Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, October 29, 2010

This Week in Publishing 10/29/10

This week in the Giants I mean publishing

Holy cow is it an exciting time to live in San Francisco, and most especially to live two blocks away from AT&T Park during the World Series. I've almost gotten used to helicopters buzzing overhead, having to reassure my dog that the world is not about to come to an end when military jets do flybys, and my wife and I have gotten quite adept at high fiving deliriously happy/drunk Giants fans in the neighborhood.

Only I'm going to be in New York next week, so I hope the neighborhood is still standing when I get back. Go Giants!!

Oh, and last thing about the Giants, but I find it so funny that the national news about the series usually takes the tack of, "Wow, those liberal San Francisco hippies sure do like their oddball baseball team!" I'm not sure whether to be offended or proud.

Meanwhile, first actual publishing update is that I'm still way behind on queries and manuscripts. No need to follow up.

And it's Friday, so that means it's time for Page Critique Friday. The page up for critique is posted in the Forums. UPDATE: my critique, and more on avoiding choppiness and semicolons, here.

News in publishing!

The big news this week is that B&N unveiled a color Nook that looks pretty darn impressive, if you ask me. Retailing for $249, the Nook Color runs on the operating system Android and has a "Stunning 7 inch VividView™ Color Touchscreen shows more than 16 million colors on the best-in-class IPS** display. Incredibly clear, sharp text and images from an unsurpassed high resolution display at 1024 x 600 delivering 169 pixels per inch (PPI). Reduced glare and optimum brightness for reading indoors or outside. Backlit for eady reading day or night.” The Nook also is going to have a feature where you can access entire e-books while in a bricks and mortar B&N store. CNET came away impressed.

Meanwhile, one of the popular features on the Nook was the lending feature that allows you to lend some books to friends, during which time it is unavailable on your own Nook. Amazon will now offer the same feature on the Kindle. Mike Shatzkin has some analysis about how Amazon had ridiculed the lending feature when B&N unveiled it.

And speaking of Amazon, indie publisher Dennis Johnson of Melville House made waves this week when they pulled out of the Best Translated Book Prize that was partially sponsored by Amazon, citing what Melville House sees as Amazon's "predatory and thuggish practices" and that "Amazon’s interests, and those of a healthy book culture, whether electronic or not, are antithetical." In a blog post, the organizer of the award says that Melville House's books will still be considered, and that he's "sorry that Dennis has chosen to try and undermine the awards in an attempt to make a political point." Writing at Publishers Lunch (subscription required), Michael Cader notes that Melville House books are still sold on Amazon, and when he asked Johnson about whether they plan to discontinue sales via Amazon, Johnson said, "we don't want that; we want our books to be available in as many places as possible" and praised Amazon for their distribution.

If you are a fan of Mad Men (as I am), you may have chuckled at the plotline this season where Roger Sterling was dictating his memoirs. Well, that fictional book will soon be a real book as Grove Atlantic will be publishing STERLING'S GOLD: WIT AND WISDOM OF AN AD MAN.

In case you think form rejections are a new invention, an old form rejection from Charlie Chaplin film producers Essany Film Manufacturing Company was unearthed, dating back somewhere during their lifespan of 1907-1925. Among the possible reasons a 1920s screenwriter's idea was rejected: "weak plot," "idea has been done before," "too difficult to produce," "too conventional," "not interesting," "not humorous," and of course, "would not pass the censor board."

As you may have heard, next week is NaNoWriMo, but if you're not going to participate in that, Natalie Whipple has a great idea for an alternative: NaNoReaMo

Meanwhile, in writing advice news, Jennifer Hubbard has some thoughts expanding on yesterday's post on self-editing, differentiating between the Inner Critic and the Inner Editor (listen to the Inner Editor). And Jim Duncan discusses the differences between Pantsers (as in "seat of the") and Plotters.

And Jonathan Franzen made a visit to the White House, which Franzen said was "delightful."

This week in the Forums, the story behind your screen name, the idea of bundling books and e-books like BluRay/digital copies, horror books in time for Halloween, discussing BEHEMOTH by Scott Westerfeld, and of course, NaNoWriMo.

Comment! of! the! Week! goes to Crazy Cat Lady, with a very good suggestion about editing as you go:

I'd say editing as you go can serve a purpose, to avoid snags that will drag you down and get you stuck later on. However, my advice has always been to always save the words. Even if you go back and edit, use strike out or different highlights to cross out what you don't like but DON'T DELETE.

You never know when those couple of thousand words you want to cut may come in handy in the validation stage. So, edit, but don't delete is my take on it. =)

And finally, as mentioned San Francisco really loves its baseball team, what with Tim Lincecum (aka The Freak) and his long hair, Pablo Sandoval (aka The Panda) and the panda hats around in the stadium, and Juan Uuuuuuuuu (wait for it) RIBE. And then there's closer Brian Wilson, who, earlier in the year, gave what is perhaps the funniest interview in the history of sports:

(video down)

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

NaNoWriMo Boot Camp: Editing As You Go

As I mentioned yesterday, I am definitely of the opinion that it usually pays to get something-anything on the page and to try and revise later, on the grounds that it's much easier to revise and polish than to conjure out of thin air.

But one very real potential dark side of NaNoWriMo is abandoning self-editing in the name of racking up words.

Some people actually need to shut off the self-editing switch because it's easy to fall in a state of paralysis when trying to write a polished final draft on the very first try. Letting go and just letting the words flow can be freeing.

But abandon all hope ye who completely abandon self-editing. And there's a very simple reason for this: problems can snowball. A problem that is brushed over in the first few chapters can progress from there and worm its way through the novel in such a way that it can become very very difficult to fix later on. You can't build a house on a creaky foundation.

It is definitely good to get words on the page, provided overall things are working. And how do you know if things are working overall?

It's tough for everyone to be a self-aware writer and to spot your own flaws. But stopping, thinking, trying to imagine yourself as a reader, remembering the writing advice you know, and asking yourself very honestly, "Is this working?" is absolutely crucial.

And chances are you know when things aren't working. There will be a quiet, tiny nagging voice that you're shutting off or deciding not to worry about for now. It usually manifests itself as a sneaking suspicion.

Listen to The Voice, which speaks quietly and almost imperceptibly. The Voice sounds way more like, "Um...Hi! So sorry to bug you, I mean, only if you want to listen, but um, well, are you sure about the cow aliens? I can wait..." than "Duh! Wake up, this is wrong!"

If only The Voice were more assertive.

So yes. Get those words down, keep on plugging away. But don't stop editing as you go. And listen to The Voice.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

NaNoWriMo: How Do You Power Through?

To be sure, there are mixed opinions about the utility of getting words-down-any-words-down and powering through to get something on the page. Personally I feel that getting words-down-any-words-down can be very helpful, as I find it much easier to go back and revise than to try and conjure something for the first time.

But how does one power through? I have never attempted the marathon/race to the moon/mountain climb that is NaNoWriMo, but I'm sure that at some point that brain starts yelping, "No! More! Words!"

How do you quell that feeling and power through to keep going?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NaNoWriMo Boot Camp: Goals and Obstacles

Alright, men and women. Day Two of Boot Camp!

You have your novel idea. Now it's time to fill it page in and page out with various events that keep the reader's interest. How exactly do you do that?

Novels don't just spill themselves onto the page (or at least they shouldn't!). It's best to make sure that on every page, in every scene, and in the novel as a whole, every character has their own set of goals that they're striving for and obstacles in their way.

Goals and obstacles. Goals and obstacles. It's crucial to know what your characters want and what is thwarting them.

Step 1: What does your protagonist want? It could be to save the world, it could be closure on an especially difficult issue, it could be romance, it could be to finally figure out who the Cylons are no seriously this time. But even better if your protagonist wants more than one thing, and these things could very well be at odds with each other at times. The ultimate, most important thing they want should be achieved (or not achieved) in the climax.

