Publishing News



Monterey Writers Retreat in 2014

A Retreat for Fiction Writers, Authors, and Memoirists 

November, 2014

The Mission of The Monterey Writers Retreat in California

Writers, poets, authors and aspiring authors have journeyed for over a century to this most scenic and literary location on the California west coast known as the Monterey Peninsula. They come in search of inspiration, individuality, purpose and vision, but more importantly, they all eventually come to share an understanding that art has preceded their arrival in the form of a brutally beautiful sea and windswept white shore, in the poetry of the twisted cypress, and in the kaleidoscope of abundant wild life. It is this setting that inspired the poet Robinson Jeffers to pen:

Fresh as the air, salt as the foam, play birds in the bright wind, fly falcons
Forgetting the oak and the pinewood, come gulls
From the Carmel sands and the sands at the river-mouth, from
Lobos and out of the limitless
Power of the mass of the sea ...

Steinbeck found the material for his dozen volumes of California fiction in the Salinas and neighboring valleys, along the shores of Monterey Bay, in the Corral de Tierra, and on the Big Sur. Even the Monterey sunsets illuminate the secrets of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" which served as a stage for the lives and times on which Jack London and George Sterling composed their allegories. Don Blanding, Henry Miller, Mary Austin, Ambrose Bierce, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Nora May French and countless others have nurtured their creative intellect here for years on end, all of them fondly recalling their Monterey days in the years to come.

In keeping with their spirit, and the spirit of the place, you can be as goal-focused at the retreat, or as hesitant in approach as you wish. You can talk novel, memoir, or short story publication with us, show us your manuscript, improve your skills, clear your head, have your work read by our onsite writer mentors, whatever you wish, whatever helps you grow and find your vision as a writer. You tell us ahead of time via the Monterey Writers Retreat Application about the goals you wish to focus on and we'll work with you to make it happen. Do you wish a review of your memoir, short stories, or flash fiction? Do you need to discuss the reality of the market, your plot and characters, your prose narrative, or perhaps get feedback on the opening hook and sample chapters from your novel? Or would you simply like a relaxed and productive dialogue about your goals as an aspiring author?

Twelve hours of one-on-one morning sessions will take place each day of the retreat for five days. In other words, the on-site writer professionals Michael Neff, Paula Munier, and Andrea Hurst will meet with each writer, based on each writer's needs.

More information can be found on the Monterey Writers Retreat home page



Director and Founder Michael Neff Interviewed by Authornomics

Sample from the Authornomics Interview. More can be found here.

What do you usually look for in a pitch? What’s one of the biggest turn-offs for you in a pitch?

A pitch that is imprecise, muddled, or way too long, or some combo thereof, creates a condition of frustration for all concerned—unless and until a way can be found to correct it. For many, this actually involves a rewrite of the novel. The pitch is simply a method of artfully communicating what your novel or nonfiction is about. If you can’t communicate a project that will sell, it usually means you have not written a project that will sell. At this juncture, we use the pitch as a means of driving further into the story. The intent is to discover what is working, what is not, and what, if anything, is missing. Plot, premise, characters, theme, everything is out on the table. Many of our writers have completely rewritten their novels as a result of the pitch process, and several have been published because of it. A good example is Kim Boykin, the author of The Wisdom of Hair.

What does your position as an associate for AEI Film Productions involve? How did you first get into this area?
I moonlight as an agent and developmental editor for AEI and StoryMerchant. I’m now the AEI Associate for the SF Bay Area. The owner, Ken Atchity, became acquainted with Algonkian and attended some of our events. Recently I have helped develop, edited and agented, or co-agented, two important books: Rise of the American Corporate Security State—Six Reasons to Be Afraid, a nonfiction by Beatrice Edwards (Berett-Koehler), and Killer on the Wall, a “social media cozy” by Wendy Eckell (Thomas Dunne). Several more novels are on the way, including another high-concept cozy mystery and an adult fantasy novel with series potential. Also, several Algonkian books have been ushered into contracts with AEI/SM, most recently The Last Scribe by Rachel Walsh, currently in development.

On the film side, we are working to produce Firehouse Shih-tzu, a comic film about a hero “firehouse dog” out to stop a dangerous arsonist in Brooklyn. I co-wrote the script. The sequel, Up Shih-tzu Creek Without a Poodle, is being written. It’s amazing what inventiveness can erupt from three bottles of Napa Cabernet.  Additionally, we are also working to produce Message to Shigatse, a controversial humanist film from NextPix productions about the Chinese kidnapping of the Panchen Lama. The hunt for a lead actress is underway. We have feelers out to Kate Winslett’s camp at the moment. Fingers X’d!

What are some of the biggest challenges you find in transforming books into films? Can a film ever be as good as a book?

High-concept genre books are generally easy to convert to the three-act film structure. They hit the same plot points and notes. But we all know that the film medium is limited to what it can display or provoke. Novels are not. The great novel will always outweigh the film because it can contain so much more, go more places, reveal more things. That’s not to say a good movie can’t be better than the novel upon which it was based. There are always exceptions. I’ve heard competing opinions re SIDEWAYS, for example.

[ More ]


Wendy Eckel's KILLER ON THE WALL to Thomas Dunne Books

Author Wendy Eckel, a veteran of Algonkian Writer Conferences, joined Author Salon in October, 2011, and worked closely with AS editors, including advisory editors Michael Neff, Penny Warner, and Ken Atchity, to hone her "social media cozy" novel, KILLER ON THE WALL, into a competitive manuscript that was signed by AEI FILMS AND BOOKS in Los Angeles in 2012, and sold to Thomas Dunne Books in 2013.


Wendy Eckel's KILLER ON THE WALL, in which a woman sets out to solve a murder, and with the help of a Facebook group composed of amateur sleuths known as "The What Ifs," she begins the search for evidence and clues; after friending suspects on Facebook and working with a nervous programmer living in mortal fear of Mark Zuckerberg, she hacks into the dead girl's Facebook account and assumes her identity, only to discover a dark underbelly to what had originally seemed a charmed and effortless life, and THE DAY LILY CAFE, to Anne Brewer at Thomas Dunne Books, in a nice deal, for publication in 2015, by Ken Atchity and Michael Neff at Story Merchant (World Rights).

After two months on Facebook, I had yet to post a picture or write what was on my mind. My profile didn’t declare my relationship status or where I lived because those things had recently changed, rather abruptly, but inspiration finally struck on a crisp cool day in October. I found a dead girl floating in the marsh behind my house.

- from KILLER ON THE WALL by Wendy Eckel


Algonkian Writers Conference - The Pitch Model Letter

Please use the following examples as models for your agent pitch session.  Keep your pitch to 150-200 words, no more than a minute.  Have the pitch written before the conference begins.  Note that the pitch is a diagnostic tool to determine the strong and weak points of your novel.  If you do not have enough novel for a pitch, then no problem.  Now is the time to start thinking about it!

Take special note of dramatic tension and plot points, rising action, character qualities.

An example as follows, from "The English Teacher" by Lily King:

(HOOK - the entire first paragraph) Fifteen years ago Vida Avery arrived alone and pregnant at elite Fayer Academy. She has since become a fixture and one of the best English teachers Fayer has ever had. By living on campus, on an island off the New England coast, Vida has cocooned herself and her son, Peter, from the outside world and from an inside secret. (SCENE SET) For years she has lived largely through the books she teaches, but when she accepts the impulsive marriage proposal of ardent widower Tom Belou, the prescribed life Vida has constructed is swiftly dismantled. (PLOT POINT creates COMPLICATIONS or DRAMATIC TENSION)

Peter, however, welcomes the changes. Excited to move off campus, eager to have siblings at last, Peter anticipates a regular life with a "normal" family. But the Belou children are still grieving, and the memory of their recently dead mother exerts a powerful hold on the house. As Vida begins teaching her signature book, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, a nineteenth-century tale of an ostracized woman and social injustice, its themes begin to echo eerily in her own life and Peter sees that the mother he perceived as indomitable is collapsing and it is up to him to help. (SECOND PLOT POINT creates MAJOR COMPLICATION and RISING ACTION leading to CLIFFHANGER: will
Peter save his mother?)

