Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What is Your Writing Tic?

It's been a great and wildly busy week in New York thus far! Thankfully the heat has taken some mercy on my San Francisco-acclimated self, and it's cooled off dramatically. And not a moment too soon: I was in serious danger of melting.

Now then. We all have bad writing habits and little tics that creep into our writing. Whether it's overuse of certain gestures (eye-rolling, sighing, etc.), phrases (I mean, like, now then, etc.), or lines of dialogue ("No way," "Yes way," etc.)

I must confess that my writerly tic is characters looking at things (Jacob saw, Jacob looked at, etc.). It ends up being a little redundant and I have to watch myself.

What's yours?






Monday, June 28, 2010

Guest Blog: Bryan Russell on the Architecture of Revision

I'm busy trying not to melt in the New York City heat this week, and Bryan Rusell/Ink was kind enough to step in with this terrific post on revision. Bryan is Sheriff of the Forums, and blogs at The Alchemy of Writing. Enjoy!

A story is a house. We use words for bricks and wood, sentences to build and frame. Rhythm gives us a roof, diction a style. Plot gives us shape and form. We hammer and nail and build. We get drywall dust in our hair, blisters on our fingers.

And yet even when we’re done… we’re not done. We finish a house, maybe we even live in it awhile. But there always comes a time for revision.

We paint over poor choices and design flaws, whitewash those plotholes. We spruce it up. Drapes, a good color scheme. A nice polish on the hardwood floor. Clean windows. Who doesn’t like a good view?

And yet these are surface things. We cut those adverbs, trim the weasel words that always sneak into the first draft. We turn the wrench, tighten down each sentence. Cut those dialogue tags, add a beat here and there. Copyedit, copyedit, copyedit.

But paint can only do so much. Sometimes stories need more. Sometimes they need deep revisions. That is, a re-visioning, a re-seeing of the story itself. We have to step inside and see a new house in the old one.

Yet we can’t always just tear it down and build it from scratch. We’ve invested too much, we’re running out of funds, and the parlor is really quite nice, and the brick fireplace, yes, it’s quite divine. And the view from the sunroom? Who wouldn’t want to keep that?

But there are problems. People tend to get lost. Hallways seem to go in the wrong direction. One of them ends inside a broom closet without a light, an albino raccoon hissing at you feverishly in the dimness. Where did that come from? It seemed so inspirational at the time.

Time to get out the sledge hammer. We have to break things down and rebuild. But what do we hit? Some walls can come down and some can’t. There are load-bearing walls, not to mention pipes, heating vents and electrical wiring. And the furnace is a cantankerous old thing.

We have to wind a new structure through the old. We have to see two things at once. What was, and what might be…

And what might be… and what might be… and what might be…

For there is no end, really. There are a thousand possible shapes, a million possible forms. A first version is built. We like it, but of course it’s never done. We change things one way. We change things another. The beginning is shifted forward, and then forward again, and again, and then back, and then forward. We add in one character and remove three. Plotlines diverge and remerge. They twist and then straighten and then twist again.

What we have is different stories. None ever ceases to exist, even if the original is lost to everything except memory. We are all masters of parallel universes. Masters not only of what did happen but what might happen. We can pick alternate paths through time in these strange houses we build, walking through different series of events. Timelines diverge and remerge. We have the blueprints for infinity.

They exist in our heads, the story and all the shadows of the story, the options once taken and discarded, or perhaps never taken and merely dreamed. We can see them all, transparencies laid one over another. We see the old cupboards at the same time as the new. We see the climactic scene with John cracking jokes and we see the climactic scene without John, for in this timeline John has ceased to exist. He never did exist, except in that parallel universe of the first draft, or the seventh, or the twelfth, and walks through the halls now only as a ghost.

And yet how do we find the right path, the right version? We hold to a vision of a house we can’t see but can feel. Walls come down, new ones are built. Extra windows to let in the light. Things sharpen, become more real. One version gains a little in density and the shadows thin, becoming a little harder to see. They’re still there. They’ll always be there. But the house is taking shape. The one we chose. It has the breakfast nook just like you always wanted. The gabled roof. The covered porch. The office with the view over the pond and built-in bookshelves. Dark wood everywhere. High ceilings so you don’t feel claustrophobic. And light, lots of light, the house breathing in the dawn morning and exhaling the soft shine of dusk. The whole house alive.

The ghosts whisper at times, of other lives and other possibilities, but they are friendly, familiar. Old friends come to visit, to share a story or two.






Friday, June 25, 2010

This Week in Publishing 6/25/10

Just a quick heads-up that I'm going to be in New York next week and thus posting may be a bit sporadic. If I don't melt in the NYC summer heat I'll try and put some thoughts together when I can.

Now then! It was a relatively quiet week in publishing this week, but I think I can rustle up some news for you.

Have the e-reader price wars begun? B&N announced that it would sell a WiFi-only Nook for $149, and Amazon dropped its Kindle price to $189. With many different devices coming soon, the price competition could get still more fierce.

Meanwhile, over at Salon, Laura Miller takes a look at the coming self-publishing landscape and wonders if the reading public is ready for its encounter with the slush pile.

And speaking of burnout, there's been an unlikely confession from an author being "burned out on vampires." Who was it? None other than Stephenie Meyer.

Bestselling author (and Twitter maven!) Susan Orlean wrote one of those only-in-publishing breakdowns of the many, many editors she has worked with due to personnel changes and people getting fired and leaving publishing and you name it.

Agent Michael Stearns at Upstart Crow had an interesting blog post about Bruce Coville and the "Rule of Twenty." Basically: it's only when you reach your twentieth idea that you're getting original.

This week in the Forums: random facts about you, questions to think about when critiquing other writers' works, and of course, World Cup Fever!! Go USA!!

Comment! Of! The! Week! goes to Dan, who cracked me up with his response to my post about vague rejections:

I got a response to a query which said, in its entirety:

"Why, God, Why?"

What, if anything, should I read into that?

And finally, I haven't really been talking much about reality television lately even though this season of the Bachelorette has been some truly tremendous television. But seriously, was there anything on the Internet in the last week more hilarious than Bachelor Jake's explanation for why he broke up with Vienna? (That would be the person, not the city in case you didn't watch the show. Also shame on you for not watching the show). Take it away, People Magazine:

He was struggling to get into character for his role on Lifetime's Drop Dead Diva,, which he was filming in Atlanta while Vienna remained in Los Angeles.

"One of the keys to acting is you have to get out of your head," Pavelka, 32, tells PEOPLE. "This [show] didn't hire me to be Jake, they hired me to play Toby Davlin. I can't be Jake and sell this character."

There are few things in the world that have ever made me happier than the preceding paragraph. Oh, Jake. Thanks for that.

Have a great weekend! Go USA!!!






Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why I Write Vague Rejection Letters

I'm going to be totally honest: my rejection letters on partials are not usually very helpful. They tend to be vague, formulaic, and brief. But polite!

Please trust me though: I have a good reason for this.

I know full well that people put a lot of stock in rejection letters, especially when the agent has considered the actual manuscript - people are hungry for any tidbit that will give them insight into why something isn't working or what they can do to improve it. Writers will hunt for hidden meaning, try to divine what the agent was thinking, and attack their manuscript with renewed vigor based on whatever they were saying.

But here's the thing: I don't want to lead anyone astray.

If I'm passing on a partial, chances are it's because I'm just not feeling that zing that I feel whenever I'm reading something I'm going to want to take on. It's just not for me. But I'm not always able to articulate precisely why exactly that is, and I haven't read enough to be able to provide a particularly insightful critique.

If I can put my finger on the reason for the lack of zing I will absolutely tell the writer.

If I am just not feeling it and don't know why: I'd rather be vague rather than say something just to say something. I'd hate for my just-to-say-something reason cause the writer try and revise based on faulty advice.

On full rejections I absolutely give more detail because I've read enough to be able to weigh in with something hopefully helpful and tangible. But for partials, I'm really not the best person to be weighing in - I'm not sitting down for an in-depth edit, I'm just reading to figure out whether I'd be the right agent for the project.