Step 2: What is standing in your protagonist's way? Obstacles reveal the true personality of a character. Are they ingenious? Stubborn? Clever? The way someone deals with conflict and adversity shows a great deal about their true character. Placing roadblocks in front of your characters at (nearly) every opportunity will show you and the reader who they really are. The biggest obstacle in their way should be faced in the climax.

Step 3: What do they value the most? Your protagonist should be in conflict not just with the world, but also within themselves. The battles and travails along the way should reveal the things that they care most about and their true qualities. Best of all, they should have to give up something important in order to get the thing they want the most.

And don't stop with your protagonist! Every character should have their own set of goals, obstacles, and ultimate values.

Jonathan Franzen is a master of goals and obstacles. If you look at nearly every scene in Freedom, every character has a goal that they approach a scene with (and it's a goal that the reader clearly understands), and we read on to see if they will obtain it. Often they are blocked by not only another character, but also by themselves.

When in doubt while you're writing your novel: throw an obstacle in your protagonist's path. Your reader will thank you for it.

For further reading:

What Do Your Characters Want?
On Conflict
John Green and Dynamic Character Relationships
Sympathetic vs. Unsympathetic Characters
Setting the Pace
Character and Plot: Inseparable!

Monday, October 25, 2010

NaNoWriMo Boot Camp: Choosing the Right Idea

Alright you lily livered writing types, listen up! I'm here to whip you into shape like, uh... like... maggots? Does that make sense?

Yeah I don't make a good drill sergeant.

But! In today's first installment of NaNoWriMo week, I wanted to talk about the most important element of starting a novel: starting with the right novel.

Chances are, if you are a writer there is one idea that you hold above all others. It is the one that has stuck with you despite the shiny distractions of other ideas. It is your one true unwritten love. Even when you look at the bestseller list and see how zombie ballerina novels have grown massively popular and you think to yourself, "Ya know, it would probably be smart to cash in on this zombie ballerina trend," your true unwritten love keeps popping back up and demanding your attention, and no amount of zombie ballerinas can distract you, no matter how simultaneously cute and terrifying they are.

This is the novel you should write. Write the book you want to write, not the one in the genre that is currently popular or that you think the publishing industry would like.

Committing to writing a book is kind of like getting married. You're in it for the long haul. And if you want the marriage to last, it's best to choose the one who makes you truly happy, the one who makes you a better person/writer, and the one who doesn't mind how your jaw clicks when you chew.

But this doesn't mean that you don't stop trying to improve the relationship. It can always be made better with effort. SO TOO with your novel.

So yes, you have a great idea for a novel. Awesome. Now start refining it (and you have a week to prepare before November!). Does the character have a well-defined arc? Are you sure you have a plot? Do you know the novel's high points and low points? Is change underway in your novel's setting? Have you thought about whether your novel should be in first person or third? Do you have a killer climax?

Here's a checklist of things to know before you start writing (pulled from my post How to Write a Novel):

- The main arc. Where your characters start, where they'll end up, how they'll change along the way. You don't have to know everything, but the more you think of the long arc the better.
- The main obstacles in the character's path
- The protagonist and his/her/its qualities
- The setting, and how it influences the character
- The style in which you plan to tell the story
- The climax. The most important sequences, where something very exciting happens that changes everything

Have a rough idea of these elements in place? Awesome. You're ready to begin.

For further reading on starting before you begin:

How to Write a Novel
Do You Have a Plot? 
How to Craft a Great Voice
Archetype vs. Cliche
What Makes a Great Setting

Friday, October 22, 2010

This Week in Publishing 10/22/10

This Week in Publishing Normal This Time

Whew! I may have missed a few items in publishing news this week as I chipped away at the mountain that sprouted in my office while I was out, but here are a few of the many things that happened over the past week.

Don't forget about Page Critique Friday! The page up for critique is up for critique in the Forums for critique. UPDATE: my critique posted here.

Now for the news.

The NY Times had a widely linked-to article about the decline of picture books, citing ambitious toddlers who are purchasing chapter books for their parents in order to prepare them for a bright future (or maybe it's the reverse of that), and also the pesky economic downturn. (Downturn, could you please go away already, can't you see NO ONE LIKES YOU. Seriously, take a hint.)

Mother Jones summarized the maladies of fictional characters as diagnosed by various health professionals. They diagnose Darth Vader with borderline personality disorder (borderline? I think he's quite past the line), and Bartleby with Asperger's.

A lending feature will soon be coming to the Kindle, allowing users to lend a book for 14 days, during which time it won't be available to the original user (assuming publishers and rights holders approve). Pretty cool.

Eric at Pimp My Novel has a great list of publishing myths that he slays like a samurai fighting some dude who was crazy enough to mess with a samurai. The lesson: don't mess with samurai.

There has been a debate percolating on the Internet about the presence or lack of presence of strong female characters in young adult literature, including in the Forums. Natalie Whipple had a great post about this phenomenon, pointing out how complex this issue is given that what constitutes "strong" and "weak" varies so much from person to person and character to character. And editor Sarah Jae Jones and agent Sarah LaPolla had very interesting follow-up posts to Natalie's post.

Michael Stearn from Upstart Crow wrote an upstanding post about some of the differences between middle grade and teen literature, including the levels of complexity and interority (a word I cannot say out loud for the life of me).

There are some beloved novels headed for the silver screen. GalleyCat had an early look at the Hunger Games script, and Peter Jackson announced the cast for The Hobbit, including Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, which I think should be spectacular. What sayeth you?

Moses Siregar uncovered plans by Nielson to begin tracking e-book sales, perhaps as soon as the end of the year. And speaking of e-books, Jacob Lambert at the Millions has a thoughtful post about how advertisements for Kindle and iPad make print books almost seem like an afterthought, and relates how his attachment to CDs fell by the wayside when Tower Records disappeared.

And this has been making the rounds: a hilarious Nerd flowchart. Which kind of nerd are you?

This week in the Forums, should wealthy writers win literary awards?, listings of agents in other countries, what is it about bad boys?, how often do you read your manuscript?, Halloween microfiction, and this was bound to happen sooner or later, but Colonel Travis spotted me in a Village People video from 1985.

Comment! of! the! Week! There were many great responses to yesterday's post about the temptation of thinking someone has it made, but Theresa Milstein wins for an expert 30 Rock reference:

This reminds me of the "30 Rock" episode. Liz Lemon considers quitting her job when she meets a bunch of women in her building who spend days taking yoga and getting pedicures. After a few days of bliss, LIz discovers the women beat one another up to feel alive again. We must always strive to feel alive. Coasting is stagnating.

And finally, not one, not two, but THREE great videos for you. And not a one is even Whip My Hair, believe it or not.

First up, via Sarah LaPolla, Grover from Sesame Street as the Old Spice Guy (the levels of bliss... they are staggering)

Second, a spectacular book dominoes video from Bookmans in Phoenix (via GalleyCat):

Finally, this video brought back some memories from childhood, and I may have to devote a full post to it someday. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the man who is unquestionably the greatest athlete in the history of the world: Video Bo Jackson from Tecmo Super Bowl:

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Temptation of Thinking Someone Has Made It

One of the corollaries of the "if only" game is that there are some writers out there who could not possibly have reason to worry about anything as they have achieved a level of success that is unsurpassed, and who represent the pinnacle of the writerly world.

Examples include King, Stephen; Rowling, J.K.; Meyer, Stephenie.

There's a temptation to think that once an author has "made it" and made it bigger than anyone else, this author will have achieved boundless happiness and contentment and couldn't have a thing to complain about.