Another example from "Close Case" by Alafair Burke:

Investigating the brutal murder of a hotshot journalist, Samantha Kincaid finds herself caught in the middle of an increasingly personal and potentially dangerous struggle between Portland's police and the DA's office.(HOOK, SCENE SET, SUBPLOT COMPLICATION).

For Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid's thirty-second birthday, she gets an unusual gift: a homicide call out. (PLOT POINT begins MAJOR COMPLICATION: solve the crime) The crime scene: the elite Hillside neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. The victim: hotshot investigative reporter Percy Crenshaw, who has been bludgeoned to death in his carport.

Tensions in the city have been running high. The previous week, a police officer shot and killed an unarmed mother of two in what he claims was self-defense; in the aftermath, protestors have waged increasingly agitated anti-police protests. Crenshaw's death, it seems, is not unrelated: within a matter of hours, police arrest two young men who appear to have embarked on a crime spree in the aftermath of the protests. The case looks straightforward, especially when one of the suspects confesses. But then the man recants, claiming coercive police tactics, and Samantha finds herself digging for more evidence. (PLOT POINT, RISING ACTION, MORE SUB-COMPLICATIONS)

Following Crenshaw's steps, her search leads her through an elaborate maze of connections between the city's drug trade and officers in the bureau's north precinct. Samantha's pursuit of the truth puts her in the middle of city political battles and on the outs with the cops, including her new live-in boyfriend, Detective Chuck Forbes. Worse yet, the path left by Crenshaw could lead Samantha to the same fatal end.(CLIFFHANGER: will Samantha save her own life, solve the murder in the process, and later, recover her love interest? THREE QUESTIONS BEGGED!)

Now, go and write the PITCH for your novel. And please, take your time!

Once done, put it aside for two days, then read it and ask yourself this question:


Take into account all the major elements above. Follow the step-by-step evolution of HOOK/SCENE SET, PLOT POINT/COMPLICATION(s), RISING ACTION, and CLIFFHANGER.


Author Salon Novel Writing Program Review

A Talk With Julie Chapman About Her Writing Life

COMPS:  Rick Yancey's THE 5TH WAVE
WORDS:  75,000+

Julie Chapman has held professional positions as a journalist and editor, but fiction is her passion. She received a bachelor's degree in English with a creative writing concentration from Skidmore College, where she was a student of Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser. She intends to see GRID RIDER published as a trilogy.

I don't like to be scared. And I think in a good sci-fi novel, the reader should experience fear. In previous drafts, I really skirted around my antagonist because I didn't want to be uncomfortable myself. Author Salon's second assignment snapped me out of that. When I was sketching my antagonist, I didn't sleep for a month! I'm still afraid of my antagonist, which I think is a good sign, but I'm no longer afraid of writing about him. Instead, I'm excited.

- Julie Chapman

Author Salon Novel Writing Program Review

AS: Tell us something about yourself as it relates to your writing life. Also, what inspired you to begin the novel?

Throughout my house, very organized piles of notes are inevitably graffitied with words like "dog" and "cup" as well as a multitude of illustrations. It seems my three-year-old daughter is determined to help me write my book. Whenever I see her scribbles, I'm reminded not to take myself so seriously and to go bold with my imagination. I love being in that childlike state of creativity wherein even the craziest ideas make sense. Those ideas are usually the best.

GRID RIDER began as a short story. When my visa expired and I had to leave my life in London, I figured a way to retain my residence would be to set a story there. From previous experience, I knew that dropping a girl from the Southern swamplands into that setting would be hilarious. And I'd always wanted to write about some colorful dreams I had when younger. Somehow and thankfully, a story emerged.

AS: Who are you reading now? Which authors and novels have been an inspiration to you, and why?

My favorite recent read is Rick Yancey's THE 5TH WAVE, about a teenage girl dealing with the aftermath of an alien invasion. Although the book is sci-fi, the story is less about aliens and more about humanity's response to catastrophe and the struggle for survival. Universal themes like these are what make the story relatable and inspire crossover appeal. This is what I intend for Grid Rider.

The book I read that convinced me I could write one myself was THE MISTS OF AVALON by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Another inspiration was Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER series. I gravitate toward books with strong female characters and gripping plot lines, and I am enthralled with characters who travel between worlds.

AS: Can you tell us about your novel?

GRID RIDER is set on the edge of the Everglades in a strange town called The Moods, where sixteen-year-old Eden Thrash is even stranger. All her life Eden has been plagued by visions of spectral shapes, but has no idea what they are or why she sees them. Everyone thinks Eden is crazy. Even she begins to believe it, until inexplicable events begin to happen worldwide. Cities begin to sink, airplanes crash, power outages grow in frequency as the Aurora Borealis appears over Florida. Meanwhile, Eden's visions intensify. When a huge red circle shows up and engulfs Eden, she is thrust into a world known as The Grid, a strange subspace-like environment created by an ancient race of benevolent beings -- a kind of transit station where thousands of worlds throughout the galactic rim interweave, fuse and collide. The Grid is under attack by a predatory alien race, and the chaos on Earth is a symptom of it, a repercussion. Eden soon learns that her visions are clues to saving The Grid, and that she has become a target for the invaders.

AS: What gives you a passion for this story and why are you the one who needs to tell it?

When I was younger, I dreamed about shapes. Sometimes they made patterns; sometimes they appeared up close. As a result, friends called me "Kaleidoscope Eyes." The dreams were so vivid and stayed in my mind long after I awoke. During that time, I remember feeling as if I were living in two different worlds simultaneously -- one seen, one unseen -- which was difficult. Since then, I've been fascinated with characters who are able to exist between worlds. My protagonist, Eden, is one of them.

Even though the dreams provided an escape, they were obviously weird and made me feel different. Then in my adolescence, I wanted to enjoy my dreams and feel accepted at the same time. That's why I love that Eden's visions -- which make people fear and hate her -- ultimately help save the world.

AS: What have you found to be your biggest challenges to writing a successful commercial novel?

I don't like to be scared, but I believe that in a good sci-fi novel, the reader should experience fear. In previous drafts, I really skirted around my antagonist because I didn't wish to be uncomfortable myself. Author Salon's second assignment snapped me out of that. After I sketched my antagonist, I didn't sleep for a month! I'm still afraid of my antagonist, which I think is a good sign, but I'm no longer afraid of writing about him. Instead, I'm excited.

AS: Is there any particular facet of the Author Salon novel writing program that has helped you more than any other? If so, why?

Every assignment in the Author Salon program has proved to be invaluable for me. I was surprised that the antagonist sketch should be done before the protagonist sketch, but I soon understood the brilliance behind this approach. Sketching my antagonist in such detail prompted me to restructure my entire novel. As a ripple effect, I developed a rich new backstory that increased the stakes, made the tone creepier, intensified both inner and external conflict, and energized the plot. I restructured every one of the six acts with the new found knowledge that the antagonist should drive the plot from the beginning of the story. And when the time came to sketch my protagonist, I knew that creating a truly dynamic, captivating antagonist had challenged me to design a protagonist worthy of the opposition.

AS: What bit of advice can you give to other aspiring authors just getting started?

Patience, persistence and positive outlook. That's my mantra.

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Write to Market Conference Redux

The Write to Market Conference returns in 2013. A new feature of the Write to Market is a series of pre-event assignments posted on Algonkian forums.  These assignments are designed to cajole writers into considering a few of the most important elements of their aborning novel even before they arrive at the conference.

