Monday, March 31, 2008

Analyze This

I’m not a big fan of dissecting literature. I love hearing writers talk about their process or read their work aloud, but the second they start talking about the motivations of their characters I get a little squirmy. It just seems odd to psychoanalyze fictional people. And there’s almost no way to do it without sounding like you take yourself oh-so-seriously.

During my promotional tour for THE GREATEST MAN IN CEDAR HOLE, I had the opportunity to call in to a number of book clubs. Talking with readers is a joy, because they always bring a fresh perspective and enthusiasm to the work. They also dissect like no one’s business, finding connections and symbols that had never even dawned on me. It becomes a sort of detective game to see if they can figure out what I was thinking when I was writing the story. Often these revelations are presented with such eagerness and a need for validation that I feel as though I’m letting them down when I admit that their findings are more of an accident than any sort of brilliance on my part.

I’m sure there are a many writers out there who purposely load their work with a rich undercurrent of genius for the reader mine. However, I suspect that for most of us, we simply want to write a good story that is as real and true as we can make it. That’s not to say that we aren’t inclined to sprinkle our work with a few symbols here in there or weave a theme or two throughout, but in general I think subtext is more often subconscious than intentional. That’s why overanalyzing strikes me as a fruitless pursuit.

Whether subtext is intended or not is beside the point. When a reader asks me if they’re right about a symbol or the motivation of a character, I have only one response—yes. I sometimes tell them what my intention was, but that's irrelevant. A story is a collaboration between writer and reader and my point of view is but one side of it. I am not the final authority on the story. Whatever a reader finds through her microscopic lens is not necessarily my truth, but a reflection of her own.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Artistic License

For an interesting discussion on grammar in dialogue, head over to novelist Tess Gerristen’s excellent blog. Her last two posts have been a response to readers who complain about grammatical inaccuracies in her characters’ speech. With her usual grace, Tess explains the difference between “proper” English and “spoken” English, and how it’s a conscious choice to ditch the rules for the sake of natural dialogue.

As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to dialogue, anything goes—as long as it doesn’t sound stiff. Real people speak in broken sentences, they clip words, they repeat themselves. Speech is naturally imperfect and imperfection is emotionally revealing. A character’s speech patterns are determined by background, level of education, geographical location, and motivation, among other things. If the dialogue doesn’t reflect these parameters, the story will suffer a credibility gap.

Intentionally using improper speech, as Tess points out, isn’t always an easy choice. There’s a risk that your reader will think you are stupid, or will take offense. For example, in my novel, there is a fair amount of profanity. A few readers have told me that they would have enjoyed the book more if there had been less swearing. I make no apology for my use of language because I do not use such words lightly. The characters in my story are from a rural town, have limited education, and are a bit rough around the edges. To purposely avoid profanity—especially in emotionally charged situations—would have given the dialogue a false ring. On the other hand, I’ve had a reader comment that my characters didn’t swear enough. One can go overboard that way, too. Dropping the f-bomb in every sentence is distracting and can render a work unreadable.

Another instance when incorrect grammar can be used to good effect is in narration. If you have a strong narrative voice, you are effectively having a dialogue with the reader and it can be treated as such. Take this blog, for example. Two paragraphs up I was supposed to put “and” before the phrase “they repeat themselves”. I left it out intentionally because it had a better rhythm. I’m also fond of sentence fragments, which can be very conversational. And how.

Let’s face it, folks—rules are meant to be broken. It’s artistic license. Instead of getting ruffled by every little grammar mistake, I think we need to look at the bigger picture. Grammar is a system of rules designed to make speech and writing more clear and precise. If a writer has done this, even while breaking the rules, then we ought to be generous enough to cut him a little slack.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Maybe This Cookie Will Help Me Write...

My previous post about the difficulty of filling the blank page reminds me of a conversation I once had with an agent about a certain superstar of the graphic novel world. The writer apparently told her that one of the biggest struggles he faced every day was forcing himself to sit down and work. Hearing that procrastination is a problem for someone of his caliber has been a great source of comfort to me over the years.

