Nathan Bransford, Author


Friday, May 28, 2010

This Week in Publishing 5/28/10

This Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek IN PUBLISHING.

First up, there will be no Page Critique Monday this coming Monday as the blog (and its author) will be taking Memorial Day off. However, I'm pleased to report: CONTEST ON TUESDAY!!! I'm very excited about this one, which is in honor of the release of Lisa Brackkman's dynamite thriller ROCK PAPER TIGER, which oh yes received a fabulous starred PW review and is ten kinds of awesome (and quite possibly more). So see you on Tuesday!

Speaking of buzz, the iPad has gone on sale in Japan, some countries in Europe, and Australia, and wouldn't you know: lines abound.

Also in iPad news, B&N released their highly anticipated iPad e-reader app, and I have to say, in my opinion it's the best one yet and well worth the wait. It's eminently customizable - you can change fonts, margins, colors, sizes, create your own themes based on your preferences, or, if all that customization isn't your thing you can just click a button to use the publisher's settings. Books are searchable, notetaking is a piece of cake, you can highlight anything and look it up in the dictionary or on Google and Wikipedia, it incorporates the built-in Lend-Me feature, and you always know what page you're on with a nice little scrolling image at the bottom of the screen. Well done, B&N. Well done, indeed. The only drawbacks I noticed is that things seem to load just a bit more slowly than the other e-reading apps, there aren't page-turning customization options, and per CNet they haven't yet worked out iPad/iPhone syncing, but that's coming later in the year.

Meanwhile, amid word that Apple's iBooks is opening itself to self-publishers and B&N is launching a self-publishing program, Eric at Pimp My Novel takes stock of some of the lack the options for self-publishers at iBooks, and says that neither of these developments represent a death knell for publishers and agents. This clip seems relevant.

And swear this is the last e-book link, but via Moby Lives..... another e-reader debuts! This one has an LCD screen, runs Android and sells for $199. It also looks pretty nice. It's called the Novel, which shouldn't be confusing at all.

BEA was this week and there have been a ton of recaps and blog posts around the Internet, but by my money no one does BEA recaps and captures the spirit of the event better than agent Janet Reid. One Two Three Four - go!

Oh - also in BEA news, Garrison Keillor wrote the New York Times' 4,178,258,257th Op-Ed on the end of publishing as we know it (The cause: deluge of self-published books. The apocalyptic metaphor: "Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea."). Flavorwire took a survey the industry reactions to the op-ed, and... yeah wow. Pithiest response goes to Marley Magaziner: “Having worked at NPR and in publishing, publishing pays better.” (via @Victoria Strauss)

In writing advice news, my client Jennifer Hubbard has an awesome blog post about how difficult it is to decide whether or not to take editorial guidance, and how at the end of the day it's your name on the book.

Author Hannah Moskowitz wrote a fantastic post about dealing with inevitable frustration at every level of the publishing process ("everyone feels like they're not as good as everyone else"), and how best to deal with it. Her secret isn't unplugging from the business (that's impossible) but instead finding supportive people outside of it.

And Livia Blackburne has a terrific summary of a chapter of a book called MADE TO STICK, about what keeps a reader's attention: a knowledge gap. Don't know what that means? Better click over to fill your knowledge gap!

In agent advice news, Rachelle Gardner has a great post for authors considering switching agents, noting that the grass is not always greener, and Jessica at BookEnds has some awesome ideas for ways to use your galleys.

This week in the Forums: the violent cartoons we watched as kids, whether or not flashbacks work, queries and voice, and um, seriously the show's over and I still have no idea what happened on Lost.

Oh - and the wonderful Tahereh was kind enough to interview me on her wonderful blog!

Comment! Of! The! Week! goes to Josin L. McQuein, who had a terrific comment on setting. An excerpt:

Terrain isn't a backdrop and shouldn't be treated like one. It requires navigation because of rises and dips. There are snaggling brambles and tree branches that can tickle or torment.

Surfaces have texture. They reflect light or shatter it, sometimes they devour it.

Setting is such a key component to the tone of a story it bugs me when people shrug it off as though it were no more than the shoebox used to house a first grade diorama of the Cretaceous Period.

And finally, via Serzen in the Forums, a hilarious song from author Parnell Hall about having a signing in Waldenbooks and nobody's there.



Have a great weekend! See you Tuesday!






Thursday, May 27, 2010

What Makes a Great Setting

The Reading Rainbow theme song really had it right.

One of the best parts of reading is the way in which it opens up a new world to us, whether it's set in in an unpronounceable ancient kingdom, the far reaches of outer space, ancient history, the distant future, or even the real world but maybe somewhere we've never been. It's an incredible experience to be immersed in an unfamiliar setting.

Still, I'm not sure that all aspiring authors give quite enough thought to setting. The best worlds are more than just the trees that dot the hillsides or the stars in outer space. There's more to a good setting than simply a place where the novel is set.

There are three important elements to a good setting:

Change Underway

The best settings are not static, unchanging places that have no impact on the characters' lives. Instead in the best worlds there is a plot inherent to the setting itself: a place in turmoil (Lord of the Rings), or a place that is resisting change but there are tensions roiling the calm (To Kill a Mockingbird), or the sense of an era passing in favor of a new generation (The Sound and the Fury).

Basically: something is happening in the bigger world that affects the characters' lives. Great settings are dynamic.

Personality and Values:

There is more still to a great setting than the leaves on the trees and even the change that is happening within that world: a great setting has its own value system. Certain traits are ascendant, whether it's valor and honor (Lord of the Rings), justice and order (Hondo), every man for himself (The Road) or it could even be a place where normal values and perspectives have become skewed or inverted (Catch-22).

There's a personality outlook that throws us off kilter and makes us imagine how we'd react if we were placed in that world. And it makes us wonder whether we have the makeup to thrive within it.

Unfamiliarity:

Most importantly, a great setting shows us something we've never seen before. Either it's a place that most readers might be unfamiliar with and have never traveled to (The Kite Runner), or it shows us a place that we are all-too-familiar with, but with a new, fresh perspective that makes us look again (And Then We Came to the End).


When all of these elements combine and when characters become swept up in the broader changes sweeping the world of the novel it elevates the plot by giving it a deeper and larger canvass. Even if the characters aren't saving the world or confronting the changes head-on, the best plots intersect with their settings (and vice versa) to give us a sense of a character in a world, partially able to control their surroundings, but partially subject to the whims of forces outside their control. The setting is as much a living thing as the characters themselves.

What do you think makes for a good setting? And what are some of your favorites?

Photo by Matt Frederick via a Creative commons License






Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Which Literary Character Do You Totally Have a Crush On?

First off, I'm very pleased to report that after last month's You Tell Me wherein I sheepishly admitted I had never read LORD OF THE RINGS: this has now been rectified. I even started with The Hobbit. Loved them! That Tolkien guy was a pretty good writer in case you haven't heard.

Now then. This week's You Tell Me is inspired by a question Robin asked in the Forums: which literary character do you have a crush on?

Since it was #towelday yesterday, I'll go with teenage Nathan's choice: Trillian from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

What about you?






Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Can I Get a Ruling: How Do We Feel About Prologues?

Prologues are one of the most asked-about subjects in the publishingosphere. Do agents like them? Should I include mine in a partial? How many people dying at the hands of zombie mutants in the first page of my prologue is too many? And so on.

My post on all things prologue is here. But what I am curious about today is: do you like prologues? How strongly do you feel about them either way? Do your feelings run hot, cold, or lukewarm?