As follows:

MS/Novel Premise-Platform-Execution Check Pre-Event Writer Assignments on The Writer's Block


Before you begin to consider or rewrite your story premise, you must develop a simple "story statement." In other words, what's the mission of your protagonist (hero/ine)? Their goal? What must be done? What must she or he create? Destroy? Save? Accomplish? Defeated?Defy the dictator of the city and bury brother's body (ANTIGONE)? Place a bet that will shake up the asylum (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST)? Do whatever it takes to recover lost love (THE GREAT GATSBY)? Save the farm and live to tell the story (COLD MOUNTAIN)? Find the wizard and a way home to Kansas (WIZARD OF OZ)? Note that all of these are books with strong antagonists who drive or catalyze the plot line going forward. More on that later.

If you cannot conceive or write a simple story statement like those above (which will help define your story premise) then you do not yet have a work of commercial fiction. Keep in mind that the PLOT LINE is an elaboration of the statement, of this "primary complication" of story statement. Also, look over the brief summaries of these novels in Author Connect Deal News ( These contain the simple statement, but more elaborated into a short hook.

FIRST ASSIGNMENT: write your story statement.



Since the antagonist in most successful commercial fiction is the driver of the plot line(s), what chances do you as a writer have of getting your manuscript, regardless of genre, commercially published if the story and narrative therein fail to meet reader demands for sufficient suspense, character concern, and conflict?

Such a dearth of vitality in narrative and story frequently results from the unwillingness of the writer to create a suitable antagonist who stirs and spices the plot hash. And let's make it clear what we're talking about. By "antagonist" we specifically refer to an actual fictional character, an embodiment of certain traits and motivations who plays a significant role in catalyzing and energizing plot line(s), or at bare minimum, in assisting to evolve the protagonist's character arc (and by default the story itself) by igniting complication(s) the protagonist, and possibly other characters, must face and solve (or fail to solve).


SECOND ASSIGNMENT: in 200 words or less, sketch the antagonist or antagonistic force in your story. Keep in mind their goals, their background, and the ways they react to the world about them.



What is your breakout title? How important is a great title before you even become published? Very important! Quite often, agents and editors will get a feel for a work and even sense the marketing potential just from a title. A title has the ability to attract and condition the reader's attention. It can be magical or thud like a bag of wet chalk, so choose carefully. A poor title sends the clear message that what comes after will also be of poor quality.

Go to Amazon.Com and research a good share of titles in your genre, come up with options, write them down and let them simmer for at least 24 hours.Consider character or place names, settings, or a "label" that describes a major character, like THE ENGLISH PATIENT or THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST. Consider also images, objects, or metaphors in the novel that might help create a title, or perhaps a quotation from another source (poetry, the Bible, etc.) that thematically represents your story. Or how about a title that summarizes the whole story: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, etc.

Keep in mind that the difference between a mediocre title and a great title is the difference between THE DEAD GIRL'S SKELETON and THE LOVELY BONES, between TIME TO LOVE THAT CHOLERA and LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA between STRANGERS FROM WITHIN (Golding's original title) and LORD OF THE FLIES, between BEING LIGHT AND UNBEARABLE and THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING.

THIRD ASSIGNMENT: create a breakout title (list several options, not more than three, and revisit to edit as needed).



Did you know that a high percentage of new novel writers don't fully understand their genre, much less comprehend comparables?

When informing professionals about the nuances of your novel, whether by query letter or oral pitch, you must know your genre first, and provide smart comparables second. In other words, you need to transcend just a simple statement of genre (literary, mystery, thriller, romance, science fiction, etc.) by identifying and relating your novel more specifically to each publisher's or agent's area of expertise, and you accomplish this by wisely comparing your novel to contemporary published novels they will most likely recognize and appreciate--and it usually doesn't take more than two good comps to make your point.Agents and publishing house editors always want to know the comps.

There is more than one reason for this. First, it helps them understand your readership, and thus how to position your work for the market. Secondly, it demonstrates up front that you are a professional who understands your contemporary market, not just the classics. Very important! And finally, it serves as a tool to enable them to pitch your novel to the decision-makers in the business.Most likely you will need to research your comps. We've included some great starter websites for this purpose below. If you're not sure how to begin, go to Amazon.Com, type in the title of a novel you believe very similar to yours, choose it, then scroll down the page to see Amazon's list of "Readers Also Bought This" and begin your search that way.

Keep in mind that before you begin, you should know enough about your own novel to make the comparison in the first place!By the way, beware of using comparables by overly popular and classic authors. If you compare your work to classic authors like H.G. Wells and Gabriel Marquez in the same breath you will risk being declared insane. If you compare your work to huge contemporary authors like Nick Hornby or Jodi Picoult or Nora Ephron or Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling, and so forth, you will not be laughed at, but you will also not be taken seriously since thousands of others compare their work to the same writers. Best to use two rising stars in your genre. If you can't do this, use only one classic or popular author and combine with a rising star. Choose carefully!


- Read Caitlin's Comparables on Author Salon: - Develop two smart comparables for your novel. This is a good opportunity to immerse yourself in your chosen genre. Who compares to you? And why?



Conflict, tension, complication, drama--all basically related, and all going a long way to keeping the reader's eyes fixated on your story. These days, serving up a big manuscript of quiet is a sure path to damnation. You need tension on the page (esp in fiction), at all times, and the best way to accomplish this is to create (or find them in your nonfiction story) conflict and complications in the plot and narrative.

Consider "conflict" divided into three parts, all of which you should ideally have present. First, the primary conflict which drives through the core of the work from beginning to end and which zeniths with an important climax (falling action and denouement to follow). Next, secondary conflicts or complications which can take various social forms (anything from a vigorous love subplot to family issues to turmoil with fellow characters). Finally, those inner conflicts the major characters must endure and resolve.

And now, onto the PRIMARY CONFLICT.

If you've taken care to consider your story description and your hook line, you should be able to identify your main conflict(s). Let's look at some basic information regarding the history of conflict in storytelling:

Conflict was first described in ancient Greek literature as the agon, or central contest in tragedy. According to Aristotle, in order to hold the interest, the hero must have a single conflict. The agon, or act of conflict, involves the protagonist (the "first fighter") and the antagonist (a more recent term), corresponding to the hero and villain. The outcome of the contest cannot be known in advance, and, according to later critics such as Plutarch, the hero's struggle should be ennobling. Is that always true these days? Not always, but let's move on.

Even in contemporary, non-dramatic literature, critics have observed that the agon is the central unit of the plot. The easier it is for the protagonist to triumph, the less value there is in the drama. In internal and external conflict alike, the antagonist must act upon the protagonist and must seem at first to overmatch him or her.

The above defines classic drama that creates conflict with real stakes. You see it everywhere, to one degree or another, from classic contemporary westerns like THE SAVAGE BREED to a time-tested novel as literary as THE GREAT GATSBY. And of course, you need to have conflict or complications in nonfiction also, in some form, or you have a story that is too quiet.

For examples let's return to the story descriptions and create some CONFLICT LINES. Note these come close to being genuine hook lines, but that conflict is present regardless of genre.

The Hand of Fatima by Ildefonso Falcones A young Moor torn between Islam and Christianity, scorned and tormented by both, struggles to bridge the two faiths by seeking common ground in the very nature of God.

Summer's Sisters by Judy Blume After sharing a magical summer with a friend, a young woman must confront her friend's betrayal of her with the man she loved.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud As an apprentice mage seeks revenge on an elder magician who humiliated him, he unleashes a powerful Djinni who joins the mage to confront a danger that threatens their entire world.