I’m one of those writers for whom settling down to work involves a lot of avoidance and no small amount of superstition. I liken it to a professional baseball player up at bat, with all the spitting, helmet-and-elbow-touching, dirt kicking and glove adjusting that needs to take place before he feels psychologically and physically comfortable enough to swing. In order for me to work, I need a glass of water and a comfortable room temperature. The house needs to be completely quiet. The weather can’t be too nice or I’ll want to be outside instead. I can’t be too tired or even a little sick. Then, if all these conditions are right, I have to check my e-mail, my favorite blogs, and do an online crossword. Then I might check the weather, and then my e-mail again. If no one has written to me or I haven’t received notice of a sale at one of my favorite stores, I’m good to go.

Once I begin writing, if I get stuck on a word, I find myself “write walking”--a phenomenon closely related to sleep walking, in which a writer gets up from her desk and suddenly finds herself standing before her open refrigerator with no recollection of how she ended up there. This occurrence is usually followed with an unhealthy snack and a wave of guilt, and can sometimes be repeated several times during the writing of a particularly difficult passage.

If writing is one of my great passions in life, why is it so hard to be disciplined? The best answer I can come up with is fear of failure. When I’ve written nothing, that nebulous masterpiece floating in my head retains all of its perfection; the moment I try to write I realize just how far my work is from my vision. Yet this should never be a deterrent, for it is extremely rare for a work to perfectly echo one’s vision. I wonder if artists in other mediums have the same problem with procrastination. I can certainly see songwriters having similar angst, but what about painters and sculptors or performance artists? Does fear of facing their limitations put them off, too?

Today, I might get down one good sentence if I’m lucky. Or maybe a particular word choice might sing. Or maybe it’ll all sound stiff and boring. So be it. Tomorrow I’ll sit down at my desk, with my water and silence and optimal room temperature, check my e-mail and play my word puzzles. And when all is right I’ll settle down to work and try again.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Keeping the Faith

“I don’t like writing, but I like having written.”

I had this quote stuck to my bulletin board for several years. It was scrawled on a yellow Post-It, along with a few other golden nuggets of wisdom chosen to help me through the daily grind. I can’t remember who the quote was attributed to—though I’m thinking George Eliot. A quick Google search has provided no clarity. Everyone and their mother claims they said it first.

It’s ridiculous to say that writers hate writing. We love it—when it’s going well, that is. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of humming along, when the characters come alive and start speaking and acting independent of your conscious thought, when the words seem to be coming from somewhere beyond you. It’s a freaky sensation and often when you try to describe to non-creative people, they think you’re a little fruity.

When it’s not going well, it’s misery. All that liveliness is gone. You feel dry, abandoned. You start to wonder if all the work you’ve managed to produce in your life is a fluke and if you’ll ever be inspired again. Sadly, this is how many writers feel much of the time. It’s not easy conjuring something out of nothing. Sadder still, it’s not something that goes away as you produce a body of work. There will always be a blank page to fill.

What experience does teach you, however, is to have faith. The more I’ve written, the more I’ve come to realize that I will always have fallow periods—and sometimes they can go on for quite a long time—but the desire to write, as well as new writing ideas will always return. In my mind, writers are born, not made, and it is such an integral part of who we are that we can truly never lose it as long as we remain open and trust in ourselves.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Blurb Is A Funny Word

In this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King writes about the sullied reputation of the blurb. He argues that effusive praise has become so routine that blurbs, like car alarms, have become a kind of noise that no one pays much attention to anymore. True enough. And yet the first thing many readers (myself included) still do when they pick up a book is turn to the back cover and scan the quotes.

What I think readers are looking for on the blurb page is not praise (that’s a given), but who is doing the praising. They are looking for a familiar name to latch onto, a writer they already love and trust, someone to help them categorize the book before they plunk down their money. With the cost of books and the amount of competition out there, it’s hard to fault even a savvy consumer for using blurbs to hedge his bets.

Still, I wonder if the public is aware of how many blurbs are written by friends of the author. I have no statistics to offer, but as I’ve become more aware of different personalities and relationships in the publishing business, sometimes looking at a blurb page can be almost comical. I’ve seen spouses praising each other. I’ve seen literary cliques fawning over one of their own in ways that read like the signature pages of a high school yearbook. I’ve even seen a famous author write a book under a pseudonym, then blurb himself.