If you're reading via a feed reader or by e-mail you'll need to click through to see the poll.







Monday, May 24, 2010

Page Critique Monday

It's Monday, which means it's time for our regular feature: WHAT IN THE WORLD HAPPENED ON LOST IT'S EVERYTHING I CAN DO TO AVOID A SPOILER RIGHT NOW MONDAYS!!! Oh. I mean Page Critique Monday. Which will occasionally be Query Critique Monday, One Sentence/One Paragraph/Two Paragraph Pitch Critique Monday, Synopsis Critique Monday, and Insert Other Kind of Monday.

A reminder of the rules (please read before posting because the first eligible comment will get the critique):

1. The first person to enter a 250 word excerpt from the beginning of their novel in the comment section will win the critique. Please also tell us the title and genre.
2. I will update the post with the excerpt, unedited, so we can all read and form our opinions.
3. I will later update the post again with the excerpt now featuring my redlines, thoughts, comments, drawrings, emoticons, and assorted other marginalia (but really only redlines, thoughts, and comments)
4. Feel free to add your own two cents, but remember the sandwich method: positive, extremely polite constructive criticism (and I mean it), positive. I've decreed you need to read and heed this creed or I'll proceed to make you bleed. Indeed.

To the island! Or whatever it was!

UPDATE #1: THE EXCERPT

Here is the page. I'll be back later with my critique.

Secrets of the Moon Fox

Fantasy/Suspence


Arriving home, Liska noticed instantly, even before she got to the door, that someone was already inside. Living alone, and being mildly anti-social, this was neither expected nor desired. Now, was whoever was inside looking for Liska or ‘Anna’?

She analyzed the place silently. There was no outward proof to back up her suspicions. The door was still shut, and apparently locked, the windows were shaded just as she had left them, but instinct, deep animal instinct warned her. Her den had been invaded. But by whom and why?

A college dorm room is not known for being overly secure. This dorm, built in the same mold of a motel, was even less so. Absolutely anyone could walk onto the campus, pick or force the sub-standard lock, and waltz in. Yes, she was on the second floor, which made random break-ins a touch less likely, but it wasn’t impossible. This didn’t feel random, though.

It could be a thief or an attacker that was focused on her or her current ‘safe’ persona. If that was the case, it would be wise to have Liska ready, even if not immediately apparent. On the other hand, it could be something logical and harmless, like the RA doing an inspection or leaving a note; or maintenance or the bug exterminator she had been warned would come by sometimes. Those would definitely be ‘Anna’ visitors. It could be a family member waiting for her; to deliver a message, or test her. Or both.

UPDATE #2: THE CRITIQUE

Thanks so much to HJHarding for offering up the page for critique. This is the third page critique in a row that begins with an interesting setup! In this case a potential burglary-in-progress or some other mysterious visitor. There's an immediate question that sucks in the reader (Who is in there?) and my curiosity was definitely piqued. It also seems like there may be some sort of dual-identity thing going on, which I'd be curious to learn more about.

That said, I'm afraid I had a few concerns, which break down into three broad categories:

1) Building suspense/interest

As mentioned, this setup has a lot of potential: someone might be in this person's home (or den... or dorm... more on that in a minute). And yet that's basically all we learn about what's actually happening. The rest of the page passes as the protagonist spends three paragraphs standing in place, idly wondering what is happening and running through a list of hypothetical possibilities.

There are no more clues even about how the protagonist knows or senses that someone is inside, so instead of learning more detail about the world or the character or the predicament, we have a character thinking, essentially: this could be dangerous or it could be harmless, who could say really?

Yes, there's surely more to come, but I wasn't sure I understood what the protagonist knew or how they knew what they knew, nor was I clear what they really felt about whatever it was they knew or suspected. If the intent is to build suspense (it may not be, but seems to be here), it's far more suspenseful if the protagonist is actually acting on their curiosity, investigating, and noticing key details rather than idly wondering about hypotheticals.

And a good (though of course oft-excepted) rule of thumb: in the absence of dramatic irony, if the protagonist isn't scared your reader probably isn't going to be scared.

2) Specificity of Detail

It's very important to keep in mind that just about every noun has a default mental image associated with it, and it's one reason why it's important to be as precise as possible with descriptions. When we read that someone is wielding a gun, unless you specify otherwise we're going to assume the the character holding it in their hand and not their feet. When we read the word office, we're going to assume there's a desk, a computer, and maybe some filing cabinets unless the writer specifies otherwise.

And in this case, when the author says someone arrives at "home," maybe it's just me but I'm picturing a house without any clarifying detail. I don't even live in a house and I still picture a house. But then it's referred to as a "den," and coming after the phrase "deep animal instinct," I thought okay, this is an animal and they're arriving back at their den. Then we get to "dorm," and I had to revise my mental image a third time.

It's a jarring experience for the reader to have to continually revise their mental image of a setting, and it doesn't establish trust that the reader is in sure hands. In this case, the first line could have very easily specified that Liska was arriving back at her dorm room and we would have been on solid footing, since it's specific. Then when we got to "den" we'd be more likely to read it as I suspect the author intends - that this character is part animal or has animal-like tendencies. But even then it's important to clue the reader in that the character is literally thinking like an animal, and reinforce that interpretation as much as possible because it's probably not the first place the reader's mind is going to go.

3) Flow

I thought there were some interesting stylistic touches, but I'm afraid these paragraphs never quite got into a flow for me. Part of this was due to several tense inconsistencies, and there were also some sentences that felt broken off before their natural completion. I wasn't feeling like one sentence was leading naturally to the next.

Also, I felt like some of the details were vague when they could have been more specific, and as a result I had some trouble unpacking the last paragraph on the page especially. For instance, is her entire family really prone to/capable of breaking into her dorm room or is there one or two specific family members that she'd be worried about?

REDLINE

Secrets of the Moon Fox

Fantasy/Suspence


Arriving home, Liska noticed instantly, even before she got to the door, that someone was already inside. Living alone, and being mildly anti-social, this was neither expected nor desired. Passive voice/fragment. It also feels a bit languid if we're supposed to get the sense that she's nervous - she just seems mildly bothered. (this might be the intent) Now, was whoever was inside looking for Liska or ‘Anna’? I am not anti-rhetorical questions in novels themselves. But I found this one a little jarring.

She analyzed the place silently "The place" feels a bit vague to me. Is there something in particular she's looking at to help ground us?. There was no outward proof to back up her suspicions. The door was still shut, and apparently locked "apparently" locked? How can she tell?, the windows were shaded just as she had left them, but instinct, deep animal instinct warned her I'm afraid the repetition of "instinct, deep animal instinct" didn't quite work for me. Her den had been invaded. But by whom and why?

A college dorm room is not known for being overly secure Aren't they?. This dorm, built in the same mold of a motel, was even less so. Absolutely anyone could have walked onto the campus, picked or forced the sub-standard lock, and waltzed in. Yes, she was on the second floor, which made random break-ins a touch less likely, but it wasn’t impossible. This didn’t feel random, though I think this would read better without the "though".

It could have been a thief or an attacker that was focused on her "that was focused on her" reads awkwardly - don't think you need "that was", and "focused" seems vague. What does "focused on" mean? Are they targeting her? Investigating her? Hunting her? or her current ‘safe’ persona. If that was were the case, it would have been wise to have Liska ready, even if not immediately apparent I'm not sure what "if not immediately apparent" means. On the other hand, it could have been something logical and harmless, like the RA doing an inspection or leaving a note; or maintenance or the bug exterminator she had been warned would come by sometimes. Those would definitely have been ‘Anna’ visitors. It could have been a family member waiting for her; to deliver a message, or test her. Or both.






