voices in my head were always right. I didn’t know what that made me this feels a bit devoid of emotion - how does the narrator feel about the voices? What do they want to do about it? .

If this person was like me, I would get an answer an answer about what? This feels a bit like a mystery upon a mystery. We don't even know what the question is, let alone wondering about an answer - it's tough to feel curious about it when we don't even know what the protagonist is wondering about and how what they're wondering about matters. It could literally be anything. Or does the protag mean an answer about whether they're crazy? If so I wonder if that could be clearer.

I followed the source of the footsteps through the school, past the main office and into a hall full of dull green lockers. I thought I knew where the person was going, though I couldn’t be sure wonder if we should know where the narrator thinks they're headed . After two more turns and a walking through this reads awkwardly - extra word? a short hall past a security camera, they were in front of a door if the protag can now see the person should they still be a "they". It looked like every other door in the school, with an oversized steel doorknob and peeling red paint this is an odd bit of description - the protagonist finally sees the person they've been alternately hiding from/chasing, and the first thing they describe is the door?.

Page Critique Monday: 8/16/10

Monday! In a further further-attempt to make the blog more navigable, I've gone back and updated the post labels so that hopefully they are a bit more comprehensive, and I will try to continue to be good about that.

See, watch this. Monkeys. Now I shall tag the post monkeys! Also every post is better when monkeys are mentioned.

On to the page critique!

Refresher on how this works:

- If you're interested in submitting a page for a future critique, enter it in this thread in the Forums (and be sure and check out the directions in the first post).
- I use a random number generator to select the winning critique.
- Please please please remember the sandwich rule when offering your thoughts: positive, very very constructive thoughts, positive. I mean it. Err on the side of being nice.

As of this posting there were 434 posts in the thread, and the number that the good machine at gave me was..........


Congrats to WilliamMJones, whose page is below:

Title: I'm a Nobody
Genre: YA Fantasy
250 Words


I obeyed the voice in my head without question. The classroom door opened easily despite being locked. I closed it silently and turned to the dark room. Moments later the sound of footsteps came from the hall. They were fast and sharp. They grew closer, until they were just outside the room, and then they began to fade. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I had almost been caught trespassing.

It was nearing midnight, and the school’s security system was working, but I felt no urgency to leave. The cameras had not detected this person. “Someone else can do it too?” I asked.


I obeyed, throwing open the door and chasing the source of the footsteps through the dark halls.

I knew that hearing voices meant someone was crazy, and obeying the voices without question made them dangerous. But I wasn’t crazy or dangerous. The voices in my head were always right. I didn’t know what that made me.

If this person was like me, I would get an answer.

I followed the source of the footsteps through the school, past the main office and into a hall full of dull green lockers. I thought I knew where the person was going, though I couldn’t be sure. After two more turns and a walking through a short hall past a security camera, they were in front of a door. It looked like every other door in the school, with an oversized steel doorknob and peeling red paint.

Friday, August 13, 2010

This Week in Publishing 8/13/10

In!!!!!!!!!! PublishingThisWeek

First up, if you are in the San Francisco vicinity I will be on a panel hosted by the good people at GigaOM regarding Disintermediation in Publishing the morning of August 25th. It's free, the panel I'm on is with the CEO of Smashwords, author Simon Wood, and the Director of Marketing at RAND, it's free, the other panel is with the CEOs of Vook and Scribd and the Director of Digital Publishing at Adobe, it's free, did you notice how I'm the least qualified person in attendance, it's free. Register here!

Oh, and you may have noticed a few blog enhancements that I instituted this week. At the bottom of every post there are now suggested links for your perusing pleasure, and yes, I know lots of them are This Week in Publishings and I will soon append dates to these so at least you'll know where you'll end up when you take a ride on the This Week in Publishing Time Machine. Bellow those links is a fancy dancy Facebook Like button for your sharing-with-friends pleasure, and down below and to the right is a new official Tweet button that will easily allow you to post the link to Twitter should you so desire.

For the latest on the whole B&N is possibly up for sale thing, as per usual Michael Cader is there with a completely essential rundown of their boomerang end of the week (subscription). A quick summary: CEO/founder Len Riggio has been resisting efforts by billionaire shareholder Ron Burkle to increase his stake in the company. After the announcement last week it appeared a settlement was close, then at the last minute negotiations broke down. Meanwhile a judge ruled that the poison pill that prevented Burkle from increasing his stake was valid. Then Burkle announced a proxy fight to remove Riggio. Cader feels that all this means some sort of deal to take the company private is the most likely outcome. Please check out his summary for more info, and if you don't already subscribe to Pub Lunch please consider it.