The somewhat grim truth is that prospective agents aren't really the ones who are best equipped to give you good feedback. While I'll work with authors on revisions if I think the manuscript shows great potential and will give my all to partial critiques for contest winners, an agent's job isn't to help everyone who comes their way with thoughtful, helpful critiques. I absolutely do my best, but for the best feedback you'd likely be better off with someone you trust who is reading your work with a thoughtful critique in mind.






Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Do You Spend More Time Writing Or Reading?

USA!! USA!!

Wow. Still not over that miracle goal at basically the last possible second. So excited!!

Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

For today's You Tell Me, a question and hopefully conversation starter: do you spend more time writing or do you spend more time reading?

And is one or the other better or more important?

Be honest!







Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Query Stats: Salutations!

When I was little I memorized the way my mom would spell out our last name to people over the phone. Ready?

"B as in boy, R - A - N, S as in Sam, F as in Frank, O-R-D. BransFORD."

My sister has a variation that emphasizes the SF in the middle, which is more comprehensible when you separate it out into BRAN - SF - ORD.

All of this is to say I know I have an uncommon last name that is a bit of a mouthful, and I don't get up in arms when people misspell it in a query and I certainly never reject anyone for it. At least they're in the ballpark (and below you'll see why I'll take a misspelling over some of the other results).

I thought it might be an interesting insight into the old inbox to show the rather incredible variety of ways people address me in a query. So I kept track for a week, and here's the result.

Behold! Query salutations. During the past week I received 258 queries and requested 3 partials (all addressed properly).

Number of queries addressed to:

Satisfactory:
Mr. Bransford: 124
Nathan: 33
Nathan Bransford: 29
Mr. Nathan Bransford: 10
Nathan Bransford, Literary Agent: 2
Total: 198

Not so much:
(Blank): 41
To Whom It May Concern: 3
Bransford: 1
Nate B.: 1
Literary Agent: 1
Literary Agency: 1
Editor: 1
Agent Nathan: 1
Mr. Branford: 1
Mr. Bradford: 1
Chris: 1
Vicky Bijur: 1
Martha Bransford: 1
Ms. Bransford: 3
Curtis Brown: 1
Mr. Brown: 1
Total: 60

I fully understand that mistakes happen, and I want to emphasize again that I don't reject anyone solely because they messed up the salutation. But this is really the absolute easiest thing to get right in the query, and it's a tad eye-opening that 23% missed the mark.






Monday, June 21, 2010

Query Critique Monday: My Critique

Thanks again to childrenschampforlife for submitting the query for critique! I really appreciate the author's willingness to submit for public dissection.

There were some clever turns of phrase in this query and I think the spirit behind it feels jaunty and fun, though the premise and the tone seems a bit on the young side even for middle grade (ages 8-12). I wonder if it's more geared to an early reader or chapter book? Mary Kole has a terrific post about the importance of knowing your category, as well as one about children's book word counts and a category breakdown. It's crucial that you know where your book will land and use the right terminology (and the word count is missing here).

But more troubling, I'm very concerned about the way this reads: the query has typos, sentence fragments, and improper punctuation. It is so so so so so important to put your best foot forward when querying an agent. And there are mistakes made here that authors just shouldn't make. But if this doesn't reflect the author's best attempt and it's simply sloppy, hopefully this will serve as a slap on the wrist.

Lastly - don't send queries exclusively! Don't do it! I don't ask for an exclusive look, and if you query one agent at a time you're going to be old and gray by the time you're finished. Much better to send queries out in batches.

Overall, I enjoy the spirit and tone behind this, but worry about the presentation.



REDLINE:

SUBJECT: Query: The Pompous Pachyderm, middle-grade-Exclusive

"The Pompous Pachyderm." A big nosed bigot of an elephant who comes of age in a place that doesn’t respect animals sentence fragment. He Espen is a selfish, uncivil character who treats his fellow “inmates” at the Calamity Zoo of California like moldy cantaloupe I like this line, but I don't know why inmates is in quotes - I think you can trust the reader to get the joke that he's referring to the zoo animals as inmates._Watching as his parents are sold to a circus while becoming separated from the only trainer he ever knew, furthers his inclinations that he doesn’t need anyone’s help, and he shouldn’t have to help anyone this is a worrisome sentence - it's improperly punctuated, it reads far more adult than the rest of the query, and I'm afraid "furthers his inclinations that he doesn't need anyone's help" doesn't make sense to me. There was also an extra space at the end . Espen shows that elephants are not only one of the largest land mammals on earth but also may have the largest egos I like this, though "one of the largest land mammals" is improper - it would either be "some of the largest land mammals" or "one of the largest types of land mammals".

The animals of Calamity Zoo of California, unnecessary comma end up in various predicaments which our protagonist refuses to help them with another troubling sentence - "various predicaments which our protagonist refuses to help them with" reads very awkwardly. When Espen mistakes a ball, unnecessary comma for his favorite snack (cantaloupe) he gets it stuck in his trunk. He then tantrums and treks off in search of the other animals for help. While on his one man (mammal) another place where I think the author should let the agent just get the human/animal joke fellowship he notices the zoo is on fire. Espen then too many "then"s lumbers to where the other species of life are to get him and the zoo some help. The animals all spring into action and work together to get the ball out of Espen's trunk, unnecessary comma so he can help put out the fire.

I work within the field of Early Child Hood Education and currently serve as an Associate Teacher. I am also a father of 2 not necessary to mention and integrate Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development theory when creating material for children also not necessary to mention - more important to focus on the storytelling than any sort of message that you're trying to include. I would avoid any suggestion of an agenda . Thank you for considering “The Pompous Pachyderm”






Query Critique Monday

Monday! And this time we're having a query critique.

We won't be having a critique next Monday as I'll be in the fair City of New York, and posting will be sporadic.

Below is the query, and I'll be back later with a new post containing my critique. Please please please remember the sandwich rule when offering your thoughts: positive, very very constructive thoughts, positive.

As of this posting there were 126 comments in the Query Critique thread - the first was mine. I searched for a number between 2 and 126 on random.org, and the winner was.....

72!

Here's childrenschampforlife's query:

SUBJECT: Query: The Pompous Pachyderm, middle-grade-Exclusive

"The Pompous Pachyderm." A big nose bigot of an elephant who comes of age in a place that doesn’t respect animals. He is a selfish, uncivil character who treats his fellow “inmates” at the Calamity Zoo of California like moldy cantaloupe.Watching as his parents are sold to a circus while becoming separated from the only trainer he ever knew, furthers his inclinations that he doesn’t need anyone’s help, and he shouldn’t have to help anyone . Espen shows that elephants are not only one of the largest land mammals on earth but also may have the largest ego.

The animals of Calamity Zoo of California, end up in various predicaments which our protagonist refuses to help them with. When Espen mistakes a ball, for his favorite snack (cantaloupe) he gets it stuck in his trunk. He then tantrums and treks off in search of the other animals for help. While on his one man (mammal) fellowship he notices the zoo is on fire. Espen then lumbers to where the other species of life are to get him and the zoo some help. The animals all spring to action and work together to get the ball out of Espen's trunk, so he can help put out the fire.

I work within the field of Early Child Hood Education and currently serve as an Associate Teacher. I am also a father of 2 and integrate Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development theory when creating material for children. Thank you for considering “The Pompous Pachyderm”






Friday, June 18, 2010

This Week In Publishing 6/18/10

Publishing! In! Week! This!

First up! Please do not forget that there is still time to enter your query to win a critique on the blog on Monday. All you have to do is enter it in this thread in the Forums, and I'll use a random number generator on Monday to choose the one up for critique.

Second up! Booooooooooooooooooooooooooooo referee booooooooooooooo!!!! Should have been 3-2 USA, but I guess we'll take the draw.

Oh! Also this week:

The rather decidedly positive reviews are still pouring in for Lisa Brackmann's ROCK PAPER TIGER, with none other than the Atlantic's James Fallows calling it "definitely worth reading," and none other than The Rejectionist saying, "we tore through the fantabulous Rock Paper Tiger with RECKLESS ABANDON AND DELIGHT." Go Lisa go!