Friday, May 21, 2010

This Week in Publishing 5/21/10

Thisssss Week in Publishing

The big chatter this week in the Publishingosphere (well, besides #LesserBooks) is J.A. Konrath's announcement that he is doing a direct deal with Amazon for his new novel SHAKEN, which will be priced at $2.99, and which is the latest in a series that had been published by Hyperion. I'd accordingly like to devote a few more paragraphs to this than I normally do in a This Week in Publishing Roundup.

Among the reactions around the blogosphere: Mike Shatzkin called it a "benchmark event," and notes that this marks a "significant jolt" to publishing economics: "Sales of Konrath’s $2.99 ebook will deliver him about $2.10 a copy (Konrath says $2.04; not sure where the other six cents is going…), as much or more as he would make on a $14.95 paperback from a trade publisher, and significantly more than he’d make on a $9.99 ebook distributed under “Agency” terms and current major publisher royalty conventions."

Author Jason Pinter wonders if Konrath's very public experience is going to drive some authors to self-publish before they're really ready, Sarah Weinman doesn't think it's a game-changer but notes that Amazon-as-publisher is a significant development, and Bloomsbury publisher Peter Ginna notes that there's not going to be any one game-changer but any number of game-changing challenges as the industry evolves its way into the e-book era.

My own feeling is that I'm a little surprised that everyone is so surprised. I also think it's important to remember that there isn't going to be any one way people publish books for the foreseeable future, there will be no single fatal blow to publishers and a mad rush for the exits, nor will traditional publishers necessarily be able to count on authors needing them to reach readers (especially when they're paying paltry e-book royalties). Instead there will be a spectrum of options, from the traditional to the unconventional, and what works for one author, even wildly well, is not necessarily going to work for another.

Whether Konrath's model of publishing becomes far more common also depends a great deal on what the future of e-bookselling looks like. Right now, because Amazon got out in front with the Kindle and built a large early market share lead, Konrath is able to reach the majority of e-book customers simply by dealing directly with Amazon. But the more successful e-booksellers there are and the more market share they represent (iBooks, B&N, Kobo, Sony, etc. with Google on the horizon and surely more to come), the more unwieldy it becomes for an author to try to reach all the possible markets on their own, especially if these vendors aren't willing to deal with individual authors because of issues of scale (it's way easier to deal with one publisher with 1,000 books than 1,000 individual authors).

And in that case, guess what: authors may need e-distributors to reach the most readers possible, just like they needed distributors in the olden days of paper. And all of a sudden intermediaries (including publishers) will have a new life and purpose, and authors dealing directly won't be as feasible.

So yes, let's note this development as another signpost as the industry evolves, but let's not write publishers' obituaries either. This could be the way of the future, or it could be an aberration due to a temporary landscape where one e-bookseller has built a big lead. Either way, my hat's off to Konrath. We need more experimentation.

Meanwhile! There was more news in publishing this week, and here it be:

Still more e-book news as the Wall Street Journal has an in-depth article on the looming challenges the digital era is posing on Barnes & Noble as it confronts the possibility of going the way of record stores (via Dick Hannah).

My wonderful colleague Ginger Clark's wonderful client Steph Bowe wrote a great post about whether age matters in publishing and her experiences getting a book deal. DID I MENTION SHE'S 16? Hilarity: "I'm 16. I got a book deal when I was 15. There are authors that were published at 13 and 14 and I always find myself thinking, God, must I fail at everything I do?" Ha. Already a grizzled veteran!

Dystel & Goderich agent Michael Bourret notes that as consumers grow increasingly empowered to try and boycott books for not being available at their preferred price and format, it's really authors who suffer most of all.

And George Washington's descendants can breathe a little easier that they're not on the hook for a massive library fine: a book he borrowed 221 years ago was finally returned (via Stephen Parrish)

This week in the Forums, the importance of buying a domain for your name/pen name and how to do it, you have another think coming, book title inspirations, and I think people are nearly ready to riot about Lost.

Comment! of! the! Week! goes to Nancy, who has a great spin on a quote from Agatha Christie about being a writer:

My screen saver is a marquee that quotes Agatha Christie: "I assumed the burden of the profession, which is to write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you are writing, and aren't writing particularly well," to which I would add, "and even when it feels like no one else likes what you write either..."

And finally, with the Lost finale on Sunday it's quite the end of an era as one of the great (if often frustrating) shows of the aughts comes to a close. And let's be honest, perhaps no show in history made us do this quite as much:



I'll miss you, Lost!

Have a great weekend!






Thursday, May 20, 2010

How to Write a One Sentence Pitch

Last week I outlined the general necessity of whittling down your plot to one sentence, one paragraph, and two paragraph pitches in order to give yourself a head start on the literally thousands of times you are going to need to summarize your work over the course of a book's lifetime.

Today I want to zero in on the one sentence pitch.

Caveat time: I don't want to oversell the importance of a one sentence pitch. It's really not something that is going to sink or float your book. A good pitch is not going to mean your book gets published and a bad pitch doesn't mean your book won't get published.

At the same time, the one sentence pitch as the core of all the summarizing you're going to do in the future. It's the heart of your book, whittled down to one sentence. It's what you build around when crafting longer pitches.

And there's an art to it.

There are three basic elements in a good one sentence pitch:

- The opening conflict (called the Inciting Incident by Robert McKee)
- The obstacle
- The quest

The quest can be a physical or interior journey, but it's what happens to the character(s) between the moment when the plot begins and ends. The opening conflict is the first step in that quest. It's how the journey begins. The obstacle is what stands in the way of that journey.

The resulting very basic pitch is: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER(s), they have OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE QUEST. There are lots different ways of structuring these basic elements, but they should be there.

The important thing to remember is that a good pitch is a description of what actually happens. It's a one sentence description of the plot, not the theme.

The danger of describing the theme in your pitch instead of the actual plot is that it invariably sounds generic. The pitch of Eat Pray Love is not "A recently divorced woman searches for love and happiness." That sounds like, well, a million books published every year. A better pitch would be "A recently divorced woman travels to Italy for pleasure, India for spirituality, and Bali for balance, but she finds love instead." That's what actually happens.

The last key element is a dash of flavor: anything you can do to flesh out your pitch with some key details that give a sense of the character of your novel (funny, scary, intense, tragic, etc.) will go a long way to giving the recipient of the pitch a sense of its unique personality.

I am by no means suggesting that I have a perfect one sentence pitch and will not be winning any pitch awards any time soon, but I have tried my best to live by the philosophy I have detailed above:

Three kids trade a corndog (FLAVOR) for a spaceship, blast off into space (OPENING CONFLICT), accidentally break the universe (OBSTACLE), and have to find their way back home (QUEST)

Once you have your one sentence pitch down pat the rest of your descriptions will be gravy. On corndogs. Yum.






Wednesday, May 19, 2010

If You Could Live in the World of One Novel, Which One Would You Choose?

One of the joys of reading a novel is immersing yourself in a different world, whether it's the verdant hills of Middle Earth, the magic around every corner at Hogwarts, the intrepid and dangerous seas aboard the Pequod, or spaceships and strange planets hitchhiking around the galaxy.

