Monday

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.




Friday

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, thewisdomofhair.com 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 boykinshecook.com and a website kimboykin.com. 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!



Thursday

Why Do Passionate Writers Fail to Publish - Part V


MORALE LOSS.

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.

Friday

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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtVFhjTAlnU



Tuesday

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.

Monday

Reasons That Passionate Writers Fail to Publish - Part IV

BAD ADVICE
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?"

Wednesday

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.

Tuesday

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.

Saturday

Reasons That Passionate Novel Writers Fail to Publish - Part III

EGO TIMES TEN. 
 Hubris itself will not let you be an artist.

We realize a certain amount of ego is necessary to propel a writer forward, but too much ego is a disaster waiting to happen.  The overly egoistic writer is puffed, living in a state of I-know-better. She or he is therefore incapable of successfully editing their work. Friends, relatives, or agents printing out boilerplate replies have told them their writing is good, and their story interesting; and to make the situation even more complicated and susceptible to causing delusion, perhaps the writer is a big success in their other career, so why shouldn't they also know-it-all when it comes to writing a novel?  See our video post on this blog: SO YOU WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL.

We once had a successful venture capitalist person hand us their 15 page synopsis and the first few pages of their novel. The synopsis was absurdly long and unable to summarize the story in any interesting way; and the first couple of novel pages needed a good line editing because the prose was inadequate and one tended to speedbump over at least one awkward sentence per paragraph. Of course, these facts were unknown to the venture capitalist (and forever will be--who is going to tell him, IUniverse?). This person presented us the work with a grand TA DAH!, expecting corroboration.  Isn't that what he received from everyone else in the universe?

Well, of course, irritation set in when we tactfully pointed out shortcomings. This person also did not believe us when we explained that the vast majority of agents would not, repeat NOT read that 15 page synopsis regardless (and if they did somehow manage to muck through it, the novel ms was DOA regardless).

So You Want to Write a Novel? Comic Video Portrays Writer Ego Mania.

This is funny, but it drives home some points. A must see.



Reasons That Passionate Novel Writers Fail to Publish - Part II

MISUNDERSTANDING THE MARKET.

Virtually every time you speak with a new writer (especially genre writers) you discover that she or he has not sufficiently researched their market. In other words, they don't have a clue as to what types of first novels are currently being published in their genre. Why is this important? Because first novels provide the writer with a concept of what the market is looking for. Also, it helps steer the writer away from starting a project that will be DOA on arrival due to being way way too deja-vu. Far too many writers make the Dan Brown mistake, i.e., they attempt to emulate a well published writer, falsely believing it will get them published. They don't understand that a privileged few can get away with horrible crimes and still be published. The writer needs to examine what types of first novels have been published in their genre over the past five years: investigate story types, settings, protagonists, etc. The research always yields productive results.

btw, we're not telling you to chase trends, but you must understand that certain types of story premise and characters, preferred viewpoints and more, change and evolve over time.  For example, the typical gumshoe detective of the past has been replaced by protagonists more exotic and diverse.  Terrorists and 911 stories are dead on arrival, and the thriller market overdosed on Nazis a long time ago, shortly after Allan Folsom's publisher launched THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW.  Historical cozy mysteries are more popular while Miss Marple's many clones have sent countless sad writers to shelve their manuscripts and return to their wage slave existence.

Keep in mind too that providing good comparables in your query letter can prove difficult if you are not well read in your genre. Also, if you ever meet with an agent or editor and they question you about your genre, or what you've read lately, you'll fall flat if you don't appear knowledgeable on the subject of what is hot and/or upcoming.

 

Reasons That Passionate Novel Writers Fail to Publish - Part I

INADEQUATE WRITING SKILLS OR STORYTELLING/ STRUCTURE PROBLEMS.