Jeff Abbott passed along a great blog post by Seth Godin about the myth of the magic lottery ticket/fairy godmother in, among other things, the publishing process. Seth's advice: rather than waiting for someone to give you a winning lottery ticket, best to go the hard work route.

In publishing advice news, Rachelle Gardner has a great post on dealing with contradictory advice, Jessica Faust talks about what it takes to be an agent, and Lynn Viehl has a really nice post about dealing with fatigue, both physical and creative.

Just in time for summer the good people at The Millions spotted a list of the 100 most celebrated travel books of all time.

And there was an interview with my person over at Onomatopoeia Magazine.

This week in the Forums, discussing all things World Cup and Why America Were Robbed, Krista G. has a recurring interview series with agents and this week she has an interview with my agent, a discussion of endings, and the importance of mentors.

Comment! Of! The! Week! goes to Patty Blount, whose response about the most important person in your writing life was incredibly moving.

And finally, part Why I Love the Internet, part How in the World Does Anyone Have This Kind of Time?!, someone did a stop motion animation of the original Super Mario Bros. IN POST-IT NOTES.



Have a great weekend!






Thursday, June 17, 2010

Get More Done: Easy Tools for Greater Efficiency

Longtime readers of the blog know that I'm a tad obsessed with efficiency - anything that can save me time is something I can get behind. You may do all of this already, but I have a few easy tools that I completely swear by, and I thought I'd put some of them together in a single post.


Google Reader (or any feed reader like Bloglines, etc.)

Do you have a lot of blogs you like to follow but never remember to check them? Or do you keep going back to the same old sites to see if something's new only everything is the same?

This is why they invented Google Reader. Here's how it works. You copy the URL of the blog you're following, then click "Add a subscription" in your Google Reader, and voila, you're subscribed to that blog. Whenever there's a new blog post it will update in your reader and you can read it from there (and easily click through if you want to read a comment).

I follow over a hundred blogs, and this is the only time-effective way I've found to keep track of them.


Using Your Calendar Effectively

You have an online calendar, right?

Right?

Whether you're using Outlook, iCal or Google Calendar, the best thing about having a calendar online is that you can access it (and update it) from anywhere. If you have a phone with a web browser, even better. No double-booking!

But don't stop there. Most calendars have a Task function - any time you do something that has a deadline or that you need a reminder for (like sending out a manuscript), create a Task, type in what you did, and set a reminder for when you need to act on it.

Between contracts and books and payments and submissions, I have between fifty and a hundred different things I need to keep track of at any given time, which is way more than I could remember without help. But with my Tasks set for reminders, every day I look at what's due that day, start there, send out an e-mail or make a call, and then set a time to follow-up.


Google Docs

Yes, I'm a walking advertisement for Google. While I still don't like the Google Docs interface enough to do my actual writing there, I use them for basically everything else.

The advantage? You can access your documents from anywhere. Especially when you want to easily sync between working at work and at home and on the road, this way you don't need to have your computer to get the documents you need.


Canned Responses

Any time you have to respond with a similar response, canned responses are the only way to go. In Outlook I actually have about 20 different signatures, everything from Form Rejections to responses to common questions, that I can insert with two clicks. It's much better than copying and pasting.

If you're using Gmail, check out the Labs section for their Canned Responses option.


E-books

Yes, I know, I know. Not everyone is on board with paperless books. However, for the busy literary agent who needs to immediately start reading a similar title or move quickly from one thing to the next, you can't beat the speed and ease of e-books.

Better yet, with a multi-functional e-reader editing manuscripts is a snap.


Grocery Delivery

The greatest reason to live in a big city since alligators in the sewer, many big cities now have online grocery delivery, either free or for a small fee. I couldn't be more excited about this!!

Out in San Francisco, Safeway will save your past orders so all of your recurring stuff is easy to order. Just add the new stuff you need and set a window for delivery. Saves an incredible amount of time.


And of course I'm always on the lookout for more!! What are some of your favorite time-saving techniques?






Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Who Have Been the Most Influential People in Your Writing Life?

Writing a book is a serious commitment. It's something that just about everyone thinks about doing at one time or another, but actually sitting down to devote hundreds of hours to one task takes a big dream and lots of elbow grease.

Whether we came to it early in life or late in life, chances are there was someone along the way who crystallized that feeling of, "Hey, I want to do this" or, better yet, "Hey, I can do this."

Who is the most influential person (or people) who set you on this path? Was it an author, a mentor, a loved one?

My most influential writing personages have been Roald Dahl, who made me want to be a writer when I was a kid (I subsequently moved onto other dreams), and my wife, whose support was there whenever I battled the Am I Crazies.

How about you?






Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Agents Are Not Just Gatekeepers

One of the more prevalent and persistent misconceptions about the future of publishing is that if we move to a model where you don't HAVE to go through an agent and publisher to find publication, suddenly agents are going to go out like the dodo bird by way of the buggy whip.

Here's the thing: being a gatekeeper is one of the smaller parts of any agent's job.

It's easy to see where misconceptions about agenting and the importance of gatekeeping comes from: in the traditional publishing model, you need an agent to get to the editors to get to the bookstores to get to the readers. Thus agents loom very large as the first hoop and first ring of the funnel, and to an aspiring author this gatekeeping role looms very very VERY large. For an aspiring author, the gatekeeping function is basically all they think about when they think about agents.

But in actuality, agents spend most of their time on their existing clients, who happen to be the ones that have already made it through the hoop. We're cutting new deals, tracking payments, keeping tabs on the new process, brainstorming new book ideas, etc. etc. While it's absolutely important to me to find new clients and I take my role as gatekeeper pro tem very seriously, I don't spend my entire day answering queries or even most of my day or even a third of my day. There's way more to my job than that.

Think of it another way: Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling and countless other bestselling authors do not need to go through the submission process again, at least not in any sense that a debut author would recognize. They're already way way way past the gate. And they still have agents.

And you may have heard how J.A. Konrath has made waves by doing deals directly with Amazon for his e-books. He also has an agent.

The reason agents still exist when you take away the gatekeeping is that there are a wide range of functions, from selling subrights to career management to contract negotiation to opportunity creation, that authors aren't usually equipped to handle on their own, and that will still be true in the new era. Agents offer professional expertise and guidance that authors usually want and draw upon even when they're past the gate.

Agents existed in the era when publishers still accepted direct submissions from authors, and agents will exist when e-publishing is easy for an author to do on their own. We're not middle-men, we're on the author's side. The way authors and agents connect may change in the future and not everyone will need an agent to be published, but take away the gate and we'll still be here.

Evil laugh.






Monday, June 14, 2010

Page Critique Monday: My Critique

Thanks so much to Chuck H for offering his page for critique!

As many have noted in the comments section, this page has an engaging start, and there's strong writing here. It manages to be both languid (two guys sitting on the porch) and tense (discussing tough questions), there's an interesting dynamic between the characters, and it opens some questions that we want to know more about. Nice work, Chuck!

Other than some smoothing out (more about that in the redline), I have just one main point of concern, which has to do with the opening.

There was something that wasn't quite working for me with the opening line, and I just couldn't figure out what it was. There's nothing technically wrong with it, it's catchy, it's intriguing on its own.... but there was something that felt just a bit off. And I couldn't put my finger on it.

Then I realized: it's not the first line that's the problem! Instead, it's actually the second line that threw me.

As I've discussed in past page critiques, starting off in provocative fashion (e.g. with catchy dialogue or rug-pulling/just kidding moment or something otherwise provocative etc.) is one of those trust-fall moments between a writer and reader. The hand of the author shines through in these types of openings. Yes, a provocative opening can help pull in the reader by making them want to find out what the writer is going to do, but the flashiness and artifice can make it difficult for the reader to immediately forget the presence of the author and immerse themselves in the book. So it's very necessary to quickly catch the reader so they feel as if they're in sure hands.