If you could pick one fictional world/setting/time period to live in, which one would it be?






Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Every Writer Gets Rejected

The number of times such and such iconic book was rejected has long been a favorite parlor game. The latest iteration in the genre is making the Internet rounds this week: 50 Iconic Writers Who Were Repeatedly Rejected (many of them quite rudely).

To which I say: Really? Only 50?

As agent Michael Bourret pointed out: everyone gets rejected. Everyone. Show me a writer and I'll show you someone who has been rejected. Repeatedly. By agents. By editors. By reviewers. Everyone.

The funny thing about these lists is that they're often used as evidence the publishing system is broken, especially among those who have received one too many rejection. People start shaking their fist about how the industry is stupid because INSERT NUMBER number of agents/publishers passed on INSERT ICONIC BOOK and then that book went on to become a RAGING SUCCESS. The raging success, of course, is meant show that the system is broken. Because, um, it was eventually so successful. Stupid home run hitter, you should have hit it a grand slam ON THE FIRST PITCH!

It always bears repeating: publishing is a human institution. Not everyone is going to see what others love in a book, even one that goes on to big success. Fit and enthusiasm are everything. And of course: Miss Cleo notwithstanding, humans are only so good at predicting the future.

Ergo: all writers are going to receive rejections. Even the best ones.

Still, these lists do have a purpose: they remind us that all writers have to go through their share of rejection.

There is definitely some comfort in knowing that the road isn't easy. Even for the best.






Monday, May 17, 2010

Page Critique Monday

It's Monday, which means it's time for our new regular feature (can a feature be both new and regular?): PAGE CRITIQUE MONDAYS!! Which will occasionally be Query Critique Monday, One Sentence/One Paragraph/Two Paragraph Pitch Critique Monday, Synopsis Critique Monday, and New Reality Show Idea Because The Ones I'm Watching Are Kind of Getting Old Critique Monday.

A reminder of the rules (please read before posting because the first eligible comment will get the critique):

1. The first person to enter a 250 word excerpt from the beginning of their novel in the comment section will win the critique. Please also tell us the title and genre.
2. I will update the post with the excerpt, unedited, so we can all read and form our opinions.
3. I will later update the post again with the excerpt now featuring my redlines, thoughts, comments, drawrings, emoticons, and assorted other marginalia (but really only redlines, thoughts, and comments)
4. Feel free to add your own two cents, but remember the sandwich method: positive, extremely polite constructive criticism (and I mean it), positive. I've decreed you need to read and heed this creed or I'll proceed to make you bleed. Indeed.

Here we go!

UPDATE #1: THE EXCERPT

Here is the page. I'll be back later with a critique, and in the meantime feel free to add your thoughts.

Title: PEARL EDDA
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

The wolf circled me.

Slowly.

Its eyes narrowed; its ears flat against its skull.

It snarled, baring teeth so white the flames reflected off them. My fingers gripped the knife I held pressed against my thigh as I turned with the beast. Each of us biding our time. Engaged in our silent dance amidst the chaos.

Around us, the forest popped and groaned. Flames licked their way up pine trees; concealed embers awaited their turn to wreak havoc; howls sliced through the inferno’s roar as one by one the pack was claimed.

The animal paused. Its body on point. Its black hackles ruffled.

Then it bolted, spinning away from me and from the others who were now each ensnared in death’s fiery grip.

Shoving the knife into its sheath, I chased after the beast, but it taunted me with its speed and agility. I burst forward, averting my eyes from the smoldering heaps littering the ground.

I couldn’t look.

I had but one goal – to find her. Somehow I knew the wolf shared that goal, but, unlike me, it had no desire to save her.


“Iven?”

Startled, I opened my eyes, wondering where I was and why my heart was racing. The dreams were more getting vivid and it took me a moment to get my bearings as several images ran through my muddled brain.

Fire…wolves…Salt Lake City…airport…

Olivia.

Relief coursed through me.

She sat in a vinyl chair across from me. Staring at me.

“Are you okay?” she asked.


UPDATE #2: MY CRITIQUE

I think there are some interesting images in this opening, and you can't really go wrong with a character staring down a wolf. The description evokes the setting, and I think it's an intriguing setup. Thanks so much to Heidi for participating!

My thoughts can be broken down into two rough categories:

1) The "Just Kidding!" opening: I see a lot of openings that start one way, only to find out that what we thought we were reading wasn't really happening - either it's a dream, or the description was such that we were intentionally misled by the author (e.g. we were led to believe it was a shark attack but actually it was just a game of Marco Polo), or some other rug-pulling-out that has the effect of tricking the reader. I call them "Just Kidding!" openings.

This is a dangerous game to play. It can definitely work if handled well and if the effect is very very necessary, but the danger is that it makes it extremely difficult to establish trust between reader and author. It's the literary equivalent of a hand buzzer, and the reader may feel like the joke's on them. After this opening, everything is potentially a dream sequence, and the effect can be exhausting. It's tough to take anything at face value.

If you're going to begin in this fashion, I think it's extremely important to catch the reader right after the dream: the author has to assure the reader in some fashion that there was a point to beginning in that fashion, whether it's because the protagonist has a concrete takeaway or there's a second shiny object that catches our interest and makes us forget the rug-pulling or some other way of smoothing over the dislocation the reader is feeling.

In this case though, the protagonist is basically recapping what we already saw and if anything introducing a further mystery, and there's not enough of a sense that okay, yes, just kidding that was a dream, but there's a reason we started this way and you're in sure hands. So in this trust fall, I'm not quite sure the author catches us.

2) Descriptions that are mouthfuls: There are some strong images here that really helped us get a sense of setting, and I particularly liked "Its body on point. Its black hackles ruffled." which is such a clear and precise description. However, there were other times where I felt like the descriptions felt like a mouthful, and I was concerned that it made the opening feel overwritten:

- "baring teeth so white the flames reflected off them" - This is an image that we can definitely picture, but it's a bit imprecise: just because something is white doesn't mean it's reflective, and just because it's whiter (e.g. "so white") doesn't mean it's going to be more reflective. It's not the color that makes something reflective, but rather how shiny/reflective it is (black could reflect flames too). Now, this may sound like total nitpicking and not many readers are going to stop and say, "Waiiiiiit a second, just because something is whiter doesn't mean it's going to better reflect flames!" Instead, the reader will just experience it as something feeling off. An image like this bothers the brain, even if we sometimes can't pinpoint exactly why until we stop and think about it. That's why precision is so important. But even more importantly, I just don't know that this description flows well. Similarly:
- "My fingers gripped the knife I held pressed against my thigh as I turned with the beast." I had a hard time tracking this sentence. Is the detail that he/she is holding the knife against his/her thigh really necessary? And what exactly is meant by "turned with the beast"? Are they turning or are they actually circling each other and would that be a more precise description? "turned with the beast" makes it sound as if they're on a turntable. It's also not necessary to specify that "my fingers" gripped the knife - unless otherwise specified we're going to assume he/she is holding the knife in her hands, so saying "my fingers" feels redundant and "I gripped the knife" is sufficient.
- "spinning away from me and from the others who were now each ensnared in death’s fiery grip": Again, another mouthful that's difficult to track. Who are the others and how exactly are they ensnared? And what does "spinning" mean - is it literally spinning through the air? If so, that seems like something that may need to be described further so we have the right image.

