books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, January 31, 2010

12 Dos and Don'ts for Introducing your Protagonist

Welcome all my new followers. And thanks for all the comments!

This weekend I spoke at a local workshop for the mystery writers group, Sisters in Crime. My topic was “Introducing the Protagonist.” I thought I’d post some of my nuggets of wisdom here.

But remember: these are rules for the final draft. When you’re first diving into a novel, you’re not introducing your characters to a reader; you’re introducing them to yourself. All kinds of information about your MC will come up, like she eats cold pizza for breakfast, grew up next to an adult book store, and feels a deep hatred for Smurfs. This stuff will spill out in your first chapters. Let it. That’s the fun part. But be aware you’ll want to cut most of the information or move it to another part of the book when you edit.

When you’re doing that editing, here are some dos and don’ts:

DON’T start with a Robinson Crusoe opening. That’s when your character is alone and musing. Robinson Crusoe is boring until Friday shows up. So don’t snoozify the reader with a character driving alone in the car, sitting on an airplane, waking up and going to work, or looking in the mirror.

DO open with the protagonist in a scene with other characters—showing how he interacts with the world. Two or three is ideal: not too many or the reader will be overwhelmed.

DON’T give a lot of physical description, especially of the "police report" variety. All we know about Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice is that she has “fine eyes.” We don’t have to be told the color of Sam Spade’s hair, or Inspector Morse’s weight. The reader’s imagination fills in the blanks.

DO give us some physical markers that indicate personality. Unusual characteristics like Nero Wolfe’s size, Hercule Poirot’s mustache, and Miss Marple’s age show who these characters are and make them memorable.

DON’T plunge into action before introducing the characters. The introductions can be minimal, but they have to make us feel connected enough to these people to care. Example: If you hear some stranger got hit by a car—it’s sad, but you don’t have much curiosity about it. If you hear your next door neighbor’s mom got hit by a car, you want to know when, where, how badly she’s injured, etc.

DO give your MC strong emotions we can identify with in the opening scene. We don’t have to identify with the situation, but with the emotion: the fury he feels because his roommate keeps watching that DVD of the Smurfs, the desperate hunger from not eating anybody’s brains for weeks, or mortification because he has a run in his panty hose.

DON’T start with a POV character about to be killed or otherwise eliminated from the storyline. The reader will feel his time and sympathy have been wasted getting to know somebody irrelevant.

DO introduce the MC as close to page one as possible.

DON’T start with dialogue. Readers want to know who’s speaking before they’ll pay much attention to what they say. It’s just like real life: if strangers are shouting in the hallway, it’s noise. If you recognize the shouters as your boss and the hooker from 12B—you’re all ears.

DO let us know where we are and who’s speaking in couple of sentences before you let them start blabbering.

DON’T start with a prologue (see last week’s post below.) They annoy readers and infuriate agents.

DO dribble in your MC’s backstory in thoughts, conversations and mini-flashbacks--AFTER you’ve got us hooked by your MC and her story.

Yes, I know: lots of superb books break all these rules. But established writers can do an awful lot of fun stuff the rest of us can’t get away with. And it helps to know what the rules are before we go whacking at them with blunt instruments.

Monday, January 25, 2010

DON'T SHOOT YOURSELF IN THE FONT: KILL THAT PROLOGUE!

Beginning writers love prologues. My first novel had one. I’ll bet yours does too.

And why not? Prologues are the quickest way to set the scene and establish the mood and tone of your novel. They allow us to snuggle into a fictional world and get comfy before the action takes over, like listening to the overture of a symphony. We’ve read lots of good novels with prologues.

Although maybe we kind of skimmed them. Or skipped them. At least until after we got into the story. Or never read them at all. A recent poll of my writers’ group found only one person who actually reads the prologue first. What about you? Be honest.

Here are some reasons why prologues aren’t such a great idea.

1) People skip them. (See above.)

2) The reader has to start the story twice. Just as she’s getting into the story, she’s hurled to another time or place, often with a whole new set of characters. This is annoying. Annoy a reader at your peril.