In the comments of my recent "When Dreams Become Expectations" post, as Ermo pointed out, people tended to think of true satisfaction always being perennially elusive, unless you're a Rowling and King. Then, it seems, people believe that would be completely satisfying.

I don't know these mega-authors personally, but signs point to this not being the case. In the recent Oprah interview, Rowling said, "You ask about the pressure... At that point, I kept saying to people, ‘Yeah I’m coping…’ but the truth was there were times when I was barely hanging on by a thread."

Not the sound of someone who feels like they have it made in the shade. I personally doubt Rowling would trade in her success and the sheer level of love for her books for anything, but I also don't think there's anyone who ever feels total and perfect contentment and satisfaction with their station. We keep striving no matter how high we've climbed, even those who have climbed the highest. Pressure can cut into satisfaction, and the spotlight can be uncomfortable.

It all reminds me of the speed of light (or at least my own understanding of the speed of light, which is likely wildly flawed). The way the physics of light works is that no matter how fast you personally are traveling, from your perspective a beam of light will still look like it's traveling at the speed of light. You can't travel alongside a beam of light. There's no catching up.

And I think there's actually something great about that. There will always be something to chase, always something to strive for, always another horizon to pursue. Who wants to be perfectly contented? Where's the excitement in that? There will always be something great to chase around the bend.

Photo by Mila Zinkova via Creative Commons

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Are You Participating in NaNoWriMo?

The leaves are beginning to change, the days are getting shorter, and the air is filled with a faint whiff of "I'm going to write me a novel." Yes, it's nearly November, which means nearly time for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, wherein thousands of people around the globe attempt to write a novel in a month and opt for plot over pumpkin pie, turning points over turkey, and foreshadowing over football.

Are you participating? What do you think of NaNoWriMo? Is it a great opportunity to finally get over the hump and get that novel going? Or is writing best done when not in a mad dash?

Let this also serve as a preview for a NaNoWriMo themed week on the blog next week, wherein I will attempt to get those who are participating in the right frame of mind to write pages like they have never written pages before.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Whew! Back in the office, where I returned to the sound of 421 queries simultaneously shouting "Hi! Hi! Where have you been?!" from my Inbox. Needless to say, query response time is going to be delayed for a while. Not least of which due to the monumental jet lag that led me to arrive at the office at 6:15 this morning since, hey, I was wide awake anyway!

Also, while away I entered the ranks of those who have read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Loved it. Seriously. That guy really knows human beings. Frankly I'm surprised he can walk down the street with that much awareness of what makes every single person around him tick. It's no wonder he loves bird watching.

But more on that when my brain knows what time it is.

Lastly, a major THANK YOU to the incredible lineup of guest posters for their amazing series of posts. I don't know that this blog has had a better week in its history. Thank you thank you.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Narrowing of the Perceptible World

By: Bryan Russell

The ant clambered over a few grains of sand. “Come with me,” he said to his friend, and his friend followed.

The ant dodged a wayward leaf and clambered over a twig. “This way, this way,” he said, waving his friend forward. They trudged ahead. The ant scampered over fallen blades of grass. He was excited – home was close.

He sighted the entrance to the tunnel. “We’re here,” the ant said, pointing, but the rhinoceros had trouble making out the doorway and squinted in vain.

A little joke, yes, but such little jokes often occur accidentally in the writing of fiction. Specificity of details is necessary for creating vivid fiction, yet the devil is in those details, hiding away his little horned head and laughing.

Details are necessary, it’s true, but just as important is their proper sequencing. If we want a joke, we withhold the fact that the ant’s friend is a rhinoceros. But if we’re trying to create a vivid fictive picture, what John Gardner called the dream vision, we need to be able to see what’s happening. We need to know that the ant’s friend is a rhinoceros right from the start. The image is unclear (and untrue) until we know.

A joke is a trick; fiction is a matter of trust. A reader must trust the writer to create a world, a world they can see and feel, a world in which the rug is not always pulled out from beneath their feet.

And if we are to create a vivid new world (as all writers do, whether writing something fantastical or utterly familiar), we must do so by creating the sensual experience of this world using only our words. For what we know of our own world is through our senses, through the physical impressions that reach us, and if we want our fictive world to be convincing (and, for a time, overshadow the real one) we must not only find the right sensory details but also properly sequence them.

Without this, the dream vision lacks harmony and flow. The vision will jar the reader. Ripples will appear in the fabric of the story, the reflected vision becoming blurred and distorted.

To sequence these details we must not only know what we sense about the world, but how we sense it.

Let us say we want to fabricate a river in our new world. Yet to do so, to create a convincing river, sometimes we need something more than the word itself. How do we come upon a river? Rarely do we first see the glistening shell of the waterbug on its surface, but rather a sense of the river as a whole. Our gaze, our sensual experience, narrows as we take something in, moving from large to small. Indeed, our senses typically work this way.

We first hear, perhaps, the roar and rush of water. It is not a clear sound, at first, but a background noise, a natural white noise underlying the sounds around us. It grows louder, and as it does (as we draw nearer) the roar becomes more particular. The sound sharpens, becomes clearer. Individual sounds become distinguishable: a few rapids; water falling on stone; the eddy and rush of a whirlpool; the trickle of a stream feeding the hungry river.

We still can’t see the river itself, perhaps, as it is blocked from view by a wall of pine trees – though the brightness of their greenery speaks of water and life. Yet we can smell it. The clear scent of water beneath the scent of pine needles. And after a moment this, too, sharpens. A scent of moss, a hint of wet shale. A green and thick smell where the water has pooled in little grottoes.

The river manifests itself through the trees: sparks of reflected light, and then as we part the trees the bright surface of the water, a sense of movement and weight and width. Our gaze draws in, and we note the texture of the water, how it moves and shapes itself over stones, how lines of flow mark its bends and twists. Rounded stones resist the movement of the river, skins of moss like green shadow. A leaf floats, a castaway from some elm tree in a forgotten upstream world. Waterbugs glide and shimmy on the surface. A fish peels away, a flick of silver, disturbed by our shadow on the water.

We reach out a hand – cold. The water is cold. We pull out our hand and drops splash down. Again we touch. Cold, yes, but we also feel the weight of the water pressing on our fingers, the line of temperature change on the surface, lines of flow and movement beneath. Silt skims our fingertips, almost soft, as it courses along the floor of the river.

A taste on our lips. Water and wetness at first, and the taste of cold, but also, deeper on the tongue, the taste of that silt, the soft grit of it, and the mustiness of leaves and dry grass and other wayward travelers – the taste of an autumn flowing toward winter.

A river. We have seen it in the looking glass and fallen through, into the image. The world has narrowed itself into pertinent details.

There are always exceptions, of course; sometimes observations deviate from such patterns, but always for particular reasons, for particular literary effects. The key is to find not only what we should sense about this world we want to make, but how we should sense it. How do we find the touch and taste of it? It is in finding that particular pattern that we will find a convincing dream of a new world.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cozy Mystery. What's That?

By: Kay Elam

When I was writing my first novel, I knew it was a mystery, but I wasn’t sure of its sub-genre. At a writing conference I was telling someone about my book and they said, “Oh, it’s a cozy.” I simply agreed instead of admitting I’d never heard of such a thing. Since that conference I’ve found many people (including writers) aren’t aware of this popular sub-genre even if they’ve been reading cozies for years.

A cozy is fun. It’s a fast-paced, feel-good read that, when you put it down, you can hardly wait to get back to it. Clues (as well as a few wild-goose chases) are given so the reader will want to solve the mystery along with the sleuth. The victim is not someone with whom the reader has a real emotional attachment—he’s the villain after all—so the reader isn’t dismayed by his/her death. There are twists and turns as well as surprising revelations but, in the end, justice always prevails and the sleuth is the heroine (or hero).