In other industry news, Eric from Pimp My Novel predicts the end of a print format and it's not the one you'd expect, Gina Frangello posted a fascinating take on life in the indie trenches, the Plastic Logic e-reader Que está muerto, and Slate's Farhad Manjoo is predicting e-readers priced at $99 in time for the holidays.

Time Magazine is featuring novelist Jonathan Franzen on the cover, the first time a novelist has been on the cover in a decade, ahead of the publication of his highly anticipated novel FREEDOM. Oh. He's also in Vogue. No, really.

Anticipating the publication of Suzanne Collins' MOCKINGJAY, The NY Times featured an article noticing the trend of adults reading children's literature, including a tres exclusive bookclub circle in New York devoted exclusively to kids books. Even more scandalous, though unaddressed by the article: lots of adults are writing children's books too. You didn't hear it from me. (via @EdwardNecarsulmerIV)

"H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A. That's my memoir, get your damn hands up." Actually it's not really a memoir as much as part/memoir song-lyric-demystification. And it's called DECODED, which means I lost my bet in the "What will Jay-Z call his memoir" pool. Argh. I had my money on HARD KNOCK LIFE or THE BLUEPRINT.

In writing advice news, there were two takes on said/non-said dialogue tags, and they agree. Both Rachel Cotterill (via @lkblackburne) and Eric from Pimp My Novel spoke in favor of sticking to "said" and "asked" or even just "said," and Rachel Cotterill explains why sticking to "said" and "asked" does not feel repetitive: they're stop words. They're so common (like "the") that when they're there no one even notices. "I agree with both of them," Nathan said.

And if you have some time on your hands, ohdeedoh turned some old paperbacks into snazzy looking hardcovers and shows how you can do the same! (via Katherine Arathoon)

This week in the Forums, the hilarious keywords people use to arrive at your blog, ten reasons why e-books won't take over the world (agree? disagree?), counting down to MOCKINGJAY, how do you motivate yourself to write, and of course, the most hilarious advice you've received from non-writers.

Comment! Of! The! Week! Goes! To! Adam.Purple. I went verbose last week, but Adam's pithy response to the Keith Hernandez Rule made me chuckle:

I'm afraid I'm more familiar with the Bill Buckner rule.

And finally, two images that will have you smiling for the weekend. The first is the amazing site Better Book Titles, which re-imagines the covers of retitled classic works (via The Rejectionist):

And finally finally, John Ochwat pointed me to an amazing merit badge for sending off your query letter from Merit Badger:

And yes, that is a recently ripped out heart and an envelope.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Writers, Authority, and The Keith Hernandez Rule

While I have previously tackled the perennial conversation topic/game/complaint Today's Publishing Industry Would Have Never Publishing Such and Such Genius Old Book Because Everyone in Publishing Today is a Freaking Idiot, there is a component to these complaints that I would like to delve into just a tad deeper.

I find it curious that whenever this comes up, 99% of the time the "example" book that supposedly wouldn't be published today happens to be a rule-breaking and/or idiosyncratic and/or conventional-wisdom-defying classic. Ulysses or The Sound and the Fury or Infinite Jest or Moby-Dick etc. etc. etc. And more curiously still, the thing that most of these books have in common is that they were written by an author who had already established huge followings and credibility the old fashioned way.

The Hits Before the Hits

J.K. Rowling did not start off writing 200,000+ word books for middle graders where important beloved characters, ya know, die. By the time she wrote Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, the longest in the series, she had the audience's trust to delve extremely deeply into the world of her novels and to explore a deep emotional palette, deeper than may have have been possible with a debut.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, a more conventionally told tale, before dropping the epic The Lord of the Rings.

James Joyce wrote Dubliners before Ulysses. David Foster Wallace wrote the relatively trim (467 pages) The Broom of the System and had a zillion short stories published everywhere that matters before he wrote Infinite Jest. Herman Melville wrote conventional travel memoirs before publishing Moby-Dick (which famously was a bust at first).

In other words, these writers built their audience before they tried to break all the rules.

The Keith Hernandez Rule

There is a classic Seinfeld episode where former Mets baseball star Keith Hernandez is on a date with Elaine, and he's worrying about whether he should kiss her. Then he thinks to himself, "Wait a second, I'm Keith Hernandez!"

The Sports Guy calls this a Keith Hernandez Moment -- when a sports star realizes, wait a second, I'm LeBron James, I'm going to score the next 25 points.