And unfortunately, in this case the second sentence drops the reader in the proverbial trust fall. It feels a bit stilted ("as I contemplated my companion who was staring out"), a bit redundant (the narrator both "thought about" and"contemplated"), and contradictory (the "as" in the sentence makes it seem like he's thinking about both the question and the questioner simultaneously, which isn't really how thinking works). It didn't make me believe in the character's voice, and I just don't know that it delivers on the promise of the first line. As a reader it put me on edge.

The consequence: because I didn't believe the second line, all of a sudden it didn't seem plausible to me that this character would fixate on his companion's appearance when faced with that question, even though the detail in the third sentence is good and even though there's nothing wrong with a pause or a character observing another character in this situation. It's just that the second sentence made me disbelieve this character's reaction.

After that moment the page flows fine and it recovers. But when you're starting in catchy fashion, it's so important to make sure that what follows the catchy part is just as strong, if not stronger than the opening. Otherwise the reader is going to feel dropped and it undermines the trust that is so important to establish in the beginning of a novel.

All the same, I think this page is in very good shape and think it just needs a few tweaks.

THE REDLINE

TITLE: Old Farts
GENRE: Mystery/Suspense

Chapter One

“Have you ever killed anyone?”

I thought about that one for a while as I contemplated my companion who was staring out across the valley. Joe was about my age—somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty—compact, wiry with a full head of gray hair speckled here and there with dark spots. I thought to myself that, with his dark complexion and that nose, he must have had some Indian ancestry. Excuse me, Native American. Evidently my contemplation had gone on too long Not necessary. Show it through the other character interrupting.

“Well, have you?” This bit of dialogue didn't feel natural to me. Do people really say, "Well, have you?" when they're impatient? Wouldn't most people just say, "Well?" or "I'm waiting" or "Hey," or something else? Also, I wasn't sure whether it was Joe or the narrator who was saying this. A dialogue tag would clarify things greatly.

It was a simple question but not so easy to answer. I had been involved, peripherally at least, in a war. I had worn the uniform and, technically, I had been in a war zone. However, I hadn’t carried a weapon or shot at people. But I had made it possible for others to bomb hell out of folks on the ground and shoot down folks in the air. Then there was that gig as a company man after the war. Had I ever killed anyone I like this paragraph up to this point? I lied I found this confusing since he hasn't said it yet. Maybe he just decides to lie here and then says "No"?.

“No.”

Joe turned to stare at me for a moment then directed his attention back to the million dollar view from my front porch.

“Me neither.”

We sat for a while in silence. I was trying to decide whether or not I should call him a liar. God only knows what he was thinking. I finally made up my mind to confront him Wonder if there's a way to show that he's made up his mind rather than just saying he's made up his mind. Thought process could feel a little more natural.

“I always thought that you were . . .”

“I lied.” Wasn't totally 100% on who said which line of dialogue here.






Page Critique Monday

It's Monday, which means it's time for Ye Olde Page Critique!

As a reminder, we've switched over to a new system for submitting pages for critique - if you're interested in submitting a page, please enter it in this thread in the Forums, which I will be drawing upon in coming weeks.

And! Since we've done a few page critiques in a row, next Monday we'll have Query Critique Monday - if you're interested in submitting your query for possible critique, please enter it in this thread.

Below is the page up for critique, and I'll be back later with a new post containing my critique. Please please please remember the sandwich rule when offering your thoughts: positive, very very constructive thoughts, positive.

As of this posting there were 188 comments in the Page Critique thread - the first was mine. I searched for a number between 2 and 188 on random.org, and the winner was.....

116!!!

Here's Chuck H.'s page. I'll be back this afternoon with my thoughts.

TITLE: Old Farts
GENRE: Mystery/Suspense

Chapter One

“Have you ever killed anyone?”

I thought about that one for a while as I contemplated my companion who was staring out across the valley. Joe was about my age—somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty—compact, wiry with a full head of gray hair speckled here and there with dark spots. I thought to myself that, with his dark complexion and that nose, he must have had some Indian ancestry. Excuse me, Native American. Evidently my contemplation had gone on too long.

“Well, have you?”

It was a simple question but not so easy to answer. I had been involved, peripherally at least, in a war. I had worn the uniform and, technically, I had been in a war zone. However, I hadn’t carried a weapon or shot at people. But I had made it possible for others to bomb hell out of folks on the ground and shoot down folks in the air. Then there was that gig as a company man after the war. Had I ever killed anyone? I lied.

“No.”

Joe turned to stare at me for a moment then directed his attention back to the million dollar view from my front porch.

“Me neither.”

We sat for a while in silence. I was trying to decide whether or not I should call him a liar. God only knows what he was thinking. I finally made up my mind to confront him.

“I always thought that you were . . .”

“I lied.”






Friday, June 11, 2010

This Week in Publishing 6/11/10

In This Week: Publishing!

Before we begin, I would like to offer a word of clarification about my post yesterday (and thanks to everyone who has weighed in). Some have interpreted my post as a belief that bookstores are going to be filled to the brim with books of questionable quality, that everyone will have to self-publish first in order to find a publisher, and that it's going to be one huge gigantic mess of bazillions of books. Not what I'm envisioning!

First off, bookstores are still going to work according to the current system, i.e. they're going to be selling books published by publishers. What will expand further is online bookselling, where there are already millions of titles anyway and where you are already successfully navigating a giant jumble. I don't really see this impacting how you find books, except that you'll have more options if you want them. Otherwise you can still buy books published by publishers and I'm sure they'd be happy about that.

Nor do I think everyone is going to have to self-publish first. Publishers are still going to exist and will still probably be the place where the biggest books are generated, including debuts! So if you don't want to self-publish the existing system will, I think, still be around for some time.

What will change is that books that may not have been taken on by publishers because they weren't seen as a safe bet will have an opportunity to catch on with readers and spread through word of mouth via blogs, Forums, and other social media, and I see this is as a really awesome thing. Think of these extra books out there as a supplement to the existing model - you can find them if you want them and you'll hear about them if they're great, otherwise your reading life isn't going to change all that much.

News!

The Authors Guild and Wiley are currently throwing down over royalties after the AG issued a strongly worded alert about Bloomberg Press' plan to change royalties from being based on the retail price over to net, which the AG points out would reduce royalties "up to 50%." Wiley responded that most authors would receive "more royalties in most instances."

Mr. Steve Jobs announced that 5 million people have downloaded books onto their iPads, an average of 2.5 books per user in 65 days, and also claimed that iBooks now has a 22% market share in the e-book market, which according to Michael Cader (subscription) reflects the market share at the Agency Five, not the entire industry.

Laura Miller at the New Yorker has a really fascinating survey of the latest hot trend in children's literature: dystopian fiction. The reason? Miller: "It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader. “The success of ‘Uglies,’ ” Westerfeld once wrote in his blog, “is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.”

The Great Tahereh has a really truly awesome post about a day in the life of a writer, full of all kinds of goodness and especially habitual e-mail checking.

In agent advice news, Jessica at BookEnds has a really great post about how, in addition to a Series Bible, you might also want to create a style sheet.

The New Yorker has chosen its favorite writing wunderkinds under 40, with a list of twenty of the great young writers under the age of forty, with a mix of usual suspects and relative unknowns. Ward Six countered with 10 Great Writers Over 80 (via GalleyCat), and The Millions created a guess at what the 20 under 40 list would have looked like in 1970.

And Sia McKye has a terrific interview with my client Lisa Brackmann, whose novel ROCK PAPER TIGER is receiving all kinds of wonderful reviews for its depiction of modern China.

This week in the Forums: don't forget to enter your first page for a chance at a critique on Monday (and you can discuss it further here), people share their awesome blog posts, a great list of things to have in place before you query, how many novels have you put in the drawer?, and you ARE watching Friday Night Lights, yes?

Comment! Of! The! Week! goes to Dan, who has a terrific counterpoint about some of the downfalls of this new era where the barrier to publication is lowered. I mainly agree with his thoughts, though I think some of the challenges he notes about systems will be smoothed out. I still personally think on the whole the new world of books will be better, but I'm also not naive to think that there aren't going to be good things lost and some challenges with the new system, which Dan points out eloquently. (you can find his full comment here.