The cozy’s heroine is usually an amateur sleuth (think Jessica Fletcher). This is a role she’s just fallen into because she’s intelligent, intuitive, and inquisitive. She’s usually connected to the crime by someone she knows or because she was nearby when it happened. Often she solves the crime to protect someone important to her. The sleuth is likable, though flawed in a way that is not going to offend the reader. (She eats in bed, is always late, smokes, gossips, smacks chewing gum, or has some other character defect that shows she's less than perfect—just like the reader.)

The sleuth has strong relationships, though not necessarily romantic. She has lots of friends, family, acquaintances who feed her missing links to solve the mystery. These characters are often eccentric, annoying, or amusing—just like people we all know. Frequently the protagonist has a friend or spouse who know facts about the crime that aren’t yet public. This could be a member of the police force (or the sheriff), the medical examiner, the district attorney, a nosy neighbor—you get the idea.

The cozy’s sleuth usually has another job—solving crimes is just something she does because somebody has to do it. She might be a business owner (florist, bookstore, hotel, caterer, etc.), doctor, lawyer, chef, librarian, journalist, tour guide, pet sitter, and so on—or she might be retired with extra time on her hands. Instead of or in addition to a profession, a cozy might center on hobbies such as crafts, puzzles, sewing, needlework/knitting, quilting, golf, tennis, gardening, and genealogy, among others. Some cozies have a theme like the holidays, animals (cats, dogs, horses, birds, etc.), or even religion.

There is often a romantic subplot, but no explicit sex scenes, and there is little, if any, profanity.

The murder in a cozy isn’t described with a lot of details. It usually happens before the book begins or at the very beginning. Sometimes there are multiple murders, but even they are usually off the page. They’re described in general terms—no blood and gore.

A cozy is often geographically specific, usually in a small town or village, but may also be in a “closed” setting like an office, hotel, train, etc. My novel is set in a well-known medium-sized city, but is limited to a specific section of town.

Of course there has to be law enforcement—but they are often short-staffed, kidnapped, out of town, or otherwise unavailable which is why a small town setting works so well. Procedural accuracy is often overlooked in this genre and the police seldom take the protagonist seriously. A lot of cozies are written as a part of a series because a series allows the reader to become emotionally involved with the recurring characters on an ongoing basis.

The real measure of a cozy, in my opinion, is whether or not it’s a book you’d want to read while snuggled in to your favorite chair on a cold, rainy afternoon—a book that when you finish you’ll have a smile on your face and will wonder when the next one will be published.

Kay Elam blogs on MWF at She lives in Nashville, TN with her husband and her imagination. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Who Would Be Your Literary BFF?

By: Rachel Bertsche

Can you smell the sharpened pencils in the air? It's the delicious scent of another school year underway. Kids are cracking open new books and diving into the likes of Great Expectations or The Things They Carried or Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry.

Though my school days are behind me, as the leaves start to fall (at least here in Chicago) I get the itch for new reading lists. A fresh literary start.

On my fall syllabus? The Hunger Games, of course (I'm so behind) and Freedom (I like to know what all the fuss is about) and whatever my book club demands of me. Currently that's The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf. I could go on, but thinking too much about all the to-be-read books on my shelves makes me anxious that I should stop blogging and start curling up in my book nook, pronto.

So to usher in the new school year, something light, bookish and BFFish (my personal blog, MWF Seeking BFF chronicles my search for a new, local best friend... preferably of the Babysitter's Club variety).

I present to you the literary characters (aside from the members of the BSC) with whom I would most like to be best friends:

1) Boy, The Giving Tree. Some say he’s selfish and greedy, I say he’s lonely. He loves his tree. He could use a BFF.

2) Jo March, Little Women. Or maybe Beth. For one of my college applications, I had to name which fictional character I most identified with. I chose Jo. But I wonder if we could really be best friends? We might be too similar. As much as I love her, I could see us bumping heads. I might benefit more from Beth’s warm heart… You know, before her gutwrenching end.

3) Ginny Weasley, Harry Potter series. She’s awesome. Half badass, half girly. Not as goody-two-shoes as Hermione, but just as brave. I can totally picture us whispering together in the corner.

4) Alice Cullen, Twilight. Whimsical, fiercely loyal, and loves to play dress up. That she can see into the future doesn’t hurt.

5) Harriet the Spy/Nancy Drew. I really wanted to be a child detective back in the day. Sadly, there were very few (read: zero) mysteries that needed solving in my hometown. But I would still very much like to be the sleuthy sidekick.

6) Lisbeth Salander, Millennium Trilogy. I would not want to be on her bad side. But she is crazy protective of her friends, could dig up dirt on anyone at anytime, and would be one of those never-a-dull-moment BFFs.

7) Skeeter Phelan, The Help. She’s passionate, determined, sneaky when she has to be. I think we could be good writing buddies. Read each other’s work, give honest critiques, take breaks to discuss Hilly’s horribleness.

8 ) Oskar Schell, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I'm aware that most people think Jonathan Safran Foer’s first book, Everything is Illuminated, is his best. But I fell in love with Oskar, and this novel, early on. He’s eager and vulnerable and precocious… and he’s just really funny. I mean, he plays the tambourine and invents things like talking teakettles. Who wouldn’t want to be his best friend?

9) Bridget Jones, Bridget Jones' Diary. I was on the fence about her at first. Isn’t she kind of a hot mess? But as my very wise coworker reminded me, “You need a friend to get drunk with. And who’s more f’ed up than you are.” Fair point.

Did I miss anyone? Who’d be your literary BFF?

Rachel Bertsche is a web producer and a journalist in Chicago. Her blog, MWF Seeking BFF, chronicles her search for a new best friend after moving to the Midwest for love.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Writing Practice: What Works for Me

By: Quill

Having written five books, I have naturally developed a vast catalog of practices that work for me. Perhaps sharing a few I can help shorten someone’s path to publication. Someday I even hope to have one of mine published.

Number one: organize your material. I keep mine in plastic garbage bags. Then my research, drafts, and yes, even manuscript are set to file (curbside) when the project is done. Almost as critical is the skill of outlining. I call it outlaying. In the early stages of a book, I’ll spend many hours outlaying in the sun. Sometimes I combine this with another proven technique, mind-napping.

With fiction, pre-develop your characters. I write the names of mine on the back of my hand. That way I think of them wherever I go. Sometimes I draw little eyes on my hand and ink lips around my thumb and forefinger. Then I ask them questions and get them to speak: “s’alright?” “S’alright!”

Free your characters. Encourage them to have lives of their own. Meet them at parties, then follow them, pen in hand, on adventures you could have never dreamed of. The hero of my last novel left me, wrote his own book. A bestseller. Oprah called him. Not me. Him. I answered the phone: “Hi, Oprah! Sorry, Dirk Blowhard is indisposed. I just drowned him in the tub.”

Choose subject matter carefully. My first book idea, about the Wright Brothers’ earliest plane, didn’t fly.

Then I wrote about sexual bondage. The editor liked my submission, but couldn’t get the chain stores to stock me.

Know your subject and market. I wrote a book about car engines and then couldn’t find a distributor.

Be controversial, but not overly. While living in England, I wrote an expose on the House of Windsor. Three agents in black suits appeared at my door. They weren't literary agents. They told me I wouldn't be getting any royalties.

Stick with it. My first novel, ‘SNOWMAN IN SPRING’ ended up in a slush pile.

I wrote a guidebook, “How to get Married”. The editor rejected my proposal. I must have misinterpreted her advances, (which, it turns out, were for another writer). It was all starting to have a familiar ring.

Sure enough, when I proposed a book on antique firearms, she shot me down.