There are many instances (which I'll mark below) where it seems like there's a thought that could be described much more precisely, and I just don't know that enough is gained by stretching for a more evocative description, especially in an action sequence. There definitely needs to be enough detail to ground the reader, but when it's overly wordy it slows down the action as the reader tries to unpack the imagery.

REDLINE

Title: PEARL EDDA
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

The wolf circled me.

Slowly. Is this necessary? Usually a word gets its own paragraph when it’s surprising, but is it really surprising for a wolf to circle someone slowly? Do they ever circle someone quickly?

Its eyes narrowed; its ears flat against its skull. Not sure about the sentence fragment or the semi-colon. Wonder if the rhythm would be better if this were two short declarative sentences (like the body on point/hackles paragraph).

It snarled, baring teeth so white the flames reflected off them. My fingers gripped the knife I held pressed against my thigh as I turned with the beast. Each of us biding our time. Tense change. Engaged in our silent dance amidst the chaos. The chaos hasn't yet been described, so I don't know that it needs to be referenced if you're not going to specify. Otherwise, since this scene has so far been focused on the faceoff (I originally thought the flames reflected were from a campfire or something), the reader is just going to think, "Wait, what chaos?"

Around us, the forest popped and groaned. Flames licked their way up pine trees; concealed embers awaited their turn to wreak havoc "awaited their turn" makes it seem like the embers are intelligent/living beings; howls sliced through the inferno’s roar as one by one the pack was claimed. Not sure what's happening here.

The animal paused. Its body on point. Its black hackles ruffled. Love this.

Then it bolted, spinning away from me and from the others who were now each ensnared in death’s fiery grip.

Shoving the knife into its sheath, I chased after the beast, but it taunted me with its speed and agility Is the wolf showing off? Not sure that "taunting" is the right word choice here. I burst forward, averting my eyes from the smoldering heaps littering the ground.

I couldn’t look.

I had but one goal – to find her. Somehow I knew the wolf shared that goal "Shared that goal" feels a little awkward, esp. since "goal" is repeated again, but, unlike me, it had no desire to save her. "had no desire to" seems a tad overwrought. It's also already clear that they're not on the same side, so is this necessary to point out?


“Iven?”

Startled, I opened my eyes, wondering where I was and why my heart was racing Would the character really be wondering why their heart is racing? They just had a scary dream. The dreams were more getting vivid and it took me a moment to get my bearings as several images ran through my muddled brain.

Fire…wolves…Salt Lake City…airport… Since we now know this was a dream, it's important to help the reader feel like they know what they should be taking away from it and to leave them on sure footing. "Salt Lake City" and "airport" introduces a further mystery that the protagonist knows something about and the reader doesn't, and they may feel like you're holding out on them.

Olivia.

Relief coursed through me. Feels overwritten. Does relief really "course through"? But also it's telling: could we see what this character does/how they react when they feel relieved?

She sat in a vinyl chair across from me I like the detail of "vinyl chair". Simple, but helps give a mental image. Staring at me.

“Are you okay?” she asked.






Friday, May 14, 2010

This Week in Publishing 5/14/10

This week in..........

TYRA MAIL! Screeeeeammmm!!!!!!!

Yes, it has finally happened. Tyra Banks. Novelist. The model/talk show host/judge-of-fierceness has smized her way to a book deal for a YA novel called "Modelland," involving a land populated by "Intoxibellas," who are, of course, hot and fierce and will cry dramatically if you ask them about the challenges they had to overcome to become a top model (I made that last part up). Are you couture enough to read this book or are you just catalog?

Meanwhile, a commenter at Gawker took a stab at the first chapter, and the results. were. AMAZING. An excerpt: "When Mr. and Mrs. Catalog woke up on the dull, Covergirlless gray but not smokey-eyed Tuesday our story starts, there was nothing about the bland sky outside to suggest that fashionable or artistic things would soon be happening all over the country. Mr. Catalog hummed as he picked out the most boring pose for his photoshoot, and Mrs. Dursley talked smack happily as she wrestled a screaming Dreckley into her high chair... None of them noticed the large, tawny TyraMail flash across the window."

Whoever wrote that: PLEASE QUERY ME. PLEASE. IMMEDIATELY.

Believe it or not there was other news this week. I know!! I was surprised too.

More e-reader news afoot as Borders will be selling the e-ink Kobo e-reader for the cheaper-than-Kindle price of $149.99 starting in June. And in tablet news, Google is apparently teaming up with Verizon to create a tablet device amid news that a whopping 28% of Americans expect to buy an e-reader or tablet in the next year, and 49% within three years (via PubLunch).

All of which leads Mike Shatzkin to observe that e-book growth has been somewhat incremental things over the last few years and things have been changing gradually. Get ready for suddenly. (I love that the last few years were the gradual part. Hold on tight, everyone!!!)

The Guardian surveyed the landscape of international book covers, noting that unlike movie posters, book covers vary wildly from country to country. (via The Book Bench)

Stephen Parrish sent me two great links: an article from Newsweek about Herman Wouk, still writing at age 95! And I missed this one a few weeks ago, but the NY Times has published their seven millionth article about self-publishing.

Lots of great agent blog posts this week! Mary Kole is decamping for Brooklyn, Rachelle Gardner has a great post on the secrets of of a great pitch, Kate Schafer Testerman asks how much info is too much info about an author, and my brilliant colleague Sara LaPolla has an awesome post about what writers can learn from Betty White.

In other publishing news, Jeff Abbott tipped me off to an interesting post from Publishing Trends about the rise of hardcover series in the YA world, and Eric from Pimp My Novel has a great refresher post on some of the different departments within a publisher.

This week in the Forums, Friday Night Lights is back on network TV, we're continuing our discussion of LORD OF THE RINGS (I'm now into RETURN OF THE KING), predictions for the next big YA genre, whether the present tense works, and I would be wondering what is happening on Lost, but I'm too busy wondering why no one thought to give the guy in the black shirt a name. I mean, isn't that explanation enough for why he turned into a smoke monster??

Comment! of! the! week! Well, Bryan Russell (aka Ink) shows why he's the sheriff with a comment that bears mentioning again in full. On voice and the importance of authority:

Authority.

For me, one of the absolutely key elements of voice is authority. With a great voice you know the writer is in control, so in control that the writer vanishes and you see only the story. A great voice carries you through the story, compels you through the story.

"Call me Ishmael."

There's such authorial command in that opening. Indeed, it is a command. He doesn't say "My name is Ishmael" or "I'm called Ishmael." He says "Call me Ishmael." The voice itself tells you to sit down and listen to the story it's going to tell.

I think all great voices have that authority. Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Tim O'Brien, Ann Patchett, Javier Marias, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Chimamanda Adichie, David Foster Wallace... voices so uniquely themselves, and yet they all hold an incredible confidence and command. There's a sureness to a great voice. The words are simply right and the rhythms of the prose are buoyant. You won't sink, not with these voices

And finally, amid speculation that Hollywood is SO OVER Jane Austen and is now moving on to the Bronte sisters, there's a hilarious video making the rounds around the Internet (and forgive me, I can't remember who sent it to me first): the Bronte Sister Action Dolls!!



Have a great weekend!






Thursday, May 13, 2010

The One Sentence, One Paragraph, and Two Paragraph Pitch

It goes without saying that people hate writing queries. Loathe! Abhor! Hiss! Some authors feel it is simply beneath their dignity to have to distill the wondrous complexity of their novel to a brief excerpt.