Abridged version:

1. The price of a book is going to come way down. Authors can tolerate a lot of this, as self-published e-books pay much higher royalties than conventional books. But a reduction in the perceived value of content is bad for the market. And with so many potential authors fighting for attention, the price could ultimately reach zero, as authors give away work in hopes of gaining attention they can parley into paying opportunities.

2. Meanwhile where attention is scarce and at a premium, people will start charging others to generate it... The current rule that authors do not pay for publication and that money flows to the author will change to an entrepreneurial model where authors are expected to invest money to try to reach an audience...

3. Whatever the mechanism is for generating reader attention, it will be corrupted. This has happened on every author "display site," where "popular" books get that way through back-channel vote-trading and glad-handing...

And the fact that so many nominees for big awards are not bestsellers indicates that popularity isn't the best measure of quality.


And finally, so excited for the World Cup!!! I love the WC for many reasons, not least of which is the way English people refer to singular team names in the plural so you hear things like "England lose," which, by the way, is what will happen tomorrow. Ha! Take that, ROONEY.

Have a great weekend!






Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Rejection Letter of the Future Will Be Silence (And Why This is a Good Thing)

Originally published at The Huffington Post

One of the more challenging aspects of being a literary agent is dealing with the incredible deluge of submissions that pour in every single day, twenty four hours a day, from all corners of the globe and for every type of project imaginable. I don't keep precise stats on the number I receive (it's hard enough just to answer them all), but in any given year I receive somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 query letters from aspiring authors. Out of those tens of thousands I reject all but a tiny handful of them and take on perhaps three to five clients a year.

Contrary to the myth that an agent is sitting at a desk cackling as they read the submissions from the supposedly untalented masses, I loathe sending rejection letters. Loathe loathe loathe. Not because it's tedious, but because honestly: who am I to be telling someone they're not worthy of publication?

Well... who am I? I'm a literary agent, and my job hinges on having a good batting average at the sorting process and pulling gems from the virtual pile. I have to use my knowledge of the industry and hopefully some skill to find what will ultimately sell to a publisher.

But as I search for the diamonds, every day I have to pass on the life's work of cancer survivors and abuse victims and war heroes and many more people who spent hours upon hours of their life writing a novel in the faint hope that it would someday find publication. I don't enjoy sending these rejection letters, and I never forget that on the other end of the letter there's a person out there whose day I'm probably ruining and whose dreams I'm chipping away at. What makes these books unworthy, other than the fact that it simply wouldn't be profitable to publish them in print?

The lack of commercial viability of 99% of the books written every year necessitates all this rejection. I can only take on the books I think I can sell to publishers, and aspiring authors receive this judgment in the form of a rejection letter. But the very nature of commercial viability in the publishing world is changing quickly with the transition to e-books, and I think it's ultimately a change for the better.

The Print Funnel

In the print era, there was a good reason to create a funneling process rife with rejection: making a book and getting it to readers is a costly process. It requires extensive and expensive infrastructure (production, printing, warehousing, shipping, retail) and realistically there were only a finite number of books a publisher could publish and still have a chance at making a profit.

All the other books that, rightly or wrongly, were viewed unworthy: they disappeared into drawers, never to see the light of day. While many of the vanished manuscripts were likely passed on for good reasons, who knows what masterpieces and gems were lost to bad guesses?

Luckily, the e-book era is changing all of that. Anyone can upload their work to the Kindle or iBooks or insert e-book store here and make their work available, and thousands of authors are currently doing just that.

Contrary to another publishing myth, I'm not an agent that's opposed to self-publishing, nor do I see it as anything close to a mortal threat to the world of literature and publishing. People fret as a swarm of books hit the market, many of poor quality, but I don't see any reason to fear the deluge at all.

Let's face it, folks: the deluge is already here.

The Digital Deluge

Walk into any large suburban bookstore and you'll find tens of thousands of books to choose from, more than you could possibly read in an entire lifetime. Head on over to your friendly neighborhood online superstore and you'll find hundreds of thousands more. We're already faced with (literally) millions of options when it comes to choosing a book. And guess what: faced with all that choice we are still able to find the ones we want to read.

No one sits around thinking, "You know what the problem with the Internet is? Too many web pages." Would you even notice if suddenly there were a million more sites on the Internet? How would you even know? We all benefit from the seemingly infinite scope of the Internet and we've devised a means of navigating the greatest concentration of information and knowledge the world has ever seen.

So what's the big deal if a few hundred thousand more books hit the digital stores every year? We will find a way to find the books we want to read, just as surely as we're able to find the restaurants we eat at and the movies we want to see and the shoes we want to buy out of the many, many available options.

Infinite Choice Instantaneously

I grew up in a tiny farming town, and for me a fun afternoon consisted of standing in a rice field and shooting things with a BB gun. I didn't have a friendly neighborhood bookstore to peruse, and as this was pre-Internet I certainly didn't have a lot of choice in what I was able to read. My choices were basically limited to what was stocked at our small-but-awesome library and whatever I was able to wrangle from the small-and-not-awesome mall bookstore over 30 miles away.

Not only did my experience growing up give me the skill to shoot dirt clods with the best of them, it also gave me a tremendous appreciation for the importance of choice (because let's face it, nothing gives you an appreciation for choice like not having any). I probably would have bankrupted my parents if I had regular access to a Barnes & Noble growing up, but I would have loved it!!

And now we have even more choice than a big bookstore. Instantaneous access to every book you could ever want to read: how could this possibly be construed as a bad thing?

The Sound of Silence

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, notes that we're moving from an era where we filtered and then published to one where we'll publish and then filter. And no one would be happier than me to hand the filtering reins over to the reading public, who will surely be better at judging which books should rise to the top than the best guesses of a handful of publishing professionals.

I don't see this transition as the demise of traditional publishing or agenting. Roles will change, but there are still some fundamental elements that will remain. There's more that goes into a book than just writing it, and publishers will still be the best-equipped to maintain the editorial quality, production value, and marketing heft that will still be necessary for the biggest books. Authors will still need experienced advocates to navigate this landscape, place subsidiary rights (i.e. translation, film, audio, etc.), and negotiate on their behalf.

What's changing is that the funnel is in the process of inverting - from a top down publishing process to one that's bottom up.

Yes, many (if not most) of the books that will see publication in the new era will only be read by a handful of people. Rather than a rejection letter from an agent, authors will be met with the silence of a handful of sales. And that's okay!! Even if a book is only purchased by a few friends and family members -- what's the harm?

Meanwhile, the public will have the ultimate ability to find the books they want to read, will be unconstrained by the tastes of the publishing industry, and whether you want to read experimental literary fiction or a potboiler mystery: you'll be able to find it. Out of the vastness of books published the best books will emerge, driven to popularity by passionate readers.

Sure beats shooting dirt clods.

Photo by Isabelle + Stephane Gallay via Creative Commons






Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Do You Read in the Genre You Write?

First! There have been many great suggestions about opening up the process by which one can have their page critiqued on the blog so that it is not quite as dependent on being in the right time zone and clicking the refresh button seven thousand times and argh will Nathan just post already I've been staring at this screen so long WHEN I LOOK AWAY I STILL SEE ORANGE!!!!!

While you have to admit that seeing everything in the color orange is rather awesome, I am going to try out a new system this week. If you'd like to have your page critiqued on the blog on Monday, you now have an opportunity to nominate your page at your leisure in the Forums. All you have to do is paste your page in this thread, and next Monday I'll use a random number generator to pick the winning page for critique.

Democracy in action!!! Or, you know, luck. Which is just as good, I'm told.

Transition!

The reading habits of writers is something that always fascinates me. While I think it's a given that a good writer needs to also be a good and widely-read reader, what types of books are necessary to read?

And especially: do you read in the genre you write? Is this necessary? Is it helpful? Or is it more helpful to read in other genres to see what other people are doing?