In the publishing biz, rejection happens. Take it in stride. It’s not personal, though it can feel pretty personal, right? I sent an article to a horticultural magazine, on farmstead flowers and fowl. The editor called it poppycock. Said the section on composting was pure crap.

For a barbering journal I penned, “The Race Against Hair Loss.” The editor called it balderdash. Even the part about selecting a toupee. Said the whole thing was a ‘bad piece’.

To get serious, establishing a routine that works is really the most important aspect of writing. People often ask me what specific techniques I use. Actually I would like them to.

I stand on my head for twenty minutes before writing. Blood rushing to my head sets off a neuron frenzy, prompting right brain left brain intercourse and an overall spiking of metabolic function. Then prone I utter a secret Jedi incantation that ends with "best seller come to da, Dah!" From there I go straight to the kitchen, cram a quick snack, rich in iron—raisin bran, maybe a donut. Then I might get lured by the tube for a few minutes, some old sitcoms… But soon, neural activity positively peaking (or more often starting into a post-sugar-high nose dive) I leap to my keyboard, and write!

Words flow from thoughts pent up in my mind as ideas crystallize, as in perfect mid air simpatico my fingers fly. Then, after a bit, usually I remember to turn on the computer.

A few tips worth sticky-noting to your forehead:

Index cards can be useful for outlining your plot. If your plot is in a cemetery that is windy, use rocks to weigh the cards down.

If you are subject to excessive distraction (as I am), consider wearing blinders when you are at your computer. They are available and can be custom fit at most tack shops. Just tell them you like to play ‘horsey’ around the house. Reward yourself after a particularly good write with sugar cubes and carrots.

A word on plagiarism. With today’s web research and computer cut and paste tools, plagiarism can occur almost inadvertently. This doesn’t make it any less wrong. A good rule of thumb is, you can freely ‘borrow’, without reproach, single words from other works. “Plethora” is one of my favorites—it’s not mine, but I often grab it.

Tell me! What works for you?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Professionalism (It's not what you think it is)

By: Hannah Moskowitz

This post has nothing to do with writing and absolutely everything to do with being a writer.

The stereotype of a writer--the middle-aged man pounding feverishly at a typewriter, cigarette in his mouth, sending hard-copy manuscripts to his agent and protesting the change of every word--has yet to catch up with the reality of what being a writer entails today.

We are not locked in our attics alone. We are not even the romantic writers of the '20s, drinking coffee and discussing literature. We are a legion of overworked, underwashed normals, pounding away at our laptops and shooing the kids to the next room.

And more importantly, we are not alone.

If you are reading this blog, you have obviously already met at least one other writer (hello there.) Chances are, I'm not the only one. Agent, editor, and writer blogs, facebook, forums like Verla Kay and Absolute Write, and God, above all Twitter, mean that, at the very least, most writers are at least a friend of a friend of yours. The term 'networking' is so appropriate here, because, in actuality, we--writers, publishing professionals, book bloggers--are a net. A web of interconnected people.

We know the same people. The truth is, this world feels very big sometimes, and God knows everyone is talking about writing a novel, but when it comes down to it--the people who are really out there, querying, editing, submitting, representing, accepting, rejecting, publishing, copyediting, waiting...well, the truth is, there aren't that many of us after all.

Which is why the act of being a professional writer has come to mean much more than it used to. Fifty years ago, all most writers had to do was avoid getting arrested and not respond to bad reviews.

You have a much bigger job to undertake. And it's stressful, and it's scary, but it can also be one of the most rewarding parts of this job. Somedays, my writing is absolutely shitty, and the house is a mess, and I'm crying because I can't find my socks, but I have 557 blog followers and I said something funny on Twitter today, so at least this day isn't totally for the birds.

You may think that I am the worst possible person ever to talk about how to be a professional. I'm loud and I'm obnoxious and I had to edit about ten cuss words out of this post so I didn't offend Nathan's sensibilities.

Yep. That's me.
But I'm hoping all that will make me easier to listen to, because when people think 'professional,' they a lot of the time think boring, sanitized, safe. And that's not who you have to
be. I'm living proof over here. And I knew from the start that I was taking a big risk, but I hoped that people would find me interesting and remember me.

It's worked pretty well so far. And that, kittens, is the real reason you want to get out there and put on your professional face. So that people will remember you.

Now that I'm done babbling, here are some guidelines. How to be a successful professional writer, by yours truly. And these are not big, life-changing rules. These are just tricks. Tricky little tricks.

--GET ON TWITTER. I don't care what your objections are. I objected too. But it is hands-down the best way to connect with people you would never have the balls to approach any other way. You can follow someone, which causes them no pain or trouble whatsoever, and you can talk to them in a completely neutral, undemanding way.

--READ ABOUT BOOKS. What do Hunger Games, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, The Da Vinci Code, and a hell of a lot of other books have in common? Answer: I haven't read them.

I'm not proud. But I know I don't have nearly enough time to read as much as I should, so I make a point of reading *about* books I wish I had time to read. Know enough about popular books to be able to fake your way through a conversation. I can discuss Twilight with the best of 'em.

--REMEMBER NAMES. I can't stress enough how important this is. You might have never read a book by this author most people haven't heard of, but you better be able to connect the book to the name in a second flat. You need to be able to talk about other writers like you went to high school with them. Memorize authors, titles, editors, agent. Know who goes with whom.

--DON'T ALIENATE. Or if you have to, choose one book or author to singularly alienate. People ask me a lot what my least favorite book is. Obviously I've read a lot of stuff I don't like, but I have one that I use so I'm not spreading the hate around too badly (and trust me, the author of said book is way too famous to give a shit what a plebe like me thinks).

You never know who you will need.

--DON'T BLOG TO SELL BOOKS. It doesn't work. People who read your blog won't run out and buy your book if it isn't their thing. Accept that your blog and your book will have separate readers, embrace it, enjoy it. And if you can't, move on and don't blog, or you're going to bore everyone to tears with pages and pages of advertisements for your own stuff. Speaking of which:

--DON'T TALK ABOUT YOURSELF ALL THE TIME. God, I get bored of author blogs that are all me me me look where my book got reviewed look what I'm working on blaaaah. If your blog could read the exact same as someone else's if you switched your titles around, you're doing it wrong.

If you don't feel qualified to give advice (through trust me, if I'm qualified, so are you) find articles and other blog posts you find interesting, post your thoughts, and open your comments up for discussion. You'll find a lot more followers and a lot more interesting discussion than you will by posting boring crap about yourself every day. And if you respectfully start dialogues with other writers (and link to their blogs!) they will appreciate and remember you.

--DON'T BE BORING. Unsurprisingly, this is one of my main points.

Don't be boring. If someone else is saying what you're saying, people are only going to listen to one of you. Do you want a fifty/fifty chance of being drowned out?

Do you want people to wonder if your books are as generic as your personality? I

I know you have it in you. You can be sparkly and crazy and noisy and everything else in the whole world. You are interesting. No one--seriously, no one--wants you to dilute yourself. So swallow your fear. I'm scared every day. I do this anyway. Because I love it. And because I don't want you to forget me.

Because I only have books coming out every so often. And I'm a professional, and if you forget me between books, I'm not doing a very good job.

And I mean, really. No one wants to be forgotten. Which pretty much leads me to the most important thing:

--REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE A HUMAN CONNECTING WITH OTHER HUMANS. You don't need to pretend to be Superman. It's boring. I told you. It's GOOD to show that you care about people, that you care about what you're doing, and that you care about your readers. Stop pretending that the ride is easy. You're not earning any respect that way. Show some of your vulnerability and maybe you'll do more than sell your product. You'll meet some very cool people.

You'll maybe even help them.