Writers who have achieved "I'm Keith Hernandez!" status haven't just achieved the trust of the publishing industry, they've achieved the trust of readers, who will stick with them longer than they would have otherwise if it were a debut. They've earned the ability to delve in deeper into a world or into an idiosyncratic style than would normally be possible because they have gained the authority to do it.

This is why it's dangerous to try and get too far out there before you've achieved Keith Hernandez status. Yes, there are occasional 200,000+ word debuts and yes, there are books that sometimes break the rules in advance.

But for the most part, if you're going to take a journey with someone deep into the wilderness, the first step is convincing the other person that you're a good guide.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Where Are Your Reading Habits on the Writing/Storytelling Spectrum?

Last week we discussed writing vs. storytelling and parsed out how it's often the storytelling and not the sentence-to-sentence prose that is drawing people in when a book is extremely popular.

Let's imagine two sliding scale spectrums:

0-10 on the writing scale
And 0-10 on the storytelling scale

10 writing, 0 storytelling would be experimental fiction and other prose-centric musings without much/any story.
0 writing, 10 storytelling would be novels where the story is fantastic but the prose is basically indistinguishable from another book or otherwise not very strong.

Everything in between would each be a combination of strengths. For instance, 7 writing/10 storytelling would be well-written edge-of-the-seat genre fiction, 10 writing/10 storytelling would be a book that melds beautiful (if challenging) prose with expert plotting, and 10 writing/6 storytelling would finely wrought novels where we mainly admire the writing.

So. How important is writing vs. storytelling to you? Which is more important to you when you choose a book? Do you have a sweet spot? Do you gravitate toward a certain combination of writing and storytelling? Do you have limits?

Speaking personally, my favorite books are close to 10/10, but as long as the storytelling is great I'm very willing to skimp on the writing scale. I can't do less than about a 5 or 6 on storytelling no matter how good the writing is.

What about you?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Do You Suffer From One of These Writing Maladies?

[commercial voice] There are pernicious writerly germs out there infecting pages all around the world. Left uncured they can be fatal. Talk to your book doctor or literary health provider if you notice any of these symptoms:

Yoda Effect: Difficult to read, sentences are, when reversing sentences an author is. Cart before horse, I'm putting, and confused, readers will be.

Overstuffed Sentences: An overstuffed sentence happens when a writer tries to pack too many things into one sentence in convoluted fashion, making it difficult for the intent of the sentence to come through and to follow it becomes an exercise in re-reading the sentence while making the sentence clearer in our brains so we can understand the overstuffed sentence, which is the point of reading.

Imprecision: When writers just miss the target ground with their word using they on occasion elicit a type of sentence experiential feeling that creates a backtracking necessity.

Chatty Cathy: So, like, I don't know if you've noticed but OMG teenagers use so much freaking slang!!! And multiple exclamation points!!! In a novel not a blog post!!! And so I'm all putting tons of freaking repetitious verbal tics into totes every sentence and it's majorly exhausting the reader because WAIT I NEED TO USE ALL CAPS.

Repetition: Sometimes when authors get lyrical, lyrical in a mystical, wondrous sense, they use repetition, repetition that used sparingly can be effective, effective in a way that makes us pause and focus, focus on the thing they're repeating, but when used too many times, so many times again and again, it can drive us insane, insane in a way that will land the reader in the loony bin, the loony bin for aggrieved readers.

Shorter Hemingway: Clipped sentences. Muscular. Am dropping articles. The death. It spreads. No sentence more than six words. Dear god the monotony. The monotony like death.

Non Sequiturs: Sometimes when authors are in a paragraph one thing won't flow to the next. They'll describe one thing, wow can you believe that thing that happened three days ago?, and keep describing the first thing.

Description Overload: Upon this page there is a period. It is not just any period, it is a period following a sentence. It follows this sentence in a way befitting a period of its kind, possessing a roundness that is pleasing to the eye and hearty to the soul. This period has the bearing of a regal tennis ball combined with the utility of a used spoon. It is an unpretentious period, just like any other, the result of hundreds of years of typesetting innovations that allows it to be used, almost forgotten, like oxygen to the sentence only darker, more visible. And it is after this period, which will neither reappear nor matter in any sense whatsoever to the rest of the novel, that our story begins.

Stilted dialogue:
Character #1: "I am saying precisely what I mean!"
Character #2: "Wait. What is that you are trying to tell me?"
Character #1: "Are you frickin' listening to me? I am telling you precisely what I am feeling in this given moment. And I'm showing you I'm really angry by using pointed rhetorical questions and petulant exhortations. God."
Character #2: "Sheesh! Well, I'm responding with leading questions that allow you to tell me exactly what you mean while adding little of value to the conversation on my own. Am I not?"
Character #1:"You are totally doing that. You totally frickin' are. Ugh! I'm so mad right now!"