3) When an agent asks for the first chapter, you’ve got a major dilemma. Send the actual chapter one—where the plot starts—or that gorgeous, poetic prologue?

4) Agents hates them, Precious, they HATES them. Here are some recent tweets on the subject:

From Colleen Lindsay:
“In pages that accompany queries, I have only once found an attached prologue to be necessary to the story.”

From Jenny Bent:
“At least 50% of prologues that I see in sample material don't work and aren't necessary. Make sure there's a real reason to use one.”

From Ginger Clark:
“Prologues: I am, personally, not a fan. I think they either give away too much, or ramp up tension in a kind of "cheating" manner.”

And in an article for Writer’s Digest earlier this year, Chuck Sambuchino quoted two agents who gave their opinions even more bluntly.

From Andrea Brown:
“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”

From Laurie McLean:
“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give backstory chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”

Even the usually ultra-tactful Nathan Bransford blogged this:
“A prologue is 3-5 pages of introductory material that is written while the author is procrastinating from writing a more difficult section of the book.”

Ouch.

“But I spent like, months on it!” you wail. “It explains everything. My book NEEDS that prologue.

Does it really? Try removing it. Read chapter one. Does it make sense? Could you dribble in that backstory from the prologue into the story later—while the actual plot is going on?

Here’s what I’ve finally figured out. The prologue isn’t the overture: it’s the tuning-up—a warm-up for the WRITER. Like a character sketch, it belongs in your book journal—not the finished project.

So go ahead and write one to get your writing juices flowing. Use it to get to know your book’s basic elements. It can be mined later for character sketches, backstory and world building.

But EDIT IT OUT of the final draft.

Yes, I know it hurts. But you want agents and editors to fall in love with your work. So why—as Miss Snark was wont to say—shoot yourself in the font?

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Cutting out the prologue will make your novel stronger, too.

And it might just get you some literary representation.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

OMG I'M A GUEST BLOGGER ON NATHAN BRANSFORD'S BLOG!

This has been hard to keep under my cyberhat all week, but Nathan asked that winners keep the info off the internets until the big day. Which is TODAY.

So here it is: I'm one of the three winners of Nathan's guest blogger contest. You can read my post on Nathan's Blog.

In honor of any new readers who might tiptoe over here, I'm posting an updated version of one of my popular oldies. Following is additional information from comment on the initial post by blog-goddess/agent Janet Reid.

BEWARE BOGUS LITERARY AGENTS

Seven Tips to Avoid Getting Scammed, and a caveat from Janet Reid.

I belong to the generation of women who were told we were more likely be shot by terrorists than find husbands. Several decades later, we’re all writing books about our fabulous single lives—as desperate now for literary representation as we once were for the white dress/gold ring thing.

I haven’t seen statistics about the comparative likelihood of being shot by a terrorist vs. finding a literary agent, but given the global political climate, I’d say odds heavily favor the terrorists.

But I guess I can fantasize that someday I’ll be shot by a terrorist who works for Curtis Brown.

We can’t blame agents. We’re in this situation because there are only 438 members of the Association of Author’s Representatives in the U. S. while most of the 230 million of us who own computers have at least one novel in progress in the files. (If as many Americans bought books as wrote them, our situation wouldn’t be so dire.)

With such vast herds of us overpopulating the planet, it’s inevitable that we’ve attracted our share of predators. So here are six pointers to help you hang onto your dwindling cash reserves during this soul-crushing process (and no, publishing a few books with a small press to good reviews doesn’t do much to increase your chances of getting an agent’s attention—in fact it probably works against you—more on that in another post.)

1) NEVER PAY AN AGENT A “READING FEE” --Any agent who charges money to read your manuscript isn’t going to help your career. Publishers consider it unethical and won’t do business with them.If you have to pay somebody to read your book, it’s not ready for publication. If you’re a newbie, DO pay a qualified freelance editor or book doctor, but never with a promise of publication attached. They simply can’t deliver.