Hannah Moskowitz is the author of several Young Adult and Middle Grade novels, including BREAK (2009), and INVINCIBLE SUMMER and ZOMBIE TAG (2011). She blogs at

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

This Query Sucks (or how to fail and still succeed)

Is there life after a query that strikes out with agents? My awesome client Jim Duncan, whose debut novel DEADWORLD will be published by Kensington next April, shares his experience. Make sure to catch the exciting contest on Jim's blog at the end of the post.

By: Jim Duncan

As you might guess from the title, I am not what one would call a good query writer. Mediocre at best. My wife (romance author Tracy Madison) whole-heartedly agrees with this assessment.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I will admit to not being a very good editor. It's very difficult for me to assess my own writing, and thus, I don't like doing it. Second, when it comes to certain aspects of the publishing process, I have little patience. When my book was done, I wanted to send out queries that moment.

Back in the old days of 2007, when I completed my novel for the first time, I had queries going out the next day. I made about half a dozen attempts, picked the one I liked the best and sent it out. I had done my research, making sure the agents wanted my genre, whether they took email or snail mail, getting their name correct, etc. I followed agent blogs like Nathan's, Miss Snark, Kristin Nelson, and others (there are a lot of good blogs for writers out there), to glean as much knowledge as I could about the process and how to make that query stand out. I failed. I received one of Nathan's polite form rejections.

What feedback I received (off of a roughly 90% rejection rate) did not like the multiple first person p.o.v.'s I used. Was I deterred? Of course not! I decided to rewrite the book in third person, because I felt very strongly about this story. Whether it was written well enough was another matter.

So, I wrote a new query, several versions in fact, and though I was not happy with any of them, I picked what I thought was the best of the lot and sent it out. There's that whole patience thing again. The results were marginally better, but still no real interest.

Knowing I can't write queries for shit, I figured that might be my biggest problem, so I wrote yet another and tried again a few months later. I sent it out to a couple of publishers who are open to submissions, and like all good writers should do, I began to work on my next book (can't stress this enough: keep writing!)

In the meantime, I had become a regular responder on Nathan's blog. I'd sent a couple of emails to him, suggestions for topics and such. Then, one fine day, I came up with a contest suggestion that became my 15 seconds of blog fame. Those of you who were around a year and a half ago may remember the Agent for a Day contest. At the time it generated the most hits ever on Nathan's blog (about 70k, and 15k comments). Through my willingness to participate and make suggestions, good or otherwise, I had cemented my name in Nathan's mind. We didn't become BFF's. It was some fortunate networking that happened out of interest as opposed to direct effort.

Then, I got the call. Kensington Publishing offered me a three book deal for my novel, Deadworld. Super excited? You bet. What struck me though, was the fact that they were buying my story as an urban fantasy. This entire time, I had been submitting it as a suspense/thriller. Head smack! What would have happened had I realized what genre my story was best suited for? Another good point learned well after the fact. Understand the market for your story!

With offer in hand, I really wanted to find an agent. I had no desire to do this on my own. I picked about a dozen agents that I had queried before and asked them if they would be interested in a second look because of the offer I had on the table. In hindsight, I didn't give them enough time, which was five days. I probably lost some potential agents with that. In the end, it came down to two.

Nathan, whom I'd already had a connection with and knew I liked and would love as an agent, and one who had a slew of authors already published in urban fantasy. She was great to chat with on the phone and I had a very good vibe from her. It was actually a difficult decision to make. As you can see, I chose to work with Nathan. I had confidence that we would work well together and I had a pretty good idea what kind of agent he would be, meaning very hands on, which gelled well with my stellar editing skills.

Without the connection through his blog, my decision may have been different. Nathan will likely tell you, that without that connection, without that sense that we would be a decent match and work well together, he might have been less inclined to represent me. Fortunately, he did and liked my story enough to represent me. Needless to say, I'm ecstatic with the result.

So, can we take from all of this? What have I learned that might be valuable to fellow writers?

• Know your story. Submitting to the right agents is the first key to success.
• Hone and polish your query until it's bright and shiny. This is hard. Crafting simple, effective queries takes a lot of practice and effort. Avail yourself of the knowledge out there and get feedback, hopefully from folks who know a decent query when they see it.
• Be patient. Make sure your ms is actually done. Research for the right agents. Make sure you have the correct information on agents and that they seeking what you write. Write numerous queries. Get feedback. Be more patient.
• Keep writing. For many writers, the querying process can take months. You could write an entire next novel in that time frame. It sucks to decide that book just isn't going to garner interest and then have nothing else waiting in the wings.
• Network. Be social. Involve yourself in blogs. Make comments. Let people know who you are. Be willing to interact. It can only help, and you never know when it might change your life.

In honor of writing crap queries, there's going to be a contest to kick off my author blog. Yay contests! The winner will receive a query critique from Nathan. To win, all you will have to do is come up with the best, rejection letter response to an agent. Be creative! Just keep the foul language to a minimum. This is for amusement purposes, not to prove that you might be a sociopath.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sally Feels Your Pain. Harry Just Points and Laughs.

By: Livia Blackburne

You could say that fiction is about pain. When you boil them down, stories describe characters taking hits and trying to emerge as unscathed as possible. Neighborhood under attack by zombies? Run hard and hope you have some painkillers on hand if they catch you. Or what if it’s actually a friendly, attractive zombie who loves you? In that case, it’s all good -- until you realize that mortals and undead can never be together. Oh the agonies of unfulfilled love!

So stories and torment come hand in hand. As a reader, you’re with the characters, empathizing with their struggles and hoping for a happy ending. How does this work? What is it in our brains that lets us understand other people’s pain? Well I'm glad you asked, because neuroscientists have made some progress on this question.

How do you study empathy and pain? One current technique involves electric shocks and people who love each other.

Neuroscientist Tania Singer came up with a clever experiment. She recruited women with their significant others. Singer put the woman inside an fMRI brain scanner while the significant other sat outside. Both participants were connected to electrodes capable of administering a painful shock. (Now before my fellow neuroscientists accuse me of ruining our reputations, I should emphasize that these participants were paid handsomely and had the option to stop the experiment at any time.)

Throughout the experiment both the woman and her partner received shocks, and a computer screen indicated who was getting the painful treatment. Singer found that a certain network of brain regions in the woman’s brain activated when she was in pain. But what happened when the significant other was shocked instead? The same network lit up when the woman knew that her partner was getting shocked. It turns out that we process other people's pain with the same brain regions that we use to process our own.

This kind of makes sense. Think about the last time you read a passage about a painful experience. Depending on how engaging the writer was, you might have felt like you were suffering alongside the character. But that's not the whole story. Many people suffer in stories, but we’re not always upset about it. What happens if the person in pain is someone we don't like?

Singer and colleagues did another study asking that question. This time, they had participants play a game before the brain scan. Unbeknownst to the participants, some players in the game were actually actors working with the scientists. One actor's job was to play the game fairly, while the other actor’s job was to play in an obviously unfair way. You can guess which actor was more popular.

Then it was off to the scanner again. The real participant went inside the scanner, while the two actors sat outside. Again, shocks were delivered, and the computer screen indicated who was receiving the shock.

This time, the results depended on whether the participant was a man or a woman. Both genders had empathy-related brain activation when the fair player was in pain. However, the men had less empathy- related activation when the unfair player was shocked. What’s more, they had increased activation in reward-related brain areas when the unfair player got shocked. The men actually enjoyed it when the unfair player was in pain (“Bastard had it coming!”). After the experiment, Singer asked the men to rate their desire for revenge toward the unfair player. It turns out that amount of reward-related brain activation in men correlated with their desire for revenge. In guys at least, it seems that the response to someone else's pain depends on whether or not that person deserved it.