The Old Spice Guy Effect (excessive rug-pulling). The character was standing on a rug. He falls through his floor to his death! The rug was actually a trap door. But wait, the character was already dead. He merely faked falling through the trap door. But wait, the trap door was actually a portal into another world. The character was actually alive, he just thought he was dead. Now he's really dead. Or is he? I'm in a chair.

Have you spotted any other writerly viruses out there in the wild?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Page Critique Monday: My Critique

Thanks very much to Petronella for offering today's page, which instantly had me wishing that I had six brains, one of which would be plugged into a vast library. Um. When can I sign up for the surgery and do I need to bring my own Novocaine?

Honestly though, it's a very compelling premise and I'm curious about where this character will be taking their six brains. However, I had some concerns about the prose in this page, and there are two main culprits: imprecision and overstuffed sentences.

An overstuffed sentence happens when a writer tries to pack too much into a sentence in convoluted fashion, making it difficult for the intent of the sentence to come through and to follow it becomes an exercise in re-reading the sentence while making the sentence clearer in our brains so we can understand the overstuffed sentence, which is the point of reading.

Basically: overstuffed sentences tend to go off in unexpected directions (one clause doesn't lead directly to the next) and/or are filled with superfluous detail that obfuscates rather than clarifies.

There are two overstuffed sentences in this page ("I learned of other things I needed to know about when the day came for me to leave the gestation tank in which my body took form." and "Others of my kind would guide my automatic motions, and later teach me to undertake the volitional movements, which would be with me for the rest of my existence.") that would benefit from having superfluous detail removed or otherwise clarified (see below in the redline).

And in terms of precision, there was phrasing that didn't quite connote what the author intended and some grammar/spelling errors that tripped me up.

If this paragraph were smoother, the visceral experience of a character slowly becoming conscious with multiple brains would be more immediate and gripping.


Thistledown: Genesis
Genre: Science Fiction

Chapter 1: Jay’s Story: Birth

I became aware when the first of my six brains activated. At the same time "At the same time" doesn't really connote "simultaneously" for me, which is how it's intended here. It's more commonly used to mean "However," so I had to re-read it when I realized it was intended to mean "simultaneously", the Library, a vast fount of knowledge, linked to my newly activated brain. One of the many librarians allowed me access to but a tiny part of the vast database. In_spite of the small size of the area I find this confusing - is it a physical area? We don't normally think of electronic databases in terms of physical space , I delighted in all the knowledge I found there . Into my dark, silent world came light in a rainbow of colours, and sounds in a range of tones. I learned of other about the things I needed would need to know about when the day came for me to leave the gestation tank in which my body took form. It would be a long time before that would happen this feels confusing since it's in first person/past tense and presumably the narrator would know how long it took. Maybe just say "I spent X days/months/years in that state?. In the meanwhile, I played in my part of the library.

Moments before my birth, the second of my brains activated. This one governed movement, both automatic and volitional. Others of my kind would guide my automatic motions, and later teach me to undertake the volitional movements, which would be with me for the rest of my existence. This feels like it should come later - do we need to know this now?

I waited, impatient to be born. After an indeterminate period of time Reads awkwardly. Maybe just say "Finally?" or "At last", the top of the tank slid aside and a blurry red-lit world revealed itself. Two pairs of hands helped me to a standing position. The owners of the hands Awkward. Missed opportunity to describe what these people/beings look like. Or, if the narrator can't see, just combine with the previous sentence to say "Two pairs of hands helped me to a standing and wiped the clear birth fluids from my body, making certain most the the jelly-like substance fell back into the tank.


Just using the author's own language and incorporating the changes above it would read:

I became aware when the first of my six brains activated. The Library, a vast fount of knowledge, linked to my newly activated brain. One of the librarians allowed me access to a tiny part of the vast database, and I delighted in all the knowledge I found there. Into my dark, silent world came a rainbow of colours and sounds. I spent X months in that state, playing in my part of the library and learning about the things I would need to know when the day came for me to leave the gestation tank

Moments before my birth, the second of my brains activated. This one governed movement, both automatic and volitional.

I waited, impatient to be born. At last, the top of the tank slid aside and a blurry red-lit world revealed itself. Two pairs of hands helped me to a standing position and wiped the clear birth fluids from my body, making certain most the the jelly-like substance fell back into the tank.

Related Posts with Thumbnails