2) NEVER PAY “MAILING” CHARGES UP FRONT --A popular scam. Bogus agencies sign thousands of clients and charge them each $250 or more per quarter for “copying and mailing.” But they never make a sale. I’ve seen heartbreaking letters from writers who’ve lost as much as $3,000 before they caught on.Small agencies may legitimately ask for copying and mailing fees AFTER they’ve sent out your work, but they’ll provide proof they’re sending out your manuscript.

3) AVOID AGENCIES THAT ADVERTISE --A librarian friend recently forwarded me an intriguing ad from an agency advertising for submissions. I visited their refreshingly positive website and almost fell into the trap until I Googled them.They appeared on the list of “20 WORST AGENTS” at the Writer Beware site: http://www.sfwa.org/beware/twentyworst.html Do the math: agents don’t have to advertise.

4) CHECK OUT CLIENT LISTS --If there’s no client page on their website, run. Agents don’t keep client lists “confidential.” If they represent a literary star, they’ll pound their chests and bellow about it.

5) CHECK RECENT SALES --Even if somebody in the agency can claim to have represented Steven King, if it happened in King’s pre-Carrie days and she hasn’t sold anything since, don’t go there.

6) ASK HOW OFTEN THEY FORWARD REJECTION LETTERS --A good agent will always send on your rejections, usually every quarter. Some scammers do send manuscripts to publishing houses, but only in mass mailings addressed to no particular editor. Those go into recycling without a response.

7) VISIT WRITERS FORUMS WHERE AGENT INFORMATION IS SCREENED AND EXCHANGED --The site I visit daily is AgentQuery—the best site for up to the minute agent info and also a great forum for writers to exchange information. http://www.agentquery.com/And before you query an agent, make sure you check with those tireless watchdogs at Writer Beware http://www.sfwa.org/beware/index.html.And here are some other great web sites that can alert you to scammers:Preditors and Editors http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/Absolute Write http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/ Query Tracker http://www.querytracker.net/And do check the Association of Authors Representatives site http://www.aaronline.org/mc/page.do?sitePageId=9693&orgId=aar

But it’s important to note that an agent doesn’t have to be a member of AAR to be legitimate and even top-notch. New agents have to work for a certain number of years before they’re allowed to join—and it is the newer and hungrier agents who are reading queries from new writers and actively building their lists.

But most of all, don’t forget: Google is your friend. Check ’em out.

Janet Reid said...
Young and hungry agents who are looking for clients may indeed not be members of AAR, but what you can ask them (BEFORE SIGNING!) is what literary agency they have worked in. Interned in or worked in. I'm always rather taken aback by people who decide they can be literary agents without actually having been inside an agent's office.
July 15, 2009 12:18

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Listing Publishing Credits in your Query

Today agents Janet Reid and Colleen Lindsay have both blogged complaints about writers including extraneous publishing credits in their queries, so here are some guidelines:

Contests: Ms. Reid says agents do NOT want to hear about your 3rd place or hon. mention “wins”. It’s first place or nothing. She says if you didn’t win, you LOST, and it isn’t something to brag about.

I guess that makes sense, although I’d use discretion here. If it’s a prestigious contest and you won something that’s an equivalent of an Olympic “Bronze,” I’d say go ahead and put it in. If it’s more like you got on the team but spent the entire game on the bench, leave it out. The complete post is at http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2010/01/contests-in-your-query.html.

Short Fiction and other Journal Publications: Ms. Lindsay has a wonderfully detailed post telling exactly what she wants to hear and what she considers a waste of her reading time at http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2008/11/reader-question-when-should-you.html.

With short fiction, if you’ve got a credit in a publication that’s available nationally and/or she’s likely to have heard of it, she’s eager to know. If it’s your brother-in-law’s advertising circular, not so much.

With non-fiction articles, she's only interested if they’re relevant. That means that even if your work on urinary incontinence appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, or you’ve placed twenty op ed pieces in the Times on the subject of global warming, agents don’t want to hear about it. Agents don’t consider them good indications of whether you can keep the sexual tension going in a werewolf romance.