If these examples have you miffed instead of amused, consider this: if you were in their position, you would do the very same thing. Blurbs are tough to get from people you don’t know. Imagine walking up to someone on the street and saying, “Hey, I know you don’t know me and you’re really busy, but could you spend a few hours reading my book and then writing a few great sentences to help me sell it? I can’t pay you anything, but I’d be eternally grateful…” Getting blurbs is like that.

When it’s time to prowl for blurbs, your editor will ask you for a list of anyone you might know whose name could add a little sparkle to the back cover. You have to really dig deep and think of all your friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friends. If you’re not well-connected, your editor and agent will call upon a few of the people they know. Then galleys (the cheap paperbacks sent to reviewers) are mailed to everyone on the list. If someone is really famous and you don’t know them all that well, you might have to write a letter to their editor or agent first to prove your connection before they will send a galley. Then you cross your fingers and hope that someone will be kind enough to help you out.

For my novel, THE GREATEST MAN IN CEDAR HOLE, I had only one connection to call upon—Richard Russo. Being a former student of his was obviously a big help but it wasn’t an automatic “in”. Since winning the Pulitzer Prize for EMPIRE FALLS, everyone has been beating down his door for a blurb, so I felt very fortunate when he took the time to read my book.

My editor and agent came up with a list of people they knew that might be able to help, but out of twenty or so names only two agreed to blurb. One came from Stephanie Kallos (BROKEN FOR YOU) and Alice Elliott Dark (IN THE GLOAMING). I don’t know what sort of bribery took place to make these kind ladies to write blurbs for me, but I will always be grateful.

So for those of you who don’t belong to a literary clique or have a famous friends—don’t lose heart. If you search hard enough, there will always be a kind soul out there who is willing to help out. Ultimately, a blurb is nothing but a marketing tool—one of many at your disposal—and it isn’t necessary for finding an audience.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Pull Over--The Typo Police Are Coming

Finally, there’s a group of concerned citizens with enough disposable time and income to do what many of us word nerds have often daydreamed about—travel around the country correcting typos on public signs. These grammar vigilantes, known as the Typo Eradication Advancement League (or TEAL), are spending the next three months touring the U.S., armed with sticky letters and chalk, to basically to give our great nation a quick edit. What’s great about TEAL is that they seem to be approaching this project not from a place of superiority, but from a true love of words.

When it comes to grammar, I’ve always felt a little deficient. I’m terrible at identifying parts of speech, tenses, certain forms of punctuation—and please don’t ask me to diagram a sentence. I tend to rely on my ear and my editor, and look things up whenever I’m unsure. So I understand how easy it is to make a mistake. Still, there are grammar problems that have become so widespread they seem to be more of a national bad habit (like running red lights) than an isolated typo. Take the rampant misuse of the apostrophe. Somewhere along the line, someone forgot that “ ’s ” denotes possession and used it to indicate a plural noun. The problem with not correcting the mistake is that the more people see it, the more they begin to question what they know to be correct. Mob rule subverts Strunk & White. Pretty soon we are inundated with signs offering Used CD’s, Lunch Special’s, and Hot, Fresh Donut’s.

But even if we see a typo somewhere, who really wants to be the one to say anything?

Last year, I noticed a sign at our local elementary school that read “No Parking—Busses Only” (thereby declaring that particular zone not for cars, but for restaurant tables waiting to be cleared). It disturbed me that such an error would take place on school grounds. Of all the educators that had seen this sign, hadn’t any of them noticed the mistake? What does this say about the quality of the school? And what about all the people along the way that had seen the sign before it was installed—didn’t anyone think something looked odd? There have been a few times when I’ve thought about calling the school office about it, but I’ve stopped myself for fear of seeming like a nit-picking know-it-all. Besides, I think we all know how the comment is likely to be received—with indifference.

So for now I guess I’ll keep my lip buttoned and hope that a whole generation of our local school kids will learn how to spell the word “buses” correctly. Or maybe I’ll call on TEAL and see if they’d be willing to do the dirty work for me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Secret to a Great Agent/Client Relationship

This will be my last agent-related post for a while…I’m itching to yammer on about something else. But there are two more points I'd like to cover on this topic before I move on--how to know if your agent is right for you, and how to build a great relationship with her.