But as has been chronicled in the past on this blog: authors have to summarize their work. Often. Repeatedly. In a wildly diverse array of settings. So much that you start to hate your own book. Okay, not that much. But close!

Summarizing your work is part of the job description of being an author. You signed up for it the minute you typed "Chapter 1." (And yes, literary fiction types, you don't get to sail through on "oh man it's so complicated but it's really all about the writing". You have to pitch too!). Whether it's pitching a project to an editor, for film, in interviews, in everyday conversation: you'll basically spend about as much time summarizing and talking about your work as you did writing it.

And yet different situations call for different length of pitches. A query is basically a two paragraph pitch with some query-related detail. But sometimes you'll want to use a one sentence pitch (for a bio, if you're into that whole brevity thing), or a one paragraph pitch (for briefly describing in real life conversation when you don't want someone's eyes to glaze over).

My feeling: get it all out of the way at once. Save yourself the headache and come up with a one sentence, one paragraph, and two paragraph pitch before you even start to query. Then: practice and memorize your pitches. You never know when you're going to need them.

I personally think the best way of going about this is to start with the one sentence pitch: not only is it the hardest to write, it contains the essence of your book. It's the most crucial arc of your story, with all the other details stripped away - even, sometimes, character names. It can be painful to whittle it down (I don't even mention the key villain in mine), but utterly, utterly necessary.

You then build around that one sentence pitch and flesh it out with some key details in the one paragraph pitch - maybe the character names, or the most important subplot, or a few quick images that give a sense of the sensibility of your work.

With the two paragraph you have more flexibility to add still more details and can make it a bit more of a story itself.

I did this for JACOB WONDERBAR. Here are my pitches (which I have to use very very often):

One sentence: Three kids trade a corndog for a spaceship, blast off into space, accidentally break the universe, and have to find their way back home.

One paragraph: Jacob Wonderbar trades a corndog for a sassy spaceship and blasts off into space with his best friends, Sarah and Dexter. After they accidentally break the universe in a giant space kapow, a nefarious space pirate named Mick Cracken maroons Jacob and Dexter on a tiny planet that smells like burp breath. They have to work together to make it back to their street on Earth where all the houses look the same.

Two paragraph: Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magellan Middle School ever since his dad moved away from home. He never would have survived without his best friend Dexter, even if he is a little timid, and his cute-but-tough friend Sarah Daisy, who is chronically overscheduled.

But when the trio meets a mysterious man in silver they trade a corn dog for his sassy spaceship and blast off into the great unknown. That is, until they break the universe in a giant space kapow and a nefarious space buccaneer named Mick Cracken maroons Jacob and Dexter on a tiny planet that smells like burp breath. The friends have to work together to make it back to their little street where the houses look the same, even as Earth seems farther and farther away.


And you know? There's no time like the present! It would be great to have more examples of these different types of pitches: Feel free to share your one sentence, one paragraph and two paragraph pitches in the comment section!






Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What is the Funniest Book of All Time?

Thank you so much to everyone for participating in the Inaugural First Page Critique, and especially to Michelle, our Inaugural First Pagee. There have been requests afoot for this to be a regular feature, and: consider it done!

Every Monday henceforth we'll have a page (and occasionally query) critique, and I'll continue to reward those with fast fingers and critique the first one posted in the comments. I liked the idea of choosing randomly from the comments section to account for time zones, but First Comment ensures randomness, there won't be delays as I wait for someone to reply, and creates an intriguing element of competition.

This also means we have a nicely symmetrical weekly schedule: Monday page critiques, Tuesday new, Wednesday You Tell Me, Thursday new, and Friday This Week in Publishing.

So be on the lookout Monday for the next Page Critique session! Also, I swear this only partly a shameless plug, but just so that everyone is on level footing: if you Follow the blog it updates almost instantaneously after I've posted in feed readers and the like, and I'll also update my Twitter feed when it's up as well. Hopefully that will save some people from the refresh button.

Now then! I am lifting this question directly from the Forums, and it was originally posed by Colonel Travis (yes, the real one from the Alamo, check the avatar!!):

What is the funniest book of all time?

Some of my favorites include Roald Dahl's books, but I'd ultimately have to go with Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

What do you think?






Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Inaugural Page Critique

As promised, today marks the launch of the first page critique(!), wherein we try to pin down what makes good writing good. Bear with me as I tinker with the format of this feature, and I will likely adjust on the fly as conditions warrant.

For our trial run, here's how this will work:

1. The first person to enter a 250 word excerpt from the beginning of their novel in the comment section will win the critique. UPDATE: Submissions closed!
2. I will update the post with the excerpt, unedited, so we can all read and form our opinions.
3. I will later update the post again with the excerpt now featuring my redlines, thoughts, comments, drawrings, emoticons, and assorted other marginalia (but really only redlines, thoughts, and comments)
4. Feel free to add your own two cents, but remember the sandwich method: positive, extremely polite constructive criticism (and I mean it), positive. I've decreed you need to read and heed this creed or I'll proceed to make you bleed. Indeed.

Here we go!


UPDATE #1: THE EXCERPT

Here is the excerpt for critique (trimmed to meet the 250 word rule). I'll be back later with a redlined update, and in case you don't want to hit refresh, you can follow me on Twitter and I'll be Tweeting when the critique is posted. In the meantime, feel free to add your own thoughts.


There it was. The twitch. He was readying for an attack. Backhand, probably, from the position of his arm. He could easily swing it around to a forehand punch but my reflexes were faster, more finely tuned. I could block him with little effort, duck down and spin while kicking my leg out. He’d be on the ground in moments.

I wanted to grin, but I held back. I had him again.

“I love you,” he said. His sideways grin usually melted my insides, but not now. I refused to look at his face while I was sparring. I couldn’t believe he’d think that would work on me. My toes dug into the dirt floor. I wouldn’t lose my grip, not now.

Ryoko’s hand flew and the scene played out just as I thought it would. He fell to the floor, landing on his back and his arms jerked out to the sides, slapping on the ground first to protect his back from a hard landing.

I giggled, seeing his eyes close and tighten. Frustration took over. After all these years, he still had a hard time believing a girl could beat him. Lucky for him, no one had ever seen. Girls weren’t allowed to fight, especially not an adoptee like myself. Technically he wasn’t allowed to fight either, but since he was adopted by the arms master, he was given some leeway to assist with training.

“Why do you insist on torturing me, Sinna?” he asked.


UPDATE #2: MY CRITIQUE

Thanks so much to Michelle for offering her page for critique! Sorry for throwing everyone for a loop by asking for 250 pages in the original post. Now that would have been some critique!

I think this is an engaging opening and even though it's an opening action scene, the back and forth is easy to follow. That's tricky to pull off and it's handled well. I also like that we're learning about the characters and their relationship through action, which is also good - we can learn a lot about the characters right off the bat.

There are two main points of critique I'd offer:

1) Mystery - While I like that we're left wanting to know more about these characters, I worry that this opening might be just a little too coy with key details. Where are they? Who are they? What are they doing? There are only the barest of clues. Even with the caveat that this is just the first 250 words and there is surely more to come, there are very few details to ground the reader in this world, and the details we do get don't quite illustrate the bigger things we need to know.

On the one hand, while you hear often that you want to leave people wanting to know more with your opening, there's a fine line between creating mystery and withholding details from the reader that they feel like they need in order to process the story. All mystery is withholding of information, but a basic (and oft-excepted) rule of thumb is that the reader should at least be able to see/know what your protagonist can see/know. If you're creating mystery through omission it's difficult to establish the Authority that Ink was talking about yesterday in his comment - if the reader feels like you're holding out on them they may have some reservations about going on a long voyage with you.