Now as with all studies, we should remember that this is only one data set and it needs to be replicated. Also, note this study does not distinguish between gender differences based on biology versus social expectations. But it’s still interesting to think about. Could this be why men often gravitate toward action movies with bad guys getting killed by the dozens? In addition to the specific gender difference, this experiment is also a good reminder that readers react differently to the same event. If you want your story to have a certain effect, you need to understand who you're writing for.

As a writer, what can we learn from this? Well, it's kinda cool when you think about it. As a writer, you pull the strings and control whether your reader groans in sympathy or sits back and grins. If your audience feels close to the character, if they get to know and like her, they’ll hurt along with her. However, if they see your character’s nasty side, they may find it satisfying when she comes to a painful demise. Also, think about your readers’ expectations. Are they male? Female? Young? Old? Grownups and teens may be able to handle and appreciate a painful bittersweet resolution, but if you’re writing children’s books, perhaps you should think twice before having a Hamlet style ending.

So what kind of pain are you inflicting today?

By day, Livia Blackburne is a neuroscience graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At other times, she writes YA fantasy. On her blog A Brain Scientist's Take on Writing, she looks at writing from a brain scientist's analytical perspective.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Nine Stages of Dating a Novel

By: T.H. Mafi


there you are, just staring at your computer or eating your carnival corndog or spacing out in the middle of a conversation when it hits you. A SHINY NEW IDEA. it’s beautiful and original and nothing like the rest of them and for a perfect moment you can already see your future together. you know you have to have it before someone else does and your next move is going to be critical. luckily, enough people commented on your blog today that you’re feeling confident. extra-attractive. you decide to make it yours.


everything is surreal. you can’t stop thinking about it no matter how hard you try and let’s be honest – you don’t really want to. you’re convinced that this time everything is going to be different. this is The One. the one that’s going to make agents cry over you, editors throw money at you, bestseller lists around the world make room for you at the top. maybe you have a title already? maybe you’ve even written a really excellent first paragraph? you don’t care. none of that matters. the only thing that really matters is Oprah is going off the air. she has no idea how much you were looking forward to that interview.


things are still pretty good. you’ve told Facebook and Twitter and the only five friends you know in the real world that you’re writing a new book and people seem moderately interested which is already better than last time. you haven’t really started writing yet, but you will. in fact, you’ve already got the first chapter written! and the more you read it, the more you’re convinced you’ve never written anything quite as incredible. you can’t wait to dive into the story! SERIOUSLY. you can just feeeeeel how amazing this is going to be. maybe you should buy a new outfit to celebrate.


well! you've written a few chapters! but GOSH you are just so BUSY these days and the kids are so CRAZY and work is just HECTIC and you've discovered all these really awesome websites recently and it's now become a "thing" of yours to refresh your email and update your Twitter and "Like" at least five things on Facebook before you open up that Word Document. but it's not like you're avoiding it or anything! it's just -- you're having a bit of a rough patch! but you'll work through it! you'll figure out this plot twist! well, first you'll figure out a plot but then! then things will work out! you just need to find a way to communicate your needs! relationships are ALL ABOUT DIALOGUE!




you didn't even see it coming! I MEAN GOSH THINGS WERE GOING SO WELL! but there it was. sitting on the outskirts of your imagination the whole time, teasing you with promises of what could be. ANOTHER SHINY IDEA! it was wearing a flippy skirt and red lipstick and it sounded so intelligent you couldn't help but fall for its false proclamations. but you were too dazzled to realize that this new SNI was only a distraction. it was fleeting. unfulfilling. a concept with no tangible form. a cheap thrill with no literary value. you feel cheated. you feel dirty. YOU'RE SO ASHAMED.


you messed up. you never meant to leave but things were getting tough and maybe you have a problem with commitment and really, it was a mindless fling that meant nothing! you realize now what a mistake it was and how wrong you were to leave. it wasn’t like anything even happened! it was just a moment of weakness and NO YOU'RE NOT THINKING OF THE OTHER ONE RIGHT NOW you already said you're sorry SO SORRY YOU SWEAR IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN YOU ARE NOW FULLY COMMITTED TO SEEING THIS PROJECT THROUGH NO MATTER WHAT.


blood. sweat. tears. so many expletives. a million points of compromise, hopefully lots of kissing. really excellent dialogue. stupid digressions you'll edit out later. adventures you weren't expecting, secrets you didn't know you had, new things you never thought you'd learn. BUT YOU DID IT. you stuck it out. you wrote a freaking book.


i hear you're expecting a sequel?

T.H. Mafi is a girl. She's 22. She writes YA novels and owns more coats than pants.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The All-Important First Chapter

By: Valerie Kemp

Last summer I attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I took a workshop on first chapters called "Frontloading: The Crucial First Chapter" and the thing I learned that stuck with me the most was that the first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they're going to be getting, and what to expect. This is true, even if you don't intend for your first chapter to do that, because it's the way we read. Breaking that promise can frustrate, and disappoint your reader.

That doesn't mean you should give everything away. You don't have to reveal your plot twists, but if your book is a sci-fi thriller, don't let your first chapter read like chick-lit.

By the end of the first chapter, the reader should have some sense of what the main conflict of the book is going to be. They don't need to know all the details, but they should be able to tell the genre, have a good sense of who (what type of person) the main character is, and how their world is changing. Knowing these things sets up anticipation in the reader, it makes them want to read on and see how the events unfold. Not knowing these things makes the reader wonder what the heck this book is about, and if they should even bother to read on and see what happens.

Here's an example of a book with a great first chapter:

The Hunger Games - In the first chapter of The Hunger Games we get to see Katniss' everyday world. We learn about the Hunger Games and the Reaping and the high chance that Gale and Katniss will be picked. We see that Katniss is responsible and protective of her sister, Prim, whose name is in the Reaping for the first time. And in the very last sentence of the chapter there's a shock as Prim's name is called.

This is a GREAT end of a first chapter. As a reader we're left with a sense of dread. We know what Katniss must do, and we know that we're in for an exciting ride because we're going to experience the Hunger Games with Katniss. We're also introduced to the mechanics of Collin's writing - cliffhanger chapters. Both with story and with structure, she has shown us what to expect, and how to read her book. And she delivers.

Now imagine if The Hunger Games started differently. What if the first chapter was an ordinary day at school for Katniss, followed by time at home with her family, and hanging out with Gale. Suzanne Collins could've started there and gone into greater detail about Katniss' troubled relationship with her mom, given us more history on the District, how life in The Seam works, etc. She could've had the Reaping happen in chapter 3. By then we might be expecting the book to be a family drama or something else completely unrelated to a reality show about teens fighting to the death. If Collins had started her book this way, she probably would've lost a lot of readers. I know I would've been flipping back to the cover over and over again, wondering when these supposedly awesome Hunger Games were going to start. I probably would've put the book down before the action started and picked up something else.

The first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.
- Richard Peck

Richard Peck says that when he finishes his first draft, he always throws out the first chapter without reading it and writes a new one.

I thought about why it is that the first chapter is usually the one that needs the most work and I think I figured out at least part of why this is true for me.

Usually, at the beginning of a story I am bursting with ideas and information. I know my main character is this, and her love interest is that, and then this, this, and this are going to happen, all because of THAT! And so I'm excited to get to that stuff, and I start laying down all the pieces and facts necessary for the later events to occur.

I've come to realize the first chapter, (and the whole first draft really) but especially in the first draft, the first chapter is really just notes to myself. It's me getting that info out there so that I can remember to make it happen when the time comes.

After the first chapter, my writing tends to smooth out. I let things unfold the way they should, revealing information only when it's necessary. Most of the time this results in duplicate information. Things appear once, in the first chapter where they're not really needed, and again later on where they belong.