In the case of the former, the writing itself does not display the energy, creativity, and polish necessary to convince an agent to go deeper. This is perhaps the number one cause of failure (and obvious on the first page). Usually, the writer is not aware--or at least, not sufficiently aware to enable productive change. Perhaps this is a first stab at fiction, she or he not realizing that tech or law or medical writing ill prepares one. Also, the writer does not know a good editor or reader, and therefore, has never received truly helpful crit. Or perhaps an ego obstacle is the issue. Also, we have the "birthed baby" phenomenon: the writer has produced a passage, a character, or scene they can't possibly do away with. It is sacred to them. So it remains, defacing the narrative like a major pothole, jolting agents and publishers alike each time they meet it.

In the case of the storytelling/structure issue, the writer may be very accomplished at connecting the word dots. The agent or publisher gives it a good read then backs off. Why? Well, the story goes nowhere. It is insufficiently interesting, quiet, or perhaps even confusing. Just recently a fine writer handed us a sample of his ms. His prose skill kept us turning, but finally, we bogged down on characters who spun endlessly in place, who never really took action or engaged in any reaction worth noting.

The Novel Structure Checklist - Issues to Consider When Writing Your Novel

Some basics here for thinking about your novel.  This works for all genres.
  • Is your novel hook the best you can create?  Is your very first line a thud or a grabber?
  • Do you have sufficient story for a whole novel?  Many writers have a story, but not enough for a novel, and they begin to stretch it too thin just to fill up the white space.
  • Are the major plot lines mapped? Do you at least have a general idea of the major source of dramatic tension or complication?
  • Have you sketched out your major scenes or at least have a good idea how many and what type of major scenes you will need to portray the major novel elements and characters?
  • How does theme relate? Do you have a firm theme statement? Is it relevant to the major complication of the story? 
  • Have you used narrative enhancement techniques and devices as necessary and appropriate given the scene, story, and relevant circumstance?
  • Are suspense devices injected as appropriate and necessary, both on a macro and micro scale? (Remember the value of a good topic sentence, something even experienced writers sometimes forget! Ideal for setting suspense tone.)
  • Have you satisfied the "Art of Fiction"? If your wordsmithing is less than Annie Proulx-like, is your content original and dynamic enough to drive the narrative forward, to keep the reader reading? Especially important for genre writers.
  • Are your most important events within the story crafted in fictive present? 
  • Is padding eliminated? Does every character, slice of dialogue, and scene serve a purpose?
  • Is your story original, high-concept for your genre market? If you're not sure, why not?

Monday

Algonkian Writer Conferences Interviews Christine Pride of Broadway Books

Christine Pride is an Editor at Broadway Books, where she publishes a range of fiction, memoir and narrative non-fiction including the New York Times bestseller, TELL ME WHERE IT HURTSs by Nick Trout, the SF Chronicle bestseller THE CRYING TREE by Naseem Rakha, Commonwealth Prize winner, THE END OF THE ALPHABET by SC Richardson and the critically acclaimed MR. SEBASTIAN AND THE NEGRO MAGICIAN, by Daniel Wallace. She loves powerful storytelling and discovering and nurturing exciting new voices.  


AC: These days it appears more and more true that for various genres of fiction aspiring authors often have an edge in getting a first novel published if they possess an authentic platform for telling the story, i.e., a media platform, or at least one of sufficient experience and expertise that applies in a significant way to the essence of the work.  For example, the author of one of our recent successes at the NYC Pitch, Lipstick in Afghanistan, would fit easily into the category above.

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?

CP: Yes, I would agree that for better or for worse, platform is more important than ever in giving debut writers an edge in the publishing process.   As editors and publishers, when we fall in love with a book, our very first questions are, “who is the audience?” and “how will we reach them?”   When an author has a built-in fan base already, via their blog, twitter feed or the popularity of their freelance writings, it gives us that initial leg up and foundation which is an attractive element to the overall package.   Having a platform also proves to the publisher that the author is a savvy self-promoter and will be a vital partner with the publishing house in terms of promoting the book in traditional and social media outlets.  Which is not to say that you can’t write and successfully publish a beautiful book without a platform or without 20,000 twitter followers—that can and does happen every day-- it just means that if you are able and inclined to do some social media networking in advance of trying to sell your book, it could really work to your advantage.