Note that it is fairly easy to ascertain the stakes in each case above: a young woman's love and friendship, the entire world, and harmony between opposed religions. If you cannot make the stakes clear, the odds are you don't have any.

FIFTH ASSIGNMENT: write your own conflict line following the format above. Keep in mind it helps energize an entire plot line and the antagonist(s) must be noted or inferred.



Consider "conflict" divided into three parts, all of which you should ideally have present. First, the primary conflict which drives through the core of the work from beginning to end and which zeniths with an important climax (falling action and denouement to follow). Next, secondary conflicts or complications which can take various social forms (anything from a vigorous love subplot to family issues to turmoil with fellow characters). Finally, those inner conflicts the major characters must endure and resolve. You must note the inner personal conflicts elsewhere in this profile, but make certain to note any important interpersonal conflicts within this particular category."

SIXTH ASSIGNMENT: sketch out the conditions for the inner conflict your protagonist will have. Why will they feel in turmoil? Conflicted? Anxious? Sketch out one hypothetical scenario in the story wherein this would be the case--consider the trigger and the reaction.

Next, likewise sketch a hypothetical scenario for the "secondary conflict" involving the social environment. Will this involve family? Friends? Associates? What is the nature of it?



When considering your novel, whether taking place in a contemporary urban world or on a distant magical planet in Andromeda, you must first sketch the best overall setting and sub-settings for your story. Consider: the more unique and intriguing (or quirky) your setting, the more easily you're able to create energetic scenes, narrative, and overall story.

A great setting maximizes opportunities for interesting characters, circumstances, and complications, and therefore makes your writing life so much easier.

Imagination is truly your best friend when it comes to writing competitive fiction, and nothing provides a stronger foundation than a great setting. One of the best selling contemporary novels, THE HUNGER GAMES, is driven by the circumstances of the setting, and the characters are a product of that unique environment, the plot also.

But even if you're not writing SF/F, the choice of setting is just as important, perhaps even more so. If you must place your upmarket story in a sleepy little town in Maine winter, then choose a setting within that town that maximizes opportunities for verve and conflict, for example, a bed and breakfast stocked to the ceiling with odd characters who combine to create comical, suspenseful, dangerous or difficult complications or subplot reversals that the bewildered and sympathetic protagonist must endure and resolve while he or she is perhaps engaged in a bigger plot line: restarting an old love affair, reuniting with a family member, starting a new business, etc. And don't forget that non-gratuitous sex goes a long way, especially for American readers.


FINAL ASSIGNMENT: sketch out your setting in detail. What makes it interesting enough, scene by scene, to allow for uniqueness and cinema in your narrative and story? Please don't simply repeat what you already have which may well be too quiet. You can change it. That's why you're here! Start now. Imagination is your best friend, and be aggressive with it.


Michael Neff of Algonkian Writer Conferences Contributes to Author Salon

      Lessons and Readings Necessary To The Creation of a Competitive Commercial Manuscript

   By Michael Neff of Algonkian Writer Conferences - Contributing Editor to Author Salon

Let's get right to the point on this issue. Yes, we know that CATCHER IN THE RYE and HUCKLEBERRY FINN could never have been the famous novels they were without the engaging first person voice of their protagonists. And yes, first person seems to be in vogue with paranormal YA and some fantasy here and there, however, third person point of view is the best way to relate a dynamic work of fiction, hands down. Unless the first person voice is so remarkable, unique and/or compelling that the novel could not exist without it, third person is strongly advised.

For purposes of this study, we define four levels of third person point of view (3POV) as follows:

  • Author-POV
  • 3POV Distant
  • 3POV Close
  • 3POV First-Close
The Author-POV or APOV, refers to the author, the detached or "omniscient narrator" who steps in now and then to set the scene or make artful commentary at the right time (just *please* don't address the reader directly because that is so irritating and breaks the reader's immersion into the fictional dream).  3POV Distant or 3POV-D occurs at such time the narrative focuses on a specific character and we watch her or his actions as if we are the camera actively filming this character. 3POV Close or 3POV-C takes us into the character's head and camera viewpoint shifts to the character, i.e., we see or experience, for the most part, only what the character is viewing or experiencing. 3POV First-Close or 3POV-FC dives deeper into the character's head and effectively mimics first person POV, but naturally without the usual limits of first person POV because the author can cut from the 3POV-FC and pull all the way back to APOV.
Let's look at three samples of what we're talking about from my novel-in-progress, co-authored with Kevin Reilly, entitled THE YARROW STICKS OF CATHAY.


The following never quite makes it into 3POV-C, but verges on it. Note how the APOV returns at the conclusion:

(APOV) WHEN ONLY A CHILD OF NINE, ONE OF EARTH'S most powerful kings, Zolo Bold, did something which haunted him the rest of his life. He sniffed a bee up his nose.
    But no ordinary bee.
(3POV-D)    After a night of howling steppe winds and falling stars spilled from The Big Dipper, he saw a white flower, like one of those stars, stemming out the next morning from a vendor’s cart in Samarkand. While his mother strained to subdue him, Zolo nonetheless hopped and hummed with delight. Much to his surprise, he could smell the mind-softening scent of the blossom even from many feet away, competing bravely with the loud odors of the city market. In his mind, it seemed so radiant and mysterious that it overshadowed all the other flowers, even the enormous Silk Road orchids rumored by Christian monks to be death robbers, and the many and exotic blooms whose seeds came from Ulaanbaatar in faraway Mongolia. 
    When the flower merchant, a man with an ox-sized stomach, no nose, and the thinnest head Zolo had ever seen, turned to heckle a customer, Zolo Bold--whose name means Crazy Fox--saw his chance. He gently slipped from his mother’s hand and took a few steps, leaning forward to smell the rose. He could not help himself, for never before in his life been in the presence of such a sky born flower. But just as his nose brushed the soft white petals and the scent filled his head, something else did too: a sharp and crawly thing.
    It followed the air up his right nostril, and once lodged, began to squirm.
    Zolo shrieked and jumped into the air!
    His entire nose buzzed and the sound of it curled into his throat and out of his mouth. A nearby child, smaller than him and holding his mother’s hand, heard the bee voice and pointed, yelling “It’s bee boy! Bee boy!”
(APOV)  In the years to come, Zolo Bold, the great enemy of the dark feared from Istanbul to Cathay, would remember that boy’s terrified face and always attach to it all mention of the word "bee" ...


Note how sometimes the lines between levels can be somewhat blurred, but once the reader accepts the reality of the 3POV narrative style, it all seamlessly blends:

(APOV) After what seemed like hours, the two of them drew near their tent.
(3POV-D) Zolo broke away from his mother and ran towards it as fast as he could. Once inside, Zolo dove onto his sleeping place, made of quilted blankets, and thrust his arm beneath them.  Groping around, he soon found the object he searched for: a tiny stone statue of an ancient warrior known to him only as Alexander.
    He gripped the figure tightly and whispered his own quick prayer for protection. Many years before, a wandering Kazakh traveler, late of Istanbul, had given it to him as a gift and told him that Alexander once possessed the good fortune and power to rule many nations at once, that he was beloved of all gods--
(3POV-C) and little Zolo imagined that a being of such power would make a formidable ally. He mumbled prayers to Alexander only on special occasions, not wishing to upset Allah, or his parents.(3POV-DBut at the moment, his mother paid no attention. She stared out the tent into the desert, her body unmoving, as if something she saw paralyzed her.
(3POV-C) to
(3POV-FC)    While his mother stood in the corner of his eye, facing away from him, Zolo held Alexander close and whispered a prayer in his head:
    God Alexander,
    Help my mother find my father.
    I implore you.
    Make my family whole again
    And I will make sacrifice
    To you for all my days.
(3POV-C)  Zolo held Alexander for a few more moments, staring at his soft profile and face and wondering how such a soft-looking god could rule so many nations. But he believed it to be true nonetheless. The wanderer from Istanbul had appeared like a man of wisdom and iron, and in his eyes, Zolo saw the truth.