How to shape up your first chapter.
Here are a few tips that work for me (feel free to cherry pick - you don't need to do everything!):

* Rewrite it from scratch.
* Look for and remove exposition that doesn't come into play until later in the story.
* Start at the moment closest to the beginning of the main conflict of your story as possible.
* Make sure your chapter has action, and not just a character thinking about or looking at stuff.
* Make sure the main conflict of your book is set up.
* Avoid going into detail about characters or events that are never mentioned again.
* Ask people to read the first chapter by itself. What do they think the book is about? What are they expecting to happen? Do they want to keep reading?

You know you're on the right track if people have a sense of where your book is going to go and they want to go along with it.

Valerie Kemp is an award-winning independent filmmaker and YA writer. She blogs about her journey to publication at her blog I Should Be Writing about writing with her crit partners at Sisters in Scribe, and she writes short stories at the collaborative short fiction blog Tangled Fiction.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

When You Discover Your Agent's Not That Into You

By Brodi Ashton

In 2008, with my first finished manuscript in hand, I was ready to query. To find that special someone who would take my story to the top. You know, to find THE ONE.

My sister-in-law (also a writer) devised a contest: first person to reach 100 rejections wins. We crafted our queries, did our research, and by the end of four months I won the race. I’d received 100 rejections. But I also won an agent. Everything’s downhill from there, right?

The agent submitted my book and after three months, we had 2 positive rejections (you know, the kind where they’re all, “I like it, but how would I sell it?”) and about 7 no-responses. Not the reaction we had expected.

Meanwhile, I wasn’t going to be one of those writers who put all of her flowers in one bouquet. I decided to write another book, so that when we had exhausted all possible avenues for book #1, I’d have something ready to go. My 13-year old niece read Book #2 in 24 hours; that had to be a good sign, right? (side note: warranted use of semi-colon, check.)

With your first book, you’re guaranteed the agent loves it, because he/she offered representation on it. But with your second, you never know. I gave my agent book #2 in January 2010. Three and a half months later, he was “still reading.”

Just like a clueless girlfriend, I made excuses for him. So what if my niece had taken 24 hours to read it? She’s really fast. So what if this second book was 20,000 words shorter than my first? I probably used bigger words. The story makes the reader want to savor it, not finish it. He probably doesn’t want it to end. (Agreed, that was the stupidest excuse.)

Determined to be proactive, I sent him a list of editors who had mentioned on blogs that they were looking for my type of book.

He responded with a resounding, “Um, let’s talk on the phone.”

That did not sound good. I’m sure you all know how frakkin’ hard it is to get an agent in the first place. My family and friends knew. Their advice before the dreaded phone call was, “Say what you have to say to keep him.”

But here’s what only a phone call could show: the passion was gone. He liked book #2 okay, but he didn’t love it. It was polished, but it wouldn’t make a splash. It didn’t need that much work as far as revisions went, but he probably couldn’t get to it for a few months. Maybe after the holidays. (That would’ve been 9 months later).

So, he wasn’t going to dump me. I could’ve kept him. But one thing was perfectly clear: there was no way he would be able to muster the passion necessary to make a sale, especially a debut sale, especially in today’s tight market. It wasn’t his fault. This business is subjective.

I knew we couldn’t go on like that. But was I really ready to dive into the query pool again? Could I face a hundred new rejections? Would I really be stupid enough to leave an agent? LEAVE an agent?

But the passion was gone. There was no way around it. He just wasn’t that into me anymore. As our phone conversation started wrapping up, I blurted out that this wasn’t going to work. He didn’t put up a fight, and we parted ways amicably.

I started querying the next day. (Yeah, I had a query written. I’m sort of a cup-half-empty type person.) Within a month, I had nine offers from wonderful agents who were passionate about book #2. And three weeks ago, I sold my debut trilogy to Balzer and Bray, Harper Collins in a pre-empt, after 48 hours on submission. All of this happened five months before my first agent would’ve even submitted it.

I don’t blame agent #1 for not loving my book, just as I don’t blame my high school boyfriend, who fell in love with someone else right before the Christmas Dance. (I totally blame the other girl, though, but I digress).

Point is, even though it hurts, you can’t help who you fall in love with. A book (or boy) can look great on paper, but if the passion isn’t there, or the passion is one-sided, the relationship won’t work. I’m still friends with my first agent, and I admit I learned so much from him. But I would rather be in the query pool, collecting a thousand rejections, than be with an agent whose reaction to my book was, “Meh.”

Unrequited love. Sometimes it hurts so good.

p.s. I'm still getting rejections from agents I queried. I might reach 100 again.

Brodi Ashton’s time as a television reporter in a small Idaho town inspired her to write her first Young Adult novel. Since then, she has traded a career behind the camera for her dream of living in sweats and inhaling caffeine while creating stories for teens. Her first book EVERNEATH comes out 2012 from Balzer + Bray (Harper Collins).

Friday, October 8, 2010

This Week in Publishing 10/8/10

Tento týden v publikování...

First off, thank you so much to everyone who entered the Guest Blog Contest Festival Event! There were actually so many spectacular entries that I decided to expand the number of contest winning slots. That's right folks, this blog is going seven days a week. Well. At least until I get back. So! Please come back tomorrow for the first guest blog post! I have notified the winners, but shant reveal them so as to preserve the surprise.

Also, there will be no Page Critique Friday this week or next as I'm out of the office. I'll be back on the 19th, enjoy the guest posts in the meanwhile.

Now then. Publishing news!

The biggest literary prize of them all, which you may know better as the Nobel Prize in Literature, was awarded to Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa for "his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt and defeat." He is the first South American to win the award since Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1982. The US of A remains shut out since Toni Morrison's win in 1993.

In possibly just as big news, Jonathan Franzen had a tough week in the United Kingdom. First he discovered during a reading that the books that were printed were from an earlier draft and contained errors (HarperUK issued an apology). Then his glasses were stolen from his face. No. Really. Not joking. The perp was later caught, and Franzen didn't press charges. Don't miss Patrick Neylan's great roundup from the Guest Blog Contest.

The New York Post caught up with the owner of two of the most famous hands in the world: the hand model from the TWILIGHT COVER. (via GalleyCat)

In publishing economics news, the Wall Street Journal took a look at some of the factors behind declining advances in the publishing industry and their effect on literary fiction in particular. And a used book salesman who travels around scanning barcodes and trying to find profitable books talked about his profession and the unease and detachment he feels about his line of work.

And Malcolm Gladwell made some waves last week when he argued that social media is not an effective tool for social change. Writing for the New York Book Bench, Rollo Romig used Gladwell's article as a jumping off point to consider what social media and social change do have in common: narratives. And writing for Change Observer, Maria Popova argues that Gladwell is "#wrong" about social media.

This week in the Forums: the share your good news thread, getting excited about Scott Westerfield's BEHEMOTH, book recommendations for teen boys, how many books do you read a month, age progression in novels, and coming soon, NANOWRIMO!!

Comment! of! the! Week! J.T. Shea knocked this one out of the (Jurassic) park. In response to Wednesday's question about self-publishing:

If the publishing dinosaurs do die out, I have a completely original plan. Let's get their DNA from flies that sucked their blood and then got stuck in tree sap that later turned into amber. Then we fill in the gaps with reptile DNA (among other stupid mistakes) and clone them on a secret island theme park off the coast of Central America. Then we invite families with children to get eaten...I mean entertained by the revived dinosaurs.

I can see it now. 'Run, Lex! It's the Elsevierosaur! Oh no! There's Tyrannosaurus Random! And there's a Scholasticus right behind you! Not only will they tear you apart limb-from-limb and devour your remains, they'll try to give you only 25% of the Ebook net!'

And finally, the Rejectionist was kind enough to pass me this incredible, incredible link. Harry Potter's Facebook Page, Draco's Twitter account, Hagrid's Foursquare and more! Unbelievably funny.

Have a great weekend! See you when I'm back.

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