AC: As you know, at the New York Pitch 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?  

CP: As an editor, when I sit and listen to or read pitches/queries I am looking for three things.  1.  A unique idea that appears to be well thought out in terms of why (as precisely as possible) an intended audience will respond to the book.  2.  A summary/query which itself is written in such a way so as to indicate that the author has the chops to write the proposed book.  If there are grammar issues or misspellings in the pitch or the summary itself is not cogent and if the three or so paragraphs aren’t written in such a way as to entice me, then I won’t be left with the confidence that the writer could write 300 more paragraphs that would entice me.  3.  The author is confident, personable and open to feedback.  In this day and age, authors are required to interact with their readers and fans more than ever before to be successful, so it’s important to have a sense that a potential author can relate well to other people and will be comfortable speaking in front of audiences.  And that he or she is going to be open to editorial feedback and be a willing participant in the collaborative nature of the whole publication process.

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?

CP: Absolutely, one of the joys of being an editor is to work with writers on refining their ideas and think creatively about plot and characters.   I love brainstorming the what if’s when it comes to a particular character’s journey or motivations and brainstorming plot ideas.  A good editor, based on experience and instinct, will know intuitively what will work and what won’t in terms of a plot point or premise.  We also have an understanding of the marketplace as a whole and know what ideas and sensibilities are “trending” so to speak—what particular types of works and conceits will meet with an enthusiastic response from readers.   So yes, it’s very rewarding to click with an author and feel that you’ve helped them shape an idea or inspired them to try a different approach—that sort of collaborative effort is the very cornerstone of the author/editorial relationship.

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?

CP: It may be too idealistic of me, but I like to think truly good books find their way.   Sure, we’re all looking for something that has a stand out angle or a high concept approach because that can make the marketing of the book a little more clear cut and easier.   But there are only so many new stories, and what’s important is being able to tell a story, any story, well.   For me, that involves great prose, a strong emotional resonance and compelling story-telling (good pacing, strong characters, a narrative drive that keeps me turning pages).   I always tell authors not to worry so much about whether their book is “literary” or “commercial” or if it’s “romance” or “women’s fiction”—writers should write the very best book they can, that comes from a creative, organic place—the story that is bursting out of them-- and leave it to editors and publishers to figure out how to package and market that book to an audience. 

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?

CP: Fiction writing credentials can be an attractive part of a writer’s overall platform.   Getting published in established and respected literary journals is a nice component to an author’s resume—not essential but it helps.   A very compelling and well-written story?  That is first and foremost what is essential.

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

CP: It’s harder than ever to be a writer these days. I don’t say that to be discouraging but because it’s the hard truth.   I think you have to balance that reality with a commitment to your craft, a whole, whole lot of patience and perseverance and a true sense of *fun*.   You should write because you enjoy writing, first and foremost.  You should also read a lot (I’m shocked by the number of aspiring writers who aren’t themselves avid readers) and you should be committed to refining your craft.    As with singing, or playing the piano, or skiing, practice and dedication is the only path towards improvement.  But mainly, again—have fun and enjoy the process.

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?  

CP: As I said, I’m a true optimist.  I think physical books will always exist and be cherished by readers and I think bookstores will always exist to sell the books and to serve as a gathering place for communities of readers.    I simply can’t bear to think of a world where they don’t and everyone reads off machines.   Yuk.

Algonkian Writer Conferences Interviews Caitlin Alexander of Random House

Caitlin Alexander is a senior editor at the Random House Publishing Group, where she acquires and edits a variety of fiction and nonfiction. Her authors include New York Times bestsellers Michelle Richmond (THE YEAR OF FOG), David Gibbins (THE LOST TOMB), Andy McDermott (THE HUNT FOR ATLANTIS), and Gwen Cooper (HOMER'S ODYSSEY); Angela Davis-Gardner (PLUM WINE and the forthcoming BUTTERFLY'S CHILD), Sally Koslow (the forthcoming WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE), national bestseller Elizabeth Joy Arnold (PIECES OF MY SISTER'S LIFE), and International Thriller Writers Award winner Tom Piccirilli (SHADOW SEASON). 