If you're just starting out and you finally have the attention of a good agent, you probably won’t have the luxury of trying to decide if she is right for you. My advice would be to just go with her for now and hope for the best. Once you’ve been published, it will be easier to shop around for someone else. It is important to know, however, that when an agent makes a sale for you, they will continue to receive all commissions on that particular sale even if you decide to find someone else for your future projects.

If you are in a position to evaluate your relationship with your agent, then there are a few things to think about. Ideally, you’ll want someone who will answer your phone calls and e-mails in a timely matter. You’ll also want a tough negotiator and problem solver. You’ll want someone with whom you can speak freely and not feel intimidated. And, most importantly, you’ll want someone who believes in your work and in the longevity of your career—someone who sees the big picture.

Like any partnership, however, there are two sides. Many writers demand the world of their agents, yet neglect their responsibilities in the relationship. Remember Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character, Rod Tidwell in the movie Jerry Maguire? He was a nightmare client—demanding, arrogant, emotional, needy. Rod had Jerry, his agent, dancing at every turn. The only reason why Jerry put up with Rod was because he had no other clients, but if he had, I guarantee that Jerry would have ignored more than a few of his phone calls. Rod is a perfect example of how not to act.

To have a great relationship with your agent, you need to remember that you are not his only client. That means not expecting 24/7 access to him, or calling every day for little things, or crying to him on the phone over every bad review or anything else bad that’s going on in your personal life. That means allowing him a reasonable time frame to answer your messages, and trusting that if he hasn’t called back it’s probably because there’s no news to report. Basically, it means handling yourself with as much professionalism as possible. Yes, your agent should make you feel important and treat you with respect, but like anything else in life, the only way to get that respect is to earn it. If you approach the relationship with consideration, it will be returned to you.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Art of the Query

Ok, so you have a short list of agents you’d like to query…now what? If you’ve done your research, you’ll know what kind of submission they are looking for. Most will want a query letter, a synopsis, a sample chapter, and a return envelope with paid postage. Some might accept electronic submissions. Many frown upon multiple submissions, so if that is the case, be sure to submit to only one agent at a time. As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s never a good idea to deviate from an agent’s requirements.

A good query submission is clean, neat, and easily readable. It is typewritten on plain white paper. The manuscript is in a clear, 12 pt font, double-spaced, and printed on only one side of the paper. All manuscript pages should be numbered and have the author’s name in one corner of each page, and should be secured with a clip or rubber band—no staples. All of these nit-picky rules are designed to make it easier on the reader. Never include head shots, money, or any other sort of marketing gimmick or bribe. The manuscript will be judged solely on its own merit, not on how fancy or different-looking it is. Trying to stand out in this regard is actually detrimental.

For most aspiring authors, the toughest part of the submission packet is the query letter. Essentially, it is just a business cover letter. Like any cover letter, it is best to be as clear and brief as possible, making sure to keep it to one page only. The tone can be warm, but avoid being too casual or overly familiar. You may state your credentials or achievements, but try not to sound boastful. More importantly, don’t be presumptuous. Don’t compare your work to something on the market—especially a bestseller. Don’t tell the reader you’re sure they’re going to like your work. Let him decide that for himself.

Your query letter should contain the following:

1. Your intention.
2. The title of your manuscript and one or two sentences about it (aka the pitch).
3. One or two sentences about you.
4. Your contact information.
5. A polite closing.

Here’s a dry (but useful) example:

March 11, 2008

Mr. John Smith
ABC Literary Agency
123 East 456 Street,
New York, NY 12345

Dear Mr. Smith:

I am currently seeking literary representation for my science fiction manuscript, entitled THE SNOW WON’T STOP. It’s the story of a small town buried by the biggest blizzard in recorded history, and the young boy who discovers a secret portal that will allow him to transport some of the residents—but not all—before disaster strikes.