All doesn't need to be revealed right off the bat and I don't think this is an overly coy, but a little more establishing detail would give the reader a bit more of a sense of grounding in this world and establish trust that the author is giving them enough information to go on.

2) Dialogue - While I think the dynamic between the characters is interesting and there's obviously something between them, I worry that the dialogue feels a tad over the top and think there may be a missed opportunity to show a bit more characterization. It's early in the book for a character to be making grand pronouncements like "I love you" and "why do you insist on torturing me" before the reader really has the context to assess whether they're sincere, and I don't know that there are quite enough narrative clues to give a sense of whether these words are tactics or truth (or both).

These two snippets of dialogue also sound like lines we've heard before in other stories, so it's a missed opportunity to show how Ryoko is unique. What is his personality, and could his words better reflect who he is?

But overall I like the idea behind this section and think with a bit more establishing detail and more insight into Ryoko's personality and their dynamic I think this will be an even more engaging opening.

REDLINE

There it was. The twitch. He was readying for an attack. While I think most of the details are strong, "readying for an attack" feels imprecise since they seem to be sparring/fighting. Aren't they both readying for an attack? Backhand, probably, from the position of his arm. He could easily swing it around to a forehand punch but my reflexes were faster, more finely tuned. I could block him with little effort, duck down and spin while kicking my leg out. He’d be on the ground in moments. There are some tense inconsistencies in this paragraph and throughout ("there it was," "was readying" in the past, "could easily swing," "could block" in the present)

I wanted to grin, but I held back. I had him again.

“I love you,” he said. I like that he seems to be trying to distract her, but wonder if this is a missed opportunity to use unique dialogue to do so, which could reveal more about their relationship and respective personalities. His sideways grin I like the image of a "sideways grin." usually melted my insides, but not now. I refused to look at his face while I was sparring. I couldn’t believe he’d think that would work on me. My toes dug into the dirt floor. Good detail I wouldn’t lose my grip, not now.

Ryoko’s hand flew and the scene played out just as I thought it would. He fell to the floor, landing on his back and his arms jerked out to the sides, slapping on the ground first to protect his back from a hard landing. I was just a bit confused about the mechanics of this - if he's landing on his back with his arms splayed out how does he slap the ground and protect himself?

I giggled, seeing his eyes close and tighten. Frustration took over. After all these years, he still had a hard time believing a girl could beat him. Lucky for him, no one had ever seen. I think there's a word missing here Girls weren’t allowed to fight, especially not an adoptee like myself. Intriguing detail. Technically he wasn’t allowed to fight either, but since he was adopted by the arms master, he was given some leeway to assist with training. This though feels a bit coy to me - we're learning the rules of who is allowed to fight before we really know much about the world. It's a bit like we're learning laws before we know what country we're in, if that makes sense.

“Why do you insist on torturing me, Sinna?” he asked. I wonder if more could be done with this line to show Ryoko with more of a unique personality.






Monday, May 10, 2010

How to Craft a Great Voice

Voice is one of the most difficult writing terms to define and pinpoint. We might know it when we see it, but what's voice made of, really? You hear so often that agents and editors want "new voices" and "compelling voices" and voice voice voice. So what is voice? How do you cultivate it? And how many rhetorical questions do you think can I fit into one post?

Voice, at its most basic level, is the sensibility with which an author writes. It's a perspective, an outlook on the world, a personality and style that is recognizable even out of context. You could drop randomly into a David Sedaris story or an Ernest Hemingway novel and probably guess the author within a few paragraphs because they have strong, unique voices. An author's voice is often imitated (think: Tolkien), but a truly original voice can never be duplicated.

So what makes a good voice? How do you cultivate one?

Among the essential elements:

Style: At its heart, voice is about style. And not just style in the sense of punctuation and how the prose looks on the page (though that can play a role), but style in the sense of a flow, a rhythm, a cadence to the writing, a vocabulary, lexicon, and slang the author is drawing upon. A voice can be wordy (William Faulkner) or it can be spare (Cormac McCarthy). It can be stylish and magical (Jeanette Winterson) or it can be wry and gritty (Elmore Leonard). It can be tied to unique locations (Toni Morrison) or it can be almost wholly invented (Anthony Burgess). But whatever the flavor of the writing, a good voice has a recognizable style.

Personality: A good voice has a personality of its own, even when the novel is written in third person. There's an outlook that is expressed in a voice. It's a unique way of seeing the world and choosing which details to focus on and highlight and a first draft of how the reader will process the reality of the book. Think of how Catch-22 captured the absurdity of WW-II by boiling down irrational rules and presenting them at face value, or Stephen Colbert's TV character, always seeing things and arguing from an invented perspective. There's a tone to a good voice, whether it's magical (J.K. Rowling) or slightly sinister (Roald Dahl) or hyper-aware (John Green).

Consistency: A good voice is consistent throughout a novel. It may get darker or lighter or funnier or sadder, but it doesn't suddenly shift wildly from whimsical to GRUESOME MURDER. (Unless, of course, the voice is capable of it). A good voice is never lost when the plot shifts.

Moderation: Even the strongest voices don't over-do it. Voices are not made up of repeated verbal tics ("You know," "like," "so I mean," "I was all," etc.) but are much more nuanced than that. They are not transcribed real-life dialogue, they give the impression of a real-life voice while remaining a unique construct.

Transportation: A good voice envelops the reader within the world of a book. It puts us in a certain frame of mind and lets us see the world through someone else's perspective, and provides not just the details of that world but also gives a sense of the character of the world. Basically: see J.K. Rowling.

Authority: From Bryan Russell (aka Ink) (full comment below): "For me, one of the absolutely key elements of voice is authority. With a great voice you know the writer is in control, so in control that the writer vanishes and you see only the story... A great voice carries you through the story, compels you through the story. I think all great voices have that... There's a sureness to a great voice. The words are simply right and the rhythms of the prose are buoyant. You won't sink, not with these voices."

Originality: Above all, a good voice is unique and can't be duplicated. It is also extremely contagious. And this is the hardest thing about starting off a novel: we have thousands of authors' voices swimming around our heads, many of them quite powerful, and they are only too happy to take up residence in our current Work in Progress. But that's okay! Don't sweat it if it doesn't come right away: We all have to find our voice, and one of the best ways to do that is to just write, even if what you're starting with is derivative. You may need to keep writing until you find the voice. Just remember to revise revise revise the opening in said voice once you have it.

Authenticity: And this is the key to finding the voice: your voice is in you. It's not you per se, but it's made up of bits and pieces of you. It may be the expression of your sense of humor or your whimsy or your cynicism or frustration or hopes or honesty, distilled down or dialed up into a voice. We should never make the mistake as readers of equating an author with their voice, but they're wrapped up together in a complicated and real way. We leave fingerprints all over our work. That part of you in your work is what makes it something that no one else can duplicate.

What do you think? What do you think makes for a good voice, and what are some of your favorites?

Photo by Jan Mehlich via Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.5






Friday, May 7, 2010

This Week in Publishing 5/7/10

hTsi ekeW nI hngPsblui embrdSacl

First up, some great causes in the publishing-o-sphere. Brenda Novak's annual Diabetes Research Auction is in full effect, and I'm donating a partial critique with follow-up phone call. There are lots of other great prizes, including a partial critique from Kristin Nelson, a query/proposal evaluation plus conversation with Jessica Faust, and much much more. Also, authors Victoria Schwab, Amanda Morgan, and Myra McEntire are hosting an auction to benefit Nashville, so check that out as well.