NOTE: if the narrative had described the prayer rather than having us see the thoughts in Zolo's head, we would have stayed in (3POV-C) ]

Note the transition from 3POV-C to 3POV-FC. The narrative narrows down to the actual thoughts of the 3POV character, also using italicized lines which directly mimic first person interior monologue:

    (3POV-D)The old woman stared at Senna, her eyes fixing on her, never straying until she walked to within a few feet of the table. Her two escorts, still masked, let go of her and returned to the performance. The old woman's eyes dropped to the floor and Senna looked her over. (3POV-C) There was nothing special about her. Her face resembled a water-starved desert of lines and cracks, as one would expect. But suddenly, Senna heard someone nearby speak to her: Sing the body young.
    (3POV-FC)A voice? From the old woman? ... No.
    The voice belonged to a man, and it sounded a bit strangled ... Sing the body young. Again! Was it in her head? She looked around. Nothing. Only Hermine and Théodo acting witless as usual, and not even seeing this old woman. Why are they not paying attention? Do they not realize how odd this all is? 
    O poder é a vida ea morte, Princess Senna.
    She knew that language. Galician, yes. A rare language of Spain, heavily influenced by Roman empire. It translated to "The power is life and death."
    Her fingers pricked for a moment and she realized the source of the voice: Mirza Yesun Temur. It must be him!  
    Meu segredo está oculto.
    My secret is hidden. She strained her eyes for him. Zolo, Willie, or whoever was right. Tricks, illusions. And what did the words mean? And why? ... Sing the body young. The words intruding into her mind forced her to look at the old woman again. Now her eyes lifted and bored into Senna, and Senna's face began to burn and felt as if dozens of small fingers walked lightly over it. What in Beelzebub's name? The woman's eyes implored Senna to act, as if a terrible thing were about to happen. But what?

A Summary of Plus Points and Arguments for 3POVs
  • 3POV can be just as immediate and intimate as first person (see 3POV-FC example above), but without the usual constraints of being always boxed into what the first person narrator sees/experiences, sans their personality as a continuous filter. 3POV allows for multiple filters and tones, as well as first person intimacy with more than one character (multiple first person can achieve the same thing, but with more difficulty).
  • If you as the author need to deliver exposition or other critical information you will have more hoops to jump through if you are confined to the viewpoint of a first person narrator who may or may not logically be capable of delivering said information. While Jodi the first person narrator is talking to Mary, Bobby has just lit the fuse a mile away. How can Jodi tell us this?
  • Related to above, you can effectively describe events via the APOV and other 3POV characters even though your protagonist isn't present.
  • Allows a universal or authorial voice to more easily and quickly, under a wide variety of circumstances, to define reality for the reader. The reader suspends disbelief and accepts what the author narrator is telling them, whereas first person statements and observation run the risk, in certain situations, of sounding more like opinion.
  • Advantages of dramatic irony. The reader learns about upcoming circumstances that will adversely affect the protagonist before the protagonist realizes this fact. This creates suspense and heightens reader concern.
  • Allows for establishment of "epic perspective" (see the opening above with little Zolo).
  • Cinematic advantages. For example, in THE ALCHEMYST by Jonathan Stroud, we witness a scene of violence taking place in a book store. We see it through one characters viewpoint, in the store, as it plays out, then we switch to a second character outside the store, witnessing the effects of the violence from outside. Like a film, the author is able to cut back and forth and give far more dynamism to the depiction of the scene.
  • Another cinematic advantage is that the APOV can start the action sometimes more readily than the first person who may get mired in TELL TELL rather than SHOW SHOW.
  • Ability to jump into the heads of other characters enables author to quickly and efficiently switch settings and circumstances and thus add more variety and energy, as well bring a different tone and interpretation to the work as needed, e.g., consider the difference between the POV of a child and an elder experiencing the same circumstance.
  • It's easier to physically describe the 3POV view-point character(s) - the author can simply just say straight out how they appear, or even use the camera angle of another 3POV character to render the image.

Notes on Character Viewpoint

The nature of any given 3POV narrative is dependent to a large extent on the personality of the 3POV character engaged in filtering and interpreting the fictional environ. The 3POV narrator chooses to focus on things which interest her or him, comments on behavior she or he finds odd or objectionable, reveals fantasies, etc. Therefore, by placing a specific character with well defined traits at an event, or in the presence of something which must be described or experienced, you render that event or object in such a way as to reflect the character’s mindset, biases, emotion, beliefs and perceptions.

Thus, different characters employed as 3POV cameras or interpreters will yield different results when placed in the same circumstance. A superstitious individual might imagine a dark hand of God blotting the sun in anger, falling rain as tears; whereas the less superstitious, educated observer might focus on the sadness of a small child, her bright clothing soaked by rain, or the frantic motions of the staff attempting to clear food off the table before it is all spoiled by rainwater. The superstitious character might suffer more cognitive dysfunction, interpret smiles as wolfish or manipulative or death-like, the more educated character marveling at light and youthful appearance of the person smiling, the crinkles around the eyes, the cause of the light mood.

Characters by virtue of their personalities will therefore interpret the same phenomenon differently.

A must to keep in mind when juggling your 3POVS.

   - Michael Neff of Algonkian Writer Conferences



Santa Barbara Author-Mentor Novel Workshop

Algonkian Writer Conferences announces the new Santa Barbara Author-Mentor event---a unique and intimate novel workshop that takes place on February 20 - 23, 2014. It provides an ideal mix of experienced professionals dedicated to working one-on-one with aspiring authors to not only teach them the knowledge and skills they must have to be successful, but also provide them with valuable commentary on their completed novel or work-in-progress. 

Faculty include Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Jane Smiley and Robert Olen Butler, literary agent of renown Kimberley Cameron, agent and major film producer Ken Atchity, writer/author and popular columnist Cary Tennis, and Algonkian director and editor, Michael Neff.


Why Do Passionate Writers Fail to Publish - Part VI - Impatience Equals Tragedy

The story might actually be pretty good, fairly original, perhaps even high concept, and the writing as a whole might even be fantastic, however, the writer is impatient and sends out the ms too soon. Agents and editors will stumble from page to page a few times before alerting the intern to crank out the standard rejection letter.

There are so many nuances to writing a successful novel, so many ways things can go wrong. It is actually inconceivable to someone who isn't a veteran of the ms wars, who hasn't been at it for years and years, who hasn't made all the mistakes, who hasn't reached that point when their writer group earnestly believes the ms child they helped to raise is clean and spiffy, and then sadly, discovered many rejections later that the child needs a year or two more of prep. When will it ever end?

You have to be patient, but you can't be patient unless and until you know just how patient you must be, and that requires a realistic knowledge of precisely what is required of you, what it takes on every level to write a successful novel your market will embrace, regardless of genre.

And btw, don't set arbitrary deadlines for completion of the novel, or any part. Just stick to a schedule, and let it come in due course.


Algonkian Writer Conferences Tale: Kim Boykin's Pitch Rewrites and Contracts "The Wisdom of Hair" and Boy Can She Cook!

AWC: What is the backstory of Kim Boykin? You’re working with the South Carolina writers group and editing the Quill? How long have you been writing fiction?

Kim: How far back do you want to go? Growing up, I learned how to tell a story from my grandpa in rural Georgia who held court under an old Mimosa. When the weather was too rough to farm, people would come in droves just to hear him tell tales and share his unique take on the world. As a child, I was enthralled, but when I started to write, really write, I realized what a master teacher of pacing and sensory detail he was. I wrote and tossed, not to be confused with pitched, two novels, then wrote a version of THE WISDOM OF HAIR ten years ago.