What sayeth you? And credit goes to my wife for thinking of this topic. (Whoops! Also Mira posted this question in the Forums a few months back. Synchronicity!)






Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Page Critique Tuesday - My Critique

Thanks so much to Screaming Guppy (who, by the way, is coming off of a well-deserved contest honorable mention) for offering up the page for critique.

I think this is a very engaging opening, and there's some very strong writing here. For a scene that drops us right into the action, there's enough detail to keep us grounded and knowing where we are, even though it's an unfamiliar world. I'm very curious about what this humanoid is and whether they'll catch it (and why they need to), and it's setting up an interesting beginning. Nicely done.

My main concern is one that comes from a great place, but is actually one of the most common mistakes I see of all: there are parts where it feels like the author is trying just a bit too hard. Just a tiny bit

Too often, aspiring writers try to reinvent the hovercraft when it comes to crafting totally unique phrases, and the writing doesn't come across as effortlessly as it needs to in order to keep the reader engaged with the story. There are turns of phrase in this page that strive for originality at the expense of (my favorite writing word you know it's coming here it is): precision. I'm just not sure some of the turns of phrase ("coarse bits of the world," "broken earth," "in a peppered graffiti") achieved more than a simpler phrase or word choice would have in the same place.

This is such a tricky thing - you definitely want to be unique, but at the same time you don't want to lose the reader. Better to trust in the precision of your writing and the uniqueness of your characters and achieve style through cadence, perspective, and through your characters coming alive rather than trying to do so through complicated turns of phrases, particularly in an action scene.

I also had a few concerns about the Part 1 - is this a prologue? Pull quote? But this is also something that agents see quite a bit of - a quick bit of rug-pulling before the main action. For whatever reason, this type of a beginning tends to be something that critique groups love. They'll tell you this is a terrific hook, it's just the thing to begin with, and if you have it at the end of the first page they'll tell you to put it right at the beginning to catch the reader right away. Critique groups love love love themselves an opening hook.

In my opinion though, it feels just a bit gimmicky, and also represents, I think, a missed opportunity. There is a quick reversal, which immediately builds conflict and intrigue, but it is too easily lost and forgotten when the main action arrives, and feels just a bit superficial. "I hated her" feels a bit overly direct and generic, and there could perhaps be another way to reveal more about the character of the person/humanoid speaking.

That said, I think this is a well-balanced opening and it shows promise. With just a few tweaks the reader will very well engaged and the story will be on its way.

REDLINE:

Title: Hound in Blood and Black
Genre: dystopian fiction

Part 1
The first time I met Kumari, she smelled of gunmetal, blood and death. Her purpose, through chance and circumstance, became to save my life This feels just a tad overwrought to me.

I hated her Missed opportunity to show more about the narrator?.

Chapter 1

Last tank of gas, she thought as the engine spit out a black cloud before picking the Jeep back up to speed. It meant one thing: last chance to make a catch. Last chance to eat, drink. To win I like the other last chances, but "to win" doesn't quite seem like it fits. If this is actually a matter of life and death does winning matter? It may be something that's explained later, but still wonder if the idea of winning cuts against the life and death stakes.

Last chance to stay alive.

“Harder!” Kumari screamed over the howl of the battered engine good detail. It revved as Bastion punched the gas pedal, dust and pebbles spraying the old army Jeep in a peppered graffiti. Driven by the wind, coarse bits of the world feels overdone (see below) clawed her cheeks and scratched the surface of her shades. She adjusted the bandana across the lower half of her face good.

I would suggest combining the second and third sentences for more seamless description. Something along the lines of: "Bastion punched the gas pedal (no need to say it revved because that's what happens by default when you punch the gas pedal). Dust and pebbles sprayed the old army jeep, clawed her cheeks and scratched the surface of her shades."

Despite the murky air she saw her quarry not sure "quarry" feels like the right word choice here - target?, clear against the horizon. Missed opportunity to provide a bit of description about what they're chasing. Also, this seems to be a dusty, murky place - so how is the humanoid clear against the horizon? Maybe consider a different way of phrasing?.

“Left!” she shouted. The Jeep veered hard to the side, tires skidding and jumping over the rocky desert good. Kumari caught herself with a hard foot to the wheel well, keeping her balance in check don't think you need "in check" while the vehicle sped across the plain. Her prey, a humanoid, stumbled as the Jeep cut in front of its path Another missed opportunity on description - humanoid could mean anything, particularly when it's a humanoid that can apparently run as fast as a car. The description is otherwise precise, but not about the most important thing of all. “Damn it, Bastion. Don’t run it over!”

The Jeep jerked again, this time to the right, spewing more broken earth dirt? into the sky. Bastion yelled something back at her, but his words were stolen by the wind this can be your stylistic flair. Of the unique turns of phrase I think "words were stolen by the wind" works the best.

Her throat was dry. Only daybreak, and already hot as hell good voice.






Page Critique Tuesday

Page critique! Page critique! My kingdom for a page critique!!!

Actually it's free.

You all know how this works at this point, but slightly changed rules:

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. Instead of updating the post later with my thoughts and comments, this time around I'm going to put my thoughts and comments in a new post. This will hopefully make it easier to keep track of if you're reading in a feed reader
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.


UPDATE: THE EXCERPT!

Thanks very much to the Screaming Guppy for sharing:

Title: Hound in Blood and Black
Genre: dystopian fiction

Part 1
The first time I met Kumari, she smelled of gunmetal, blood and death. Her purpose, through chance and circumstance, became to save my life.

I hated her.

Chapter 1

Last tank of gas, she thought as the engine spit out a black cloud before picking the Jeep back up to speed. It meant one thing: last chance to make a catch. Last chance to eat, drink. To win.

Last chance to stay alive.

“Harder!” Kumari screamed over the howl of the battered engine. It revved as Bastion punched the gas pedal, dust and pebbles spraying the old army Jeep in a peppered graffiti. Driven by the wind, coarse bits of the world clawed her cheeks and scratched the surface of her shades. She adjusted the bandana across the lower half of her face.

Despite the murky air she saw her quarry, clear against the horizon.

“Left!” she shouted. The Jeep veered hard to the side, tires skidding and jumping over the rocky desert. Kumari caught herself with a hard foot to the wheel well, keeping her balance in check while the vehicle sped across the plain. Her prey, a humanoid, stumbled as the Jeep cut in front of its path. “Damn it, Bastion. Don’t run it over!”

The Jeep jerked again, this time to the right, spewing more broken earth into the sky. Bastion yelled something back at her, but his words were stolen by the wind.

Her throat was dry. Only daybreak, and already hot as hell.






Monday, June 7, 2010

The Winner(s)!!! (And Last Week in Publishing) 6/7/10

After more than 500 entries in The ROCK PAPER TIGER Chase/Action Writing Contest Extravaganza and many many votes..... WE HAVE OUR FIRST EVER CONTEST TIE.

Yup - it's a tie between Josin L. McQuein and Bane of Anubis. While I considered disqualifying Bane on the grounds that he is a Lakers fan, I figured he suffered enough last night during the Lakers' loss to the Celtics, so I am hereby declaring them both winners!

Congratulations!!! Winners and finalists, please e-mail to discuss prizes.

Meanwhile, there was a week, um, last week and many publishing-related happenings.

Amazon is hard at work on a new Kindle that will release in August, according to Bloomberg. It will be thinner and sharper picture but will not, per Bloomberg's sources, have a touch screen or color.

And speaking of e-books, the Wall Street Journal looked at the impact of e-books on the self-publishing landscape, and notes that while most big authors are still published by publishers, the idea of going it alone (or with an e-book-focused company) is beginning to take shape.

The Hobbitses are once again on their own amid news that Guillermo del Toro can't quite swing spending six years on the two planned movies based on Tolkien's THE HOBBIT and will be departing the project. io9 held a survey on who should replace del Toro.

Also on io9, author Beth Revis added three more important elements to my recent post on making a setting come alive, specifically for dystopian worlds: an antagonist, history, and a stage for the character.