AC: These days it appears more and more true that for various genres of fiction aspiring authors often have an edge in getting a first novel published if they possess an authentic platform for telling the story, i.e., a media platform, or at least one of sufficient experience and expertise that applies in a significant way to the essence of the work.

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?

CA: I do see a platform as being more important for fiction these days—for general fiction or literary fiction more so than for genre fiction. One of the first questions I ask a writer I'm considering is: What inspired you to write this book? What I'm looking for is some kind of personal or professional connection to the subject that's going to make an interesting story in and of itself and that we can use to help promote the book, including pitching essays to media outlets and blogs. There's a lot of competition for readers' attentions, so anything that can make the book stand out will help.

The corollary is that readers and reading groups want—and expect—to connect with authors personally these days—so, having a great personal story is going to make someone feel like they've gotten to know you a little bit and probably make them more interested in reading your book. Social networking is a big part of that—an author is going to really have to put him or herself out there these days and become as visible and networked—both within the literary community and with readers—as possible. I also consider that to be part of the "platform" necessary for fiction authors these days—if a writer comes to me as an active participant in a blogging community relevant to their book, or with other similar ongoing activities, I know I don't have to worry about whether or not they'll be an asset in spreading the word about their book when it's published—it automatically gives a writer a leg up.

Advice: Presumably your novel contains a topic you are passionate about (baking, photography, a medical disorder, traveling to Paris, etc.)--or at least one you were interested enough in to spend several months or more writing about. Don’t wait for a book deal to seek out other people online or organizations who are interested in the same topic(s) you are. And just as every writer should be an expert reader, reading the books that are similar to yours and studying why they’re working (or not), check out what kinds of things published writers are doing and which seem to be garnering the most response.

AC: 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?

CA: As I’m listening to a pitch, I’m listening for characters who grow over the course of a novel, a plot that has something big at stake (which can equally be something in the characters’ personal lives or saving the world from a disaster), and button pushers, by which I mean the things that I’m going to be able to put in the cover copy that are going to make someone reading the description instantly want to pick that book up: a missing child, three generations of women, a famous historical or literary figure, a boyhood secret suddenly resurfacing—to name just a few of my favorites. Of course, the catch is that I’m also listening for what an author brings to the story that’s unique and is going to make it stand out from dozens of other books with similar hooks.

AC: Have you found it a valuable or rewarding experience for you, the editor, 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?

CA: Absolutely—if the author is listening and is open to feedback. I think the writers who benefit most are the ones who are interested in improving their craft and their chances of being a successful author—not just a published author.

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?

CA: Aha, I think I touched on this above—“a story that sounds unique while also flying a banner of potential commercial success” is critical, in my opinion. But superbly written literary novels that don’t initially appear to have that high concept usually do—it’s in the breathtakingly resonant insights those novels offer into our lives and our interactions with those around us; the way they make us think “I knew that” and “I never thought of it that way” at the same time. There’s a way to position and sell those novels, too.

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?

CA: Unless those credentials are for top-notch literary publications or well known movies or TV shows (or, even for fiction, journalism for top magazines or newspapers), it doesn’t make a difference. Regardless of past writing, it’s going to come down to how strong this particular book is. Past writing credentials are an asset if it’s an affiliation with a publication that’s going to have a meaningful impact on publicity, but otherwise they don’t play a significant role. That said, it never looks bad, so always include them!

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

CA: The opportunity to pitch your novel at a conference or participate in a writing group—in general, to get any sort of objective feedback on your writing—is invaluable. It’s easy for an author to self-publish these days if they don’t immediately find an agent or publisher, and while for some that’s a good route, I think too often writers want to rush to publish and use it as a substitute for honing their craft. Perseverance is key—and there are a lot of inspiring stories out there of successful authors’ routes from unpublished to published; for most of them it wasn’t their first (or sometimes second or third) manuscript that got them an agent or editor, because they took the time to become the best writers they could be.

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?