I got an agent but she died after the first round of submissions; the agent I inherited didn't get southern fiction at all. When it was clear she had no intention of selling my novel, I left and just kept writing books. I turned 53 this year, which doesn't mean anything other than I've been at this a really long time. I've dabbled with queries and attended a conference or two, but nothing really happened until I attended the New York Pitch Conference.

I'm on the board of the South Carolina Writer's Workshop, which is an statewide organization dedicated to helping its member develop as writers and publish. We have a very well respected conference in Myrtle Beach, SC every year. As a matter of fact I pitched the same novel to four agents last year, but I didn't have a clue as to what I was doing. Part of the pitch is finding out what works and doesn't work in your story itself. I didn't really understand that until I went to New York.

AWC: Kim, do tell, what is the origin of THE WISDOM OF HAIR? How did you arrive at this concept, and having arrived, how did you evolve it into an entire novel?

Kim: Well, the title came from one of the editors at the pitch conference and it just stuck. But the story came to me like all my stories, voices in my head, telling me what to write. It didn't hurt that I spent a lot of time when I was growing up hanging out at my mother's beauty salon. She had a lot of interesting clients--war brides, a Zigfield girl, all kinds of women with all kinds of stories but the one thing they had in common was their hair and the belief that if they could change their hair, they could change their life.

Funny thing is, until I had to write a pitch and figure out what made my common story uncommon, I didn't see that. But that's exactly what had the editor's nodding their heads and asking to see the script.

AWC: Who is your readership for this book? Are you working on marketing plans now?

Kim: If I had to dust off my marketing degree and figure out that kind of stuff, I'd say Women 35-54 would be the core demo. But the concept of fix your hair/fix your life is universal among women, which is why I've created a blog, and a Facebook page by the same name. The idea is to get women talking about their hair. The first entry has the thoughts from two women, a dyed in the wool Baptist from South Carolina and a Muslim student from Canada. So what does it mean when their views about hair coincide? It means we've found something universal, a common wisdom that can change the world or at least change our world. How cool is that?

So the takeaway is social media is huge. When the blog is ready for prime time, my agent's going to tweet about it, and I've got other folks out there ready to spread the gospel of HAIR. I also have another blog and a website One thing the editors made clear at the Pitch Conference in NY was, if you don't have a blog or a website, get one.

AWC: How long were you looking for an agent before you found your current agent?

Following the conference, I queried 57 agents between July 9 and the 24th. Sixteen agents asked to read; ten asked for the whole manuscript, and five asked for exclusives, which of course I couldn't give them because so many agents were reading. On July 25, I had my first offer for representation. I sent out a letter to the other agents to let them know and heard from three who said they were going to read the script that night. One of the three called my house and left a message not to sign with anyone until I talked to her, but I did talk to Kevan Lyon and signed with, and that was that.

How long was I looking for an agent before that? Seven years!

It's great to pitch a book, but you also have to have written a good story. If the writing isn't good, you've wasted a huge opportunity. I felt good about the writing but even that changed after the New York Pitch Conference when I talked to the editors and saw things in my pitch they responded positively to. For example, in the story the protagonist's mother is an Appalachian version of Judy Garland (the lounge singer, not Dorothy Gale.) The editors really liked that, so I came home and punched that up throughout the book and opened the first chapter with a great scene complete with Mama, which got me a lot of looks from agents.

AWC: What series of events got this over the top and signed with a top literary agency?

Kim: What made the difference for me was the conference. After having an agent who passed away and then inheriting one who really didn't want me, the idea of pitching directly to publishing house editors in New York was very appealing. I was able to finally sign with a great agent because of the first paragraph of my query letter which noted the publishers at the conference who were enthused about my novel. And she's interested in the new book I'm writing about a lady cop down in the Low Country who finds redemption from her own past by helping a victim of black market adoption. Lots of strong Southern women, snappy dialogue, and set in the Charleston, SC area which is hot thanks to Pat Conroy, Dorthea Benton Frank, and everybody in between who writes about the Low Country.

AWC: What is your next book about? It feels like a series could develop from this.

Kim: There might be, the protagonist and her best friend were very appealing to all the agents who read the story.

AWC: When can the staff of Algonkian Writer Conferences come to South Carolina and sample some of your cooking?

Kim: Boykinshecook.Com is about two of my great obsessions, WRITING (check out my new post "Lessons From My Childhood About Writing") and FOOD. So if you all make it down this way, just give me a little heads up so I set enough places at the table. Y'all come!


Why Do Passionate Writers Fail to Publish - Part V


The most common form of morale loss occurs at such time the writer finally realizes their efforts are not nearly as good as they suspected. The writer returns to a favorite slice of scene or prose, seeking to admire, build confidence, only to discover their source of confidence has gone stale and awkward, perhaps even offensive. So what has happened?

Writers who fail to understand that such realizations are necessary watersheds (and they happen to all writers!) and indicators of growth, become disillusioned. They quit ... Even worse, they might fail to see the shortcomings in their efforts and proceed to infect everyone with the work, thus resulting in rooms full of averted eyes and frozen smiles.

The second biggest cause of morale loss results from zero success in selling the novel. It's been dragging on for years. The novel ms has been shopped around to thousands of agents. No one is buying and feedback is confusing (because boilerplate comes in various forms). The "novel" now rests like a one ton anchor on the writer's desk (awaiting rope and neck)--eight years later and still not ready despite several restarts and who knows how many total drafts!

So it's time to find an able assist or else start a new project.  It's rare that a first-time author gets published without having endured several novel projects ahead of time.  They keep at it till something works.  Tenacity wins in this biz.


New York Pitch Writers Score With Publishing House Editors

A film from Algonkian Writer Conferences re The New York Pitch. Writers here use the pitch tail to wag the novel dog, i.e., by the time they've run a gauntlet of editors all dissecting their work, they've got a pretty good idea of how to write the kind of novel they can finally pitch.

Link at


Algonkian Writer Conferences Interview With Celia Johnson of Grand Central

 Celia Johnson is an associate editor at Grand Central Publishing. She focuses on suspense, mysteries, commercial nonfiction, and even dabbles in high concept horror. Her titles include M.C. Beaton's cozy mysteries, legendary director George Romero's novels inspired by the universe of his classic films, as well as an examination of the "zombie world" by a Harvard professor, and an oral pop culture history of the Mickey Mouse Club, WHY? BECAUSE WE LIKE YOU!  She's currently looking for suspense novels and mysteries that have the potential to crossover successfully into the general fiction marketplace. She's also on the lookout for quirky pop culture titles and narrative nonfiction with high commercial appeal.
AC: Do you see platform becoming more important these days for certain types of fiction. And if so, what kinds?  What do you look for in the way of platform when in the office, or at a conference listening to a writer pitch you their work? And can you give us writers some tips in this area?

CJ: Unfortunately, platform is important for every type of fiction.  It isn’t simply a matter of writing a terrific book (though that doesn’t hurt).  From a publishing perspective, editors have to take platform into consideration because our goal is to sell as many books as possible.  If an author has a strong platform, it means that they have already assembled a group of potential readers.  That said, we also help authors build platforms (by reaching out for blurbs, establishing a presence for them online, etc) if we think a book is truly amazing.  So there is still hope if you don’t have a strong platform just yet.

AC: As you know, we train writers to examine the most vital fictional elements in their novels from the inside out, and quite frequently, if the premise or plot or characters are lacking in some manner, that fact comes through in workshop discussions and presents itself in need of a fix. Though we can't always fix everything, which fictional elements do you like to hear clicking soundly in a pitch communication, those that enable you as an editor make a decision as to whether or not the project has commercial potential?  Can you summarize the elements and tell us which ones are most important to you, and why? 