I’m a 1998 graduate of New York University, where I received my B.A. in English Literature. My short story, “It’s Snowing Again” recently appeared in Sci-Fi Magazine. If you need to contact me, I can be reached anytime at (212) 555-1000.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Jane Doe

A query really can be as straightforward as this. Don’t worry if you don’t have any credentials under your belt—it’s not nearly as important as how well you write.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

There's an Agent on Your Bookshelf

The easiest way to get an agent is to move to New York City and get a job at an agency. Barring that, you have to do a little homework.

Every agent has a specialty or two. Some represent only romance writers. Some represent literary authors. Or children’s books and teen fiction. Others focus on nonfiction and biographies, with maybe an emphasis on sports writing. In order to increase your odds of having your manuscript accepted, you have to figure out what category your writing falls under, then look for an agent who specializes in that niche.

Agent listings can be found in many periodicals and on various publishing websites, though it is best to avoid anything that looks like an ad. The Writer’s Market is a decent reference, though I prefer Publishers Marketplace. An even better way of tracking down the right agent for you is to find a book that most closely resembles your work and turn to acknowledgments page. Many authors thank their agents here. Go ahead—grab a couple of books off your bookshelf right now. I bet you can come up with at least three good names in less than ten minutes.

With a few solid names and Internet access, it should be very easy to find the names of the agencies they belong to, as well as their particular guidelines for submitting material. I’ll go over what to include in your packet in a future post; right now, there are some things you should consider when choosing an agent:

Where is the agent located? Personally, I would limit my search to agents in the New York City area. Would you hire a movie agent who didn’t live in L.A.? I didn’t think so. New York is the center of the publishing world and your agent needs to be in the middle of the action. There may be a few exceptions to this rule—for example, I know a wonderful children’s book agent who lives in North Carolina—but when you’re just starting out it’s better to go for the sure thing.

Do they charge a reading fee? If so, find someone else.

Is the agency large or small? Picking what size agency you want to go with is entirely your call; just know the pros and cons of both. Larger agencies can sometimes be more well-connected and have a big name that gets big attention. On the other hand, they might also feel more corporate and you may get lost in such a large client list. Smaller agencies might not have such a big reputation, but you’ll get more personal attention.

Is the agent experienced or just starting out? Experience doesn’t matter nearly as much as you might think. Yes, it’s great to have someone who has been around a long time and knows the ropes. But never discount the newbie. Newbies make excellent agents—in fact my first agent was a newbie. What I love about young agents is that they are hungry to build their client list, which makes them more likely to take a chance on you. They are ambitious and eager to please. It’s easy to get them on the phone. Don’t be bothered by their seeming lack of inexperience—most have been working as agents’ assistants for several years and have developed a great list of contacts. Also, if an issue arises that is difficult for them to handle, they usually have the support of other agents within the company to help them sort it out.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Inside a Literary Agency

Before I go on to explain how to get an agent, I thought it might be helpful to first give an overview of how a manuscript makes its way through an agency. This information is based on my experience at one place, but I’m reasonably sure that the protocol is pretty universal.

The mail carrier arrives early with a giant sack filled with manuscripts. Packages that are addressed to a specific agent are put in the correct mail slot; packages addressed only to the agency end up in a general slush pile, perhaps on the receptionist’s desk. This is a very unfortunate place to be as the general slush has the lowest priority in the whole house, and is only given attention when the receptionist has a spare moment.

Those packages that have made it into a mail slot are picked up by the agent’s assistant, who is probably in her early twenties. The assistant adds it to the mountain already waiting for her on her desk. In between answering phone calls, chasing down paperwork, and attending to the agent’s needs and the needs of her clients, the assistant slowly chips away at the ever-growing pile of manuscripts. By the time she gets to yours, anywhere from six to ten weeks have passed. Yup, it really does take that long.

I’d like to put a word in here about the age of the assistants. Some people really resent that manuscripts are pre-screened by kids fresh out of college. “What do they know?” is a common refrain. Well, let me tell you—they know plenty. A person’s critiquing ability develops much faster than her writing ability. Ninety-five percent (or thereabouts) of that mountain on her desk is mediocre, so when something special comes along it’s glaringly obvious.