CA: I don’t think novel-length fiction is in any danger of disappearing. One thing I’ve been fascinated by over the past few years is the increase in novels which are actually, in structure, linked short stories—there’s been a wealth of really terrific ones, and I’m loving that writers have figured out a way to work around the difficulties of selling short story collections.

Will bookstores always have a place? I would certainly like to think so, and that physical books and e-books will coexist for a long time to come. The more our interactions move into online and digital, the more special those opportunities to get out and connect in person become.

Friday

Algonkian Writer Conferences Interview Series with Editors: Dana Isaacson of Random House

Algonkian Writer Conferences talks platform, passion, and craft with Dana I.

Dana Edwin Isaacson is a Senior Editor with the Random House Publishing Group, where he edits both fiction and non-fiction. He has worked as an abridger, a writer and a literary agent. He has also been an editor at ReganBooks, St. Martin’s Press and Pocket Books.

AC: These days it appears more and more true that for various genres of fiction aspiring authors often have an edge in getting a first novel published if they possess an authentic platform for telling the story, i.e., a media platform, or at least one of sufficient experience and expertise that applies in a significant way to the essence of the work. For example, the author of one of our recent successes at the New York Pitch Conference, Lipstick in Afghanistan, would fit easily into the category above.

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?

DI: Regardless of their book’s category, an author’s platform has become ever more crucial in the brave new world of electronic publishing. If your book is published as an ebook, how is the consumer to find that book and purchase it? Owners of ereaders very well might not stroll down the bookstore aisle and pick up what catches their eye. Instead, new and innovative ways must be found to connect authors and readers. This is the sort of marketing that many introverted writers have difficulty mastering, but without a doubt online communities, personal blogs, or alternate outreach strategies can be extremely useful in boosting an author or a specific project’s visibility. If an author has sensible strategies to reach potential readers, they have a leg up on the competition.

AC: 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?

DI: With a commercial novel, the emphasis must always be on a well-structured narrative, one that unflaggingly keeps the reader engaged. When a proposed book idea sounds gimmicky or cluttered with explanations rather than an absorbing or rollicking good story, I start to tune out. The emphasis must always be on story: it should be unique, the characters should resonate with the reader, and it should be resolved in an fashion that is both satisfying for the reader and that makes sense within the construct of the narrative.

AC: 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?

DI: Nothing thrills most writers more than talking about their creations, and such discussions are incredibly valuable. An isolated writer at his or her desk can overlook narrative problems that are obvious to others. Obviously the more feedback an author receives the better. 

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?

DI: For a novel to be truly successful, a high concept idea must be secondary to a satisfying plot. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Ultimately, a publisher is skeptical when hearing you have an idea that is as good or better than “The Da Vinci Code.” A clever concept within any genre might grab a reader, but an absorbing narrative will win a reader’s loyalty. Publishers want to be convinced that your novel’s story absorbs the reader like “The Da Vinci Code,” that its well-constructed narrative causes readers to flip the pages as fast as they would with a novel by Jody Picoult, or Janet Evanovich, Nicholas Sparks or Ian McEuen.

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?

DI: Writers learn how to write by writing a lot, so naturally an editor looks closer at a project from a writer whose past signifies discipline and a seriousness about the craft. Still, the past matters only so much. The question facing the editor at a pitch conference is: does this story sound like it will sell books tomorrow?

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

DI: Read as much as you can and learn. Join a writers group to get feedback for your work. Establish a writing routine and set deadlines. While of course publication is the dream of most writers’, also understand that the act of creation is the most satisfying part of the process. If you are serious about writing, you should do your best to enjoy the very long journey it takes to get published. Be Buddhist about the craft.

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?

DI: People will always love physical books, and I certainly hope there are always bookstores. One fantastic development that comes with electronic publishing is that length becomes less relevant. Works of fiction that would in the past have been too short or too long can now be marketed and sold. For example, if they can find their readership, publishers and writers can sell short stories for 99 cents. And of course there is a democratization that comes with electronic publishing, which is why the major publishers will remain relevant. As in the past, they will continue to be seen by book buyers as the gatekeepers for quality.