CJ: I’m always on the lookout for a strong, unique narrative voice and a great premise.  Everything else, in my mind, is malleable.  An editor can help you add depth to your characters by pointing out what elements are missing.  If you have a meandering plot, an editor can help you streamline the story.  But an engaging narrative voice is something that should come directly from the writer.  And I think a unique voice is what sets bestsellers apart from midlist titles—readers gravitate to a fresh narrative perspective.  Similarly, a strong hook helps a book stand out in the crowded fiction marketplace.

AC: Have you found it a valuable or rewarding experience to engage in discussions with writers about their projects?  Do you feel such discussions about characters and plot, etc., help the writers focus on the truly vital issues they need to hash through before they can become published authors? 

CJ: I always find it valuable to speak directly with writers, and I hope they feel the same way.  It’s important for writers to understand who editors are and what they value.  I also think that when a writer is forced to speak about their work, they discover more about what they feel is vital and important.  Every editor is going to have a different opinion about what ingredients are necessary for a great book, so it is important to establish your own set of values too.

AC: It seems axiomatic over time that publishers prefer, if possible, to market novels with great stories and characters, and that it behooves an aspiring author in most genres to attempt, insofar as possible, to create a story that is "high concept", i.e., commercially viable yet not sounding like a tale you've heard a few thousand times, or worse yet, one that everyone knows has failed in the marketplace. Can you discuss this?  How important is a story that sounds unique while also flying a banner of potential commercial success?  Or is "mid" or "low concept" equally acceptable as long as the prose is superb, as one might find in more literary novels? Or does it naturally depend on the genre?

CJ: I don’t think that “high concept” is absolutely necessary.  A great hook does help a book stand out in the fiction marketplace, which is why editors tend to look for high concept material.  That said, great storytelling is also valuable.

AC: How important are a writer's fiction writing credentials in the genres you represent?  Are you more or less likely to ask to see a project if the writer has strong fiction creds? What are your standards?  Do you balance creds against a great story or are both equally important?

CJ: Even though I said that platform is important, I’ll take an excellent manuscript by an author with no platform over a lackluster novel by a big name any day.  I concentrate on mysteries and thrillers at Grand Central, and I’m always on the lookout for authors that we can grow.  In order to really build a debut writer, you need an incredible manuscript, the type of book that you can tell your publicists and sales force that they won’t be able to put it down.  So, while credentials might help me take notice of a writer, I won’t skip over a manuscript just because an author doesn’t have a long list of awards, publications, or degrees.

AC: What other great advice can you give the aspiring authors out there?  What is important to you that we have yet cover?

CJ: Don’t let rejection get you down.  It’s part of the business.  All of the great writers out there were rejected again and again.  To be successful in publishing, you need to believe in your writing and forge ahead.

AC: In general, what do you see as the future of novel-length fiction, both in terms of quality, and in terms of evolution away from paper?  Will bookstores always have a place in American culture? 

CJ: I think novel-length fiction will always have a place in the marketplace and American culture.  That said, the online realm is opening exciting new opportunities for short fiction, and that’s where the next frontier of publishing lies.


Reasons That Passionate Writers Fail to Publish - Part IV

Whether the source is an article, a friend, spouse, another writer, or panel at a writer's conference, the writer has been told something that steered them wrong, or built a false expectation, or made them believe a man-bites-dog story will happen to them. For example, a writer with a manuscript in need of a good final editing once told us, "Not to worry. The publishing house editor or the agent will complete the edit for me." We explained that would not happen--not for a first novelist with zero track record (plus the story was uninspiring and loaded to ache with deja-vu). This woman needed pragmatic advice on the subject of ms prep (among other things).  Without it, she was doomed.

Another piece of incredibly bad advice often heard from egoistic writers or agents: "Writers are born, not made." This is simply not true. A clever, determined writer who shelves the ego and seeks to research and learn their craft will succeed. Tenacity wins.
A few more painful burrs:
  • Don't do flashbacks (imperative to use them artfully, not reject them out of hand!)
  • Don't use italics (tell Faulkner or Joyce--also use artfully, not overdo)
  • Don't worry about the setting of your narrative hook (wrong--if your opening scene is a cliche your ms will die on the first page, e.g., please don't open at a funeral or in a car or plane)
  • Don't switch viewpoints in the same scene (wrong--it can be done, artfully, and as long as the reader understands the rules--read THE BED OF NAILS by Luisa Gomes.
  • Editors are less concerned with the novel premise than they are with the writing itself  (wrong--you can write like a cross between T.S. Eliot and Annie Proulx, but if the premise doesn't sound sufficiently market friendly or high concept, it doesn't make a jot of difference--the concept cajoles the read, then the words take over).  More than ever, editors are focused on the bottom line and the book stores howl for commercial sales!

Read Gail Godwin and Learn to Ruminate

The Ruminations of Gail Godwin
Gail Godwin excels at observing and ruminating on the human condition. Much of the power of her narrative depends on her ability to create interesting characters whom she then dissects. The following excerpts are from her novel, Evensong, the story of Margaret Bonner, the pastor of a church in a small town, and how she interprets and reacts to the characters in her life.

"Would Gus and Charles, as involved in their building and doctoring as Adrian and I were in our school mastering and pastoring, be able to live up to the words better than we were doing? I hoped so. I hoped so for their sakes. I sketched a Celtic cross in the left-hand corner of the card and began shading in the background. What had happened to Adrian and me? In my more pragmatic moods, I tried to settle for the practical explanation: our jobs were making so much of us that we had not time left to make much of each other. But by nature I wasn‘t a pragmatist; I was a digger, a delver into complexities."

"At the bottom of my father‘s Slough of Despond, I now realized, had burbled a dependable tiny wellspring of lugubrious self-love: somehow he had been at ease lolling in his melancholy. Whereas at the bottom of Adrian‘s despondence, I had discovered, lay a flinty bedrock of self-hatred. But if my father had been something of a loller, my husband was a fighter: his whole history testified to this. He‘d work hard and achieve a profession, then heed a call to a fuller use of his potential, bravely pull himself up by the roots, and expand his skills: from Chicago to Zurich, from Zurich to seminary, from seminary to the church, from church to this experimental school in the mountains of western North Carolina. ―A falling short of your totality‖ was how he had defined sin on the day I met him in my father‘s garden, and he was still at work trying to fill out his own totality. But then there‘d be an emotional setback—the death of my father, the death of our unborn daughter, the death of Dr. Sandlin—and, whereas anyone would be plunged into grief, he plunged beyond grief, right back down to that hard, cold floor of self-hate."

"As I laid aside the new sermon note card before I cluttered it with doodles, my gaze was arrested by old Farley‘s moon painting, which hung between the two windows in my study: Every time I looked at it I of course thought of Madelyn and the changes she had wrought on our family simply by walking into our house and being Madelyn Farley and walking out again the next morning with my mother. But the painting itself remained a rich source of contemplation for me. That round white disk riding the night sky between its trail of bright clouds had been created on a dark, freezing porch by an ill-humored old man who in his last years had become fixated on the moon. Why? Because its fast-rising, elliptical variations were so hard to trap in pigment and water? Or were all his moonscapes (conscious or unconscious) an exercise in self-portraiture: obsessive studies of a cold, hard, cratered, dark thing, like himself, that nevertheless had been endowed with the capacity to reflect light and beauty?"


Should Your Characters be Likable?

Touching on this matter of one or more characters turning a reader off, I want to say a few things. You NEVER have to worry whether or not the reader "likes" your main character--or any of your characters for that matter. You only have to worry that the reader "knows" enough about your character to have an emotional investment in what happens to her. Readers who put down books because they don't like the characters are not very good readers, so you don't want them anyway. I've heard editors at major publishers say they do not want a particular book because the character is not "likable," so the philistines are on the march and it's clear the woods are burning. But it's a rigorously stupid idea that we should "like" the characters we read about. If that were actually true, we could instantly eliminate fully half of the world's great literature and forget about it, starting with Richard The III, and coming forward to Portnoy and "Rabbit" Angstrom.