In writing advice news, agent Rachelle Gardner has some great advice for one sentence pitches, Cynthia Lord has excellent words of wisdom about school visits, and Bryan Russell/Ink takes a look at Orwell and info dumps.

Also, Bryan/Ink is accepting submissions for Flash Fiction, so if you want to be featured on a terrific blog, head on over!

Bookstores aren't dead and neither are novellas! One of the greatest bookstores in the world, Paris' Shakespeare & Company, is starting a magazine and a biannual prize for the best novella from 20,000-30,000 words.

"Dilbert" cartoonist Scott Adams had an interesting take on the landscape of media content and how the Internet is putting enormous downward pressure on the perception of value. He looks ahead to a world when the idea of an author making a living goes the way of the blacksmith as the value of content goes down to zero. Agree? Disagree? (via Bridget McBride)

There was a controversial article in Salon last week, which examines the outsourcing of book printing amid a study that suggests that many children's books published in the United States contain paper derived from Indonesia's disappearing rainforests, though the article notes the vagueness of the study on which books and publishers were found to be sourced in this fashion. (via the Book Bench)

Last week in the Forums, how bad is your first draft, how to handle flashbacks, how to distinguish between procrastination and writer's block, and if you're not watching Friday Night Lights, you are sorely missing out!

Comment! of! the! Week! Since it was a contest week that honor naturally goes to the contest winners: Josin L. McQuein and Bane of Anubis!

And finally, via The Forums, I've heard a lot of book promotion ideas, but this one may win for general hilarity. According to the NY Post, an author hired 40 actresses to read her book in public and laugh hysterically. That's certainly one way to do it!

Hope you had a great weekend!






Friday, June 4, 2010

The Finalists!!

Here! They! Are!

The Finalists in The ROCK PAPER TIGER Chase/Action Writing Contest Extravaganza!!

But first, as always this was such a difficult decision and there were many, many excellent entries. Thanks so much to everyone to participating, and one more big round of applause to Lisa Brackmann for the publication of ROCK PAPER TIGER! Honestly, if you read the first two pages of this book I don't know how you could possibly put it down. I dare you!!

These entries were quite tricky to read because even moreso than other stretches of a book, chase/action/suspense sequences drop you straight into the action. But there were some things that stood out in the ones I ended up selecting:

- Economy and Precision of Description - Action sequences tend to use fewer words to keep up the pace, which places an even higher premium of very very precise description.
- Vividness - It's always great when you both can picture what is happening and the stakes are very clear.
- Interesting setting - Chases are, at heart, a character moving through a space. If that space (i.e. the setting) is interesting the chase scene can really come alive.
- Characters reacting in unexpected fashion - It's not enough to simply show that someone is scared - how does this particular character act when they're scared?
- Originality - We've all seen and read hundreds if not thousands of chase scenes. It's tough to come up with something that feels wholly original, but people still manage to do it.

Some things I saw a lot of (which, don't get me wrong, aren't necessarily bad in context, just interesting to see what repeats):

- Lots of moments when things slow down, seem as if they're happening in slow motion, etc.
- Sighs of relief
- Characters filled with (or wide-eyed with) panic or terror

And one last thing on the precision: everyone check their adverbs and make sure they're very very necessary. I saw quite a few lines like "he froze suddenly." When you are using the word "freeze" with the connotation coming to a stop, is there any other way to "freeze" than suddenly? Freeze by definition means stopping suddenly. So you don't need the suddenly: you can just say "he froze."

TRANSITION!

Here are the honorable mentions, who are quite honorable indeed:

The Screaming Guppy
JohnO
T. Anne
Cyndi Tefft
Valerie Kemp

And now, before I announce the finalists, please remember the voting rules:

In order to vote for the winner, please leave a vote in the comments section of this post. You will have until approximately 4-5 PM Pacific time on Sunday to vote. Please do not e-mail me your vote.

Anonymous comments will be closed during the voting to diminish covert voting opportunities.

Also: Please do not campaign for yourself or for your favorites out there on the Internet. Let's keep this fair. Please remind friends of this as well.

The grand prize winner will be announced on Monday, followed by Last Week in Publishing. Page Critique Monday will be Page Critique Tuesday next week.

Drumroll........................

The five finalists are............

Josin L. McQuein!

There's a knock from outside the door, a set of very human knuckles rapping out a pre-arranged rhythm so we know it's safe. The last beep of the security code unlatches the door and we lurch forward as the one outside pulls Jonah into the hall by the wrist.

"Go."

Mr. Pace touches each shoulder, counting as we pass to make sure no one's forgotten. Tobias loops his hand back through the strap on my shoulder for the inspection, then grabs me around the waist again once we're clear.

"If we have to run, go limp," he says. "I can carry you faster than you can move on your own."

Before I can protest that I don't need to be carried, or that I don't trust him not to toss me aside and leave me here, Tobias stumbles forward from a sudden push at his back. The force ripples through our chain of hands. Elbows and knees hit hard on the ground, and the yelps that come after are followed by frantic shushing.

"They're through," Mr. Pace shouts behind us, but he isn't talking to us.

"Move! Move! Move!" A voice I finally recognize as Lt. Casey shouts and shoves our line again.

As soon as we hit the hall, everything falls apart. We've only ever marched in silence with no real sense of urgency or danger. Now we're a hive mind with a massive case of brain freeze. Total chaos - all the drills mean nothing.

Our lines break. What used to be our classroom erupts into the sound of shrieking, gunfire, and something that is in no way human.

I hit the floor with my hands over my ears, curled into a ball against the sound - the other side of my edge. Loud noises are overwhelming. For the first week, I couldn't handle light, either, because my eyes were still attuned to the Dark. That one's getting better, but the sounds still kill me.

"That's not what I meant by limp, Marina!"

Tobias is beside me, pulling me up by one arm. The next thing I know, we're racing toward the shelter beyond the maze of hallways. Well, he's racing, I'm being dragged - gaining speed is hard after getting shot in the leg, even when the wound's had a few weeks to heal.

Good to his promise, Tobias has me off the ground before I can remind him that I can't move as fast as he can, and over his shoulder I watch what everyone else is trying to hide from.

Now I know why they tell people not to look back when they're running away.

Mr. Pace and Lt. Casey. Three others I can't name. They shoot at shadows in the dark, every round making them twist and jerk from the impact of the rifles hitting their shoulders. A flare illuminates the face of Honoria Whit with the odd bald "V" scarred into her hairline.

"Bring it down," she orders. "Collapse the doors!"


LGSmith!

I turned my horse around, ready to get the hell out of there, when a fourth grenade went off behind me, shaking my bones and teeth. I felt death claw at my back, and then the world went silent. Blades crossed in front of me, horses stumbled in a screen of smoke, men’s mouths shouted words, but I heard none of it. I was on the path to the afterlife. Death was the only explanation for why my vision had narrowed into a long dark tunnel. And then Lt. Daniels rode up beside me and screamed at me to ride for the trees.

“Go!” he ordered, pointing with his sword.

Delivered from deafness, I heard the word lift off his lips and realized I wasn’t dead. Not about to ignore him a second time, I prodded my horse through the drifting smoke to the line of oaks on the right, as the lieutenant slashed at one of the devils who tried to chase. My horse broke for the trees, galloping in a zigzagged pattern as she maneuvered the wood. I hugged her neck and held on, diving to avoid low branches. We made it about a quarter of a mile into the thick of the trees when I heard the pounding of hooves behind me. I risked a look and saw the lieutenant riding hard to catch up. Three attackers followed.

That’s when it ignited: the flash of defiance that rises up in me whenever danger chases me down. I don’t turn from the fight. I meet it head on like a rock in a river. Perhaps it is nothing more than foolhardy daring that will get me killed one day, but every muscle in my body made me pull up on the reins and turn my horse around to end this. With only a second of surprise on my side, I hugged my legs tight around my horse and nocked an arrow against the bowstring. Daniels ran his horse hard right, breaking from the enemy, and I caught the first rider right where his heart ought to be.