Longtime reader/commenter and maven of the Public Query Slushpile Rick Daley is soliciting submissions for a cool experiment. He posted a prompt and is asking people to submit a query and first five pages based on the prompt. The questions under exam: is it really harder to write a query than the pages? How different will the resulting pages be? Can't wait to see the result.

Some big news afoot as Google looks set to enter the e-book sphere very soon as they will start selling e-books under the banner Google Editions. Details (and pricing) are still being worked out, but it looks as if they'll use a device agnostic cloud model, where you can access books from any device, sync up when you move from one device to another, etc. etc.

Word nerds rejoice!! The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary has been released, which has apparently been forty-four years in the making. Costing $422.75 and coming WITH AN INSTRUCTION MANUAL, the Historical Thesaurus is indispensable for tracking the history of the English language and when words entered the lexicon. If that's the kind of thing you like to do for fun.

Meanwhile, in our coming e-book era VQR notes one of the things we might lose along the way: intriguing notes and inscriptions.

The Rejectionist has a hilarious day-in-the-life of a Rejectionist post, and if you want more Le R. head over to Tahereh's blog for a hilarious interview.

In agent advice news, Mary Kole would like you to make sure you know the rules of your category before you break them, Roseanne Wells has some great advice on papering over plot holes with dragons (or any out of left field plot contrivance), and Agency Gatekeeper has some great dos and don'ts when it comes to writing your Acknowledgments.

There's another book-related social networking site in the works, as Pearson in the UK is set to re-launch Spinebreakers, a site aimed at teen readers.

This week in the Forums, please remember that we have a dedicated forum for finding Critique Partner(s), Google is investing in an app that predicts the future, people discuss the strategy of testing an idea by writing a query before you start the book, and fess up about how long it's been taking to finish their WIP, and.... well, now we're just laughing about what's happening on Lost.

Comment! Of! The! Week! goes to Sam Hranac, who has a great list of characteristics to know for each of your characters.

And finally, it's not book related but anything Star Wars related will always get my attention: Lego Star Wars Trilogy in Two Minutes!



Have a great weekend!






Thursday, May 6, 2010

Your Current Project Should Always Be the Focus of Your Query

Thank you so much to everyone for weighing in on what you want on the blog. The people have spoken and holy cow you really want more stuff on queries? You sure? Well........ okay..... If you say so!

In reality though, in the coming weeks I'm going to start mixing in more posts/critiques about pages themselves. I understand why people want queries queries queries because queries are the one part of the process that it feels like an author can really control and are the sort of frustration flash point. But in reality what matters most is your manuscript, and especially that the writing in said manuscript is "good."

But what makes good writing good?

That's what we'll be getting at in the coming weeks. Preview: good writing is precise. That's what I hope to illustrate.

In the meantime, huzzah, a query post!

Continuing in the series of things-you-should-do-instead-of-things-you-shouldn't-do posts about writing a query, here's another must do:

Focus your query on the work you are currently shopping and devote the majority of the words in the query to it.

Sometimes when writers have experienced a taste of writing success they feel this is going to carry the day in a query and focus almost exclusively on those accomplishments.

For instance, all of these things are good, solid writing accomplishments that you should be proud of:

- being accepted to and/or graduating from an MFA program
- placing in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition
- placing short stories with prestigious journals
- being nominated for a Pushcart
- self-publishing and receiving praise from strangers

Congrats! Very well done. But none of these things, at least for me, are going to result in a partial request on their own, and I wouldn't make these accomplishments the focal point of a query.

Even if someone had a great deal of success and had been published and sold a lot of copies, I still need to connect with the current project the author is shopping if we're going to successfully work together. That current project is what I want to know about. It's what I'm going to be basing my decision on.

Yes, mention your accomplishments, but your current project should be the star of the show.






Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Your Suggestions Appreciated!

We're now three years into the lifespan of this blog, and in that time it has seen many changes. I've gone from breathlessly discussing what is happening on the Hills to seeing an ad for it the other day and thinking, "Wait... there's another season? I thought it was over a year ago!"

The world changes so much in three years.

But that's not what this post is about - I thought I'd check in to see what you'd like to see more/less of on the blog and to solicit feedback. I aim to please!

More/less queries?
More/less writing?
More/less publishing news?
More/less Nathan's writing life?
More/less Nathan speaking in the third person?
More/still-more/no-really-I-mean-way-more monkeys?

The last time I checked in people asked for Forums, so this isn't an idle exercise. I am definitely curious and very much appreciate your thoughts.

And I can't thank you enough for reading and commenting - some of you have been around since the beginning and it really means a lot! Thank you thank you thank you.






Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Series Bible

I was working on JACOB WONDERBAR #2 the other day and it came time to reintroduce a teacher that plays an important role in the first book. I summoned my mental image of the teacher...... which was completely blank.

What did she look like again? What color hair and eyes did she have? Total blank.

I mean, I'm not great with faces in real life, let alone with fictional characters. I think have a mild form of that face blindness thing, so by the way if I meet you again in real life and I have a blank look on my face it's not personal I think you're great just give me some context!!!!!!! (Luckily my wife will spot someone on the street and say things like, "That is the person who sold me a lollipop when I went to the county fair in 1985 but now they have orange hair." I'm surprised she hasn't been hired by the CIA)

Anyway, I mentioned how I forgot all about the teacher to my wife and she nodded knowingly and said, "Time to work on your Series Bible."

Series Bibles take many different forms. Sometimes when writers are coming into an already-existing series or, say, a line of books with certain rules (such as in romance) the Series Bible will give them the characters, world, plotlines, and rules that the writer has to follow.

But you can also create your own - if you're writing a series, or even if you're just crafting a single novel set in a unique world with its own rules, I highly recommend creating your own Series Bible. Whenever you reintroduce a character the Series Bible will remind you what they look like. If you have different worlds/planets/lands/classrooms/lairs you won't have to go hunting through your manuscript to try and remember which one is which.

The Series Bible is a lifesaver when your brain has reached capacity.

What to include:

- Characters: What they look like (just copy and paste straight from the book), how many brothers and sisters they have, important events in their past, personality traits, etc. Also, any unique schedules they have, hobbies, etc. I'd include all characters, major and minor. You never know who's going to reappear.
- Worlds/Planets/Lands/Classrooms/etc.: What they look like, their backstory, any important details, etc.
- Rules of Law: Any important/unique laws or conventions, styles, etc.
- Any backstory that happens off the page: Make sure you know and keep track of all the key details.
- Inventions/Special Powers: This is important, especially for science fiction and fantasy. When you invent something, even when it's just barely mentioned, it can create huge repercussions for the rest of the story. For instance, if you introduce a personal hyperwarp drive, whenever a character is in trouble your reader will be like, "Duh, use the personal hyperwarp drive, USE THE PERSONAL HYPERWARP DRIVE!!" Keep track of our inventions and powers, and make sure their rules of use are clearly delineated.
- Anything else you need to remember for later

Your Series Bible will save you when you paper over a plot hole only to open up a big ole gaping chasm somewhere else in the book.

Now I just need one for my real life.

Photo © 2004 by Tomasz Sienicki via Creative Commons License






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