I worked really hard to make the main character in A Hole in the Earth a 39 year-old case of arrested development. And I've had people tell me they threw the book across the room they disliked him so much. One former teacher (and grandmother, she hastened to tell me) said, "I don't want to waste my time reading about such a person." I said to her, "What do you want? Stories about wonderful people and the nice things they do and think, and where they went to do them and all the things they saw and what they ate?" Really serious fiction, humorous or not, is about real people--human, flawed and quirky people--in real trouble and it traces what they try to do about it, or not do. It isn't about success, or goodness, or badness, or justice or mercy, or love, or kindness, or cruelty or bestiality, or any other thing. It's about life. All of it. Good and bad. And it does not concern itself with whether or not the reader is either comfortable or happy. It only concerns itself with what is true, pure and simple. John Updike once said that the action of reading is so private, and such a quiet exchange between writer and reader that as writers we have an obligation to be as truthful as we can; as truthful as we'd be in our own thoughts to ourselves.

I am so tired of the pea-brained idea that the reader has to be made happy or pleased by what we write. Readers who believe that are people who make demands on their reading: they say things like, "I only read mysteries," or "I like detective stories," or whatever. They are narrow, usually not very interesting, and what they say and think about other kinds of work is almost always not worth listening to. We should let our reading make demands on us; we should read as widely and eclectically as we can, as many different kinds of books as we can: poetry, fiction of every stripe and kind, non-fiction, biography, history, anthropology and so on.

It is how we prepare as writers.

If I’m reading a novel about a young woman named Elizabeth, I will care about her if I feel like I know her. I don't have to be a woman, a young girl, or even American, to respond to her. I will want what she wants because SHE wants it; I will fear what she fears, because SHE fears it; I will hope for what she hopes for because SHE hopes for it, and so on.

Here are six basic principles to remember and apply in order to read wisely and well:

1.) An author is usually NOT his narrator, or any of his characters.

2.) An author does not put things in his story or poem to stump the reader. Or to “get a point across.” What we find in stories and poems—the metaphors or symbols, or themes or whatever—comes from a waking dream, the author’s unconscious mind at work. Most authors don’t insert secret meanings or messages any more than you insert those things in your dreams. When you dream, what is there, is there. You respond to it by dealing with its possible meanings, without asking yourself what you intended. You didn’t intend anything. You didn’t put anything in your dream on purpose. You simply dreamt something. The author doesn’t intend anything either.

3.) You don’t have to like or approve of a character to identify with him or her.You only have to be engaged in what happens to the character. We become engaged in the characters of a work of fiction the more we know about them. Rembember the O.J. Simpson trial? We were interested in that not because our interests are puerile, (if he were an obscure plumber who lived out there we never would have heard of him or the crime) but because most of us felt we knew him--or at least enough about him to be interested in what happened to him.

4.) Most authors work very hard to make their characters real, human, quirky and alive. And, in some cases, deeply flawed. The character’s flaws are not the author’s flaws. I have had people tell me they put a book down or threw it across the room because of what a character did or said in it. This is a profound act of closed mindedness and misunderstanding about the purposes of literature. We do not read literature so that it will present us with characters we approve of, who say things we like to hear and tell us wonderful things about ourselves, and how beautiful and perfect the world is; we don’t read literature to recognize our own vision of the world. Literature is about people in trouble, and it is usually trouble where action makes no difference; where we are helpless. And if it is worthy literature, it is peopled with characters who we don’t like and who say things we don’t like to hear.

5.) Most novels and poems are not autobiographical. Unless study proves otherwise, we should assume a writer writes with his experience, not about it.

6.) We don’t have to approve of what a writer’s vision is to appreciate it. One does not have to be an athiest, to appreciate the work of Albert Camus, who was. One does not have to adopt Camus’ rejection of God, in order to understand that he is doing that. It is foolishly ignorant to reject Camus’ work because he rejects God; or to condemn Hemingway’s novels because he was “macho.” It is rigorously stupid to disapprove of Kate Chopin’s work because she was a feminist, or Ann Rynd’s novels because she was a materialist. I hope I don’t have to tell you how small a mind has to be to reject Walt Whitman’s poetry because he was gay. We read to understand the other, as well as ourselves in relation to the other. We do not read to have everything we believe about the world confirmed, but rather to test what we believe against all of its opposites and oppositions. We read to widen our awareness of the world, not to constrict it. In other words we read to learn not to name things so readily, and to see what we can see, and we judge a work of literature based on what IT is, not on what WE are.


Algonkian Writer Conferences: Narrative Enhancement via Nabokov

A snapshot below from the Algonkian Writer Conference Competitive Fiction Guide on the subject of learning the craft of narrative enhancement from a variety of successful authors. This example features Nabokov.

Nabokov’s narrative in Lolita pushes forward largely due to his gift for discerning meaning and detail in everyday life (which is necessary since Humbert H. is a hard character to cheer on) and reporting it with the flair of a phenomenal writer. Basically, however, you can break Nabokov’s categories into observations, ruminations, and fantasy.  Here we see examples as Humbert wanders a department story looking to buy underwear for Lolita:

Narrator observes the behavior and quirks of others: "The painted girl in black who attended to all these poignant needs of mine turned parental scholarship and precise description into commercial euphemisms, such as petite. Another, much older woman in a white dress, with a pancake make-up, seemed to be oddly impressed by my knowledge of junior fashions; perhaps I had a midget for a mistress …"

Fantasy:  "I sensed strange thoughts form in the minds of the languid ladies that escorted me from counter to counter, from rockledge to seaweed, and the belts and the bracelets I chose seemed to fall from siren hands into transparent water."

Reporting bits and bits, things upon things: "Goodness, what crazy purchases were prompted by the poignant predilection Humbert has in those days for check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, soft pleats, snug-fitting bodices … Swimming suits? We have them in all shades. Dream pink, frosted aqua, glans mauve, tulip red, oolala black."

Ruminations on the ability of objects and organizations to affect human life: "There is a touch of the mythological and the enchanted in those large stores where according to ads a career girl can get a complete desk-to-date wardrobe, and where little sister can dream of the day when her wool jersey will make the boys in the back row of the classroom drool."

Surreal metaphor:  "Lifesize plastic figures of snubbed-nosed children with dun-colored, greenish, brown-dotted, faunish faces floated around me. I realized I was the only shopper in that rather eerie place where I moved about fish-like, in a glaucous aquarium."

The type and quality of narrative here is obviously dependent to a large extent on the personality of the narrator continuously engaged in filtering and interpreting the environs. The narrator chooses to focus on things which interest him, comments on behavior he finds odd or objectionable, reveals his fantasies, etc. So what do you as a writer learn from this?  By placing a specific character with well defined traits at an event, or in the presence of something which must be described or experienced, you render that event or object in such a way as to reflect the character’s mindset, biases, emotion, beliefs, and perceptions.

Also, when considering the creation of complex narrative filtered through the mind of a suitable character, you would be well advised to use the Nabokov approach we see above.  In other words, before you begin to write the scene, first sketch the scene and it's parts, then brainstorm each nuance and part by creating a fantasy, an observation, an associative flow of thought, etc.  Keep a journal of these author ruminations and parcel them into the scene as necessary at such time you write the first draft.  Later, this manner of brainstorming a narrator's mind will come naturally to you.

Therefore, choice of character viewpoint when rendering an entire work, or a scene, or a chapter can be critical.  Consider carefully!

It could make the difference between a mediocre novel and a great novel.