I quickly set another arrow and drew my bow, arms tensed against the strain of wood and sinew. Riders hurtled toward me. Daniels leaned left and I prepared to release when his horse suddenly lurched. Hit from behind by an arrow to her hindquarter, his horse went down, throwing Daniels to the ground. I never saw him get up, but there was no time to find him. The second rider flattened out on his horse and charged straight at me. But arrows are quicker than horses. I stuck him just below the ribs and he fell from his saddle into the sea of ferns.

I had killed two of the assassins, and if I could kill the third I might just get away with my life. But I had made a dangerous mistake. The third rider had already stopped twenty yards in front of me, aiming his arrow true.


Ryan Z Nock!

A gunshot explodes in the jungle night. Four men, rifles in hand, tromp out of the brush and into the headlights of our wrecked car. Gabi, already mostly hidden by the vehicle, ducks down and looks at me, but I try not to react, hoping the men might not have noticed her.

They certainly don’t look like the Amazonians I’d expect. Bare-chested, yes, and burnished bronze skin with multiple layers of stone- and metal-beaded necklaces, but they wear Hawaiian print shorts and brand-name basketball shoes.

The biggest of the group wears an old bluetooth earpiece, and he actions the bolt of his rifle, then levels it at me. Another spots Gabi and raises his rifle at her.

“Pare!” Gabi shouts. “Vamos dar-lhe o que quiser!”

The second rifleman yells to the bluetoothed leader. He in turn barks something at us.

“Não,” Gabi says. “Ele é um Americano.”

The bluetooth leader spits, then walks up and shoves me.

“Jaime,” Gabi says, “he says to do what they want, or they’ll shoot us.”

“What the fuck do they want?”

I hear a diesel engine approaching from up the road to the left. We all turn to look, and maybe a half mile away a white truck, trailer bed laden with lumber, takes a wide curve toward us. The natives start yelling.

Gabi says, “We have to go with them.”

“No.”

“They have guns!”

I glance back at the truck. It’ll be on us in less than a minute.

“We jump on the truck.”

“But-.”

“We can do this!”

Bluetooth steps up to grab me, and I bat his hand away. He yells, and the other three men take aim at me.

“Stop!” Gabi cries.

I creep toward the other side of the road, trying to use Bluetooth as cover against the firing squad. Bluetooth lunges after me. The truck begins blaring its horn, and the driver guns his engine.

Gabi breaks for the road, but one gunman grabs her hair and yanks her back. I take a step to help, but Bluetooth whips the barrel of his rifle at the side of my head. I duck, then grab the rifle, but he wrenches it out of my grip, and then smashes his elbow and the rifle stock into my face. My right eye goes blind with the hit, and headlights blind me from the left.

Bluetooth jumps back as the truck roars between us. I throw myself into a run down the road to the right. A rifle barks, his or one of the others I can’t tell, but the massive trailer blocks their view. I jump and grab at a yellow cable on the trailer bed, ram my foot onto a blurring piece of metal.

The retort of another rifle blasts in my ears. Pain sears in my hip, and wet heat smears across my thigh. I yell to Gabi, but I can hear her screams for help fading into the night as I’m carried away at forty miles an hour.


EternalOptimist!

“What is that?” Ceren asked, her voice squeaking with fear.

A blonde-furred Destroyer tumbled from the sky and slammed into the ground twenty paces down slope from them and tumbled toward the river. For a second it looked like it would roll right into the raging waters, but its impossibly muscled arms lashed out and dug its long, curved claws into the ground, gouging deep furrows and slowing its headlong rush just short of the bank.

The monster turned and fastened amber eyes on them. It opened its long snout and roared, showing a mouth full of sharp teeth.

An arrow slammed into the center of its chest.

“That’ll teach it,” Adalia said with a satisfied smile. But her smile faded when the Destroyer rose to its full twelve foot height and yanked the arrow out of its fur, apparently unharmed.

“We be in trouble,” Adalia said, but her hand never slowed. Even as she spoke, she drew another arrow, knocked it, and took aim.

The monster lunged down onto all four legs and charged, tearing at the earth in its hunger to reach them.

Ceren raised her sword, but her hand shook with terror. It’s not fair! A defiant spark blazed in her soul, driving the terror back. She hadn’t just survived death by a Makrasha to die by this horror.

Adalia let fly a second arrow and caught the monster mid-leap in the face, just missing the eye. The shaft grazed its head and deflected away, leaving a thin crimson scar.

“By Jagen, that aint right,” Adalia shouted, already drawing another arrow.

The monster barreled toward them, its terrifying gaze fixed on Adalia’s tiny form. Unfazed, she knocked another arrow. “See how ye like this,” she snarled, drawing the bow with a rock steady hand.

She would get only one more shot.

Then Nikias arrived.

A blur of blue flame, he intercepted the monster, slashing at its torso with the burning silvered blades of the Bladestaff.

The monster skidded to a halt and grasped at the puny human, but Nikias danced aside and slashed again, whooping like a lunatic. His blades sliced across the monster’s arms, cutting the thick hide but not penetrating into the dense muscle below. The fire racing the length of the blades seemed to have no effect on the monster.

It lunged at him, but again he danced aside, moving faster than anyone Ceren had ever seen. He twirled around behind the beast and stabbed at its back, but again did little more than slice the skin. The monster spun after him but he dodged its grasping claws and slashed again, and again.

The two lunged and ducked, slashed and clawed, spun and dodged in a deadly dance punctuated by the beast’s frustrated roaring and Nikias’ incessant whooping yells.

Then Nikias misjudged a dodge and instead of ducking under a huge arm, it clobbered him in the side of the head. He tumbled to the ground, and the monster pounced.


Bane of Anubis!

“Come on, Baby, let’s go.”

But her gaze, like mine, is fixed on the cave, on the dozen men dragging five large nets to the ledge. The gunship’s side doors open. Hooks are lowered, nets attached. The chopper lists beneath the weight, but soon the cargo’s loaded, still faintly glowing, and I’m absurdly reminded of chickens, even though I’ve never seen one get its head cut off.

Two other helicopters retrieve the soldiers. I watch until the last saunters aboard. No gurneys, no rush, nobody injured. Not a battle. A slaughter. As the two transports move away, my breaths come faster, sharper; my chest constricts.

“Let’s go,” I whisper.

I meant for us to retreat, to hide, but Baby rises up and launches herself over the mountaintop and at the nearest helicopter with a sky-shattering howl that reminds me of her parents. The gunship makes half a revolution toward us before being swallowed in a cone of ice.

Its blades grind to a halt. For a half moment it sits there, suspended in death. I’m close enough to see the soldier manning the side-door machine gun. He’s an ice statue, sculpted with mouth and eyes wide open, finger at the trigger.

A sudden intense sadness grips me as the frozen gunship plummets into the valley. Those men died because of me. Maybe I was a reluctant sympathizer before, but now I’m a full-fledged traitor who’s killed fathers, sons, brothers, husbands.

The missile shrieking toward us consumes my sorrow, sets my heart aflutter. Baby reels sideways and sends a funnel of liquid frost at the attacking gunship. Another missile races toward us from the left. Two from the right. Shrieking death everywhere. I glance back to see the first missile spin around.

Baby dives and the missiles follow. “Go cold!” I shout.

Her skin cools to frigid and her glow brightens to blinding. She dodges three more missiles, heads for the helicopter with the red dragon heads. Bullets zip everywhere, a swarm of metal locusts criss-crossing our path.

Baby bucks, bolts and swerves, always breathing her ice. Ten gunships become five. Missiles churn the mountainside, send fountains of rock and snow hundreds of feet skyward.

In the blizzard of destruction, I lose my orientation. Shadows in the flying detritus could be a thousand feet away or ten, enemies or flying boulders. I call out every blur, imagined or not, shouting against the thunder of war until my voice goes hoarse, my lungs grow tight, and my body burns cold fire.

The explosion hits us from below. Warmth and pain surge through me. Baby tumbles head over tail. My grip loosens, legs slip, head spins.

When my focus returns, Baby’s crashing into the mountain and I’m hundreds of feet in the air without a dragon.


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