When the assistant has time to open the mail, she is looking for a reason to reject you. As she should. The pile is too overwhelming and she simply doesn’t have the time to fawn over every manuscript. So she begins sorting. Manuscripts sent without the required return postage might go in the trash. Manuscripts that include a postage-paid envelope but seem off in some other way—handwritten pages, colored paper, tiny print, poor spelling and grammar, an arrogant query letter—might get a quick glance before getting mailed back with a rejection letter. Not following proper protocol indicates a lack of professionalism.

Manuscripts that follow proper protocol will get proper attention. Usually, agents ask that you send only a sample chapter or the first ten or twenty pages of your manuscript. This might not seem like very much, but the assistant can tell almost immediately (within the first page or two) if you know how to write. If she likes what she reads, she will contact you and request more, say fifty pages. If she still likes the manuscript after that, she may request the rest and then write up a reader’s report for the agent.

I’ve never read a reader’s report, but from what I gather, it’s a bit like a book review. The agent then reads the report, determines if the manuscript contains elements that he feels strongly about, and if so, will take the time to read it. If, after all that, he decides it's something he wants to pursue, you'll be getting a call.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Get Published In One Easy Step!

Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but there is really only one thing an aspiring author needs to do to get published. Honestly. Forget studying the market, researching publishers, keeping up with all the industry gossip. It’s completely unnecessary. There’s only thing you need to do and the rest will sort itself out. Are you ready? Here it is:


That’s it. That’s all you need to know about the publishing business. Now I know there’s a large contingent of people out there who are convinced that agents are the scourge of the earth. They’ll tell you that you’re much better off sending your work directly to a publisher and keeping that steep 15% commission to yourself. I’m sure there are a few people who have managed this feat with success, but for the vast majority it simply won’t happen this way. And, frankly, it’s better for them that it doesn’t.

Perhaps I should declare my bias—I worked in a literary agency for six years. I was a clerk in the accounting department, where I basically filed and photocopied contracts and royalty statements. Even though I wasn’t working with agents directly, I still learned a lot about how the publishing industry works. Long ago, writers could submit their work directly to publishers, but not anymore. There are just too many submissions to sift through. To alleviate the volume, publishers now turn to agents as their first readers. They build relationships with different agents, find out what their specialties are, and look at submissions from those whose tastes they trust.

For those of you who resent the idea of having a “middle-man” cut into your profits, let me assure you that good agents work extremely hard for their commissions. The extra advance money agents can get for you will more than pay for their cost. And their job extends well beyond just selling manuscripts to publishers. Here’s a partial list of some of the roles an agent plays in a writer’s career:

  1. Negotiator—We all know that an agent’s job is to get you the highest advance possible, but there are other points to negotiate, too: sub-rights, electronic and audio rights, foreign rights, royalties, payout schedules and deadlines, and free copies, just to name a few.
  2. Accountant—Attached to the agency will be an accounting office that will examine all incoming royalty statements (including foreign publishers) for errors. They will also keep track of and follow-up on all outstanding payments owed to you.
  3. Educator—Don’t worry if you don’t know the first thing about the publishing process—your agent will fill you in on all the details.
  4. Lawyer—Agents understand every inch of that 25 page contract. They know your rights and will defend them.
  5. Editor—Even before your manuscript is submitted to a publisher, your agent will suggest changes that may need to be made to improve your chances of getting a sale. Once the sale has been made, your agent can add another point of view in the editing process, if needed.
  6. Informant/Networker—Agents have lots of business lunches so they can build relationships with editors and be on top of what’s going on in the industry. They keep on top of all the dish so you don’t have to.
  7. Publicist—Even before your book hits the shelves, it’s likely your agent has already sent the manuscript out to movie scouts and has talked you up to everyone he knows. It’s all about buzz, baby,
  8. Cheerleader/Shrink—Bad reviews, poor sales, writer’s block…your agent has seen and heard it all. She’ll guide you through the rough patches and celebrate your victories. (Note: This role should be used sparingly.)
  9. Good Cop—If your manuscript is rejected, or some other bad news comes your way, your agent will be there to soften the blow and help you keep your perspective.
  10. Bad Cop—This is my favorite reason for having an agent. When any dispute arises (and trust me, there’s always something that comes up) your agent will be the one to vigorously defend your side. This allows you to maintain your professionalism and likeability while she does the dirty work.
I suppose you could go ahead and do all those things on your own, but why would you want to?