Ditto Non-fic Book Credits. Even if you’ve written Sunset’s most popular book on building doghouses, if you’re pitching an apocalyptic thriller—keep the Fido condos to yourself.

As far as Published Novels, Nathan Bransford has a great post on the subject at http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2008/03/how-and-whether-to-list-your-publishing.html .

He's OK hearing about any novels you’ve published, as long as you provide the publisher’s name and year of publication. He says it’s OK to mention if you self-published—AS LONG AS YOU DON’T CALL YOURSELF A “PUBLISHED AUTHOR.” “Published” to professionals means you’ve been vetted by a number of editors and marketers—and publishing businessfolk have been willing to put up hard cash because they believed in your work.

In other words, when in doubt, DON’T list list a credit. As Nathan says:

“The ranks of people who have been published without a single credit to their name are legion. Just say "This is my first novel" and say it proud.”

Sunday, January 10, 2010

WRITE YOUR AUTHOR BIO NOW!

You’ve been sending out queries. Lots. And you’re getting rejections. Lots. Or worse, that slow disappointment of no response at all. It's getting to be routine.

But one day, you open your email and there it is: “I’m intrigued. Please send the first fifty pages and an author bio.”

OMG. Author bio? Is that like a resume? CV? A chronological history? A book jacket blurb?

You dash something off in 20 minutes so you can send your pages and show this agent what a great writer you are so she’ll offer representation and get this career on the road!

Whoa. You do NOT want to dash off a bio in 20 minutes. Every word you send is a writing sample, not just those well-honed pages.

So, write it now. Yes. Right now. Before you send off another query.

Here’s what you do:

Title it only with your name. Write in third person. Keep to 250 words: one page, double-spaced--or 1/2 page single-spaced, if you include a photo above it. (I advise against this unless it’s specifically requested or you have a great, up-to-date, professional photo that makes you look like a contestant on one of those Top Model shows.)

You’re aiming for a style similar to book jacket copy. Except you’re not selling yourself to a reader. You’re selling yourself to a marketing department. The purpose is to make yourself sound professional and INTERESTING.

A reader might like to know she can identify with you: “Mrs. H. O. Humm is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Middle America with her dentist husband, 2.4 children and a dog named Rex.”

But a marketer wants to know what makes you stand out. “Hermione Oz Humm was born in the Emerald City and is an expert balloonist, ventriloquist and voice-over performer.”

Things to consider including:

1) Whatever might make you newsworthy: OK, so you aren’t the baby who got rescued from that well forty years ago, and were never married to Britney Spears, but whatever is quirky or unusual about you, trot it out. Keep homing pigeons? Run marathons? Cook prize-winning chili? Put it in.

2) Work history/What you do for bux: Here’s where you say you’re a welder or a fourth grade teacher or whatever, even if it isn’t related to the subject matter of your book.

NB: Don’t call yourself a “novelist” if you haven’t published one.

If you’re seriously underemployed and want to keep it to yourself, you can call yourself a “freelance writer,” but consider saying what else you do, even if it’s less than impressive. I remember when Christopher Moore’s first book came out and all the Central Coast papers ran stories about how a “local waiter” had just sold a book to Disney. If he’d called himself a “writer” there would have been no story.

3) Where you live: Your hometown might make a good focus for marketing. Plus people like to be able to picture you in your native habitat.

4) Education: This includes workshops or conferences as well as formal education—especially if you worked with a high-profile teacher. If you took a playwriting workshop with Edward Albee, even if it was 30 years ago, go ahead and say so.

5) Life experience and hobbies that relate to the book, or fascinate on their own: If you collect vintage Frisbees, and the book is about angsty teen werewolves at a Frisbee contest, include it. If you invented the Frisbee, it doesn’t matter what your book is about: toot that horn!

6) Travel/exotic residences: “Rudy Kipling once took a two-week tour of Asia,” meh. But “Mr. Kipling was born in Bombay and spent a year as the assistant editor of a newspaper in Lahore,” is something you want them to know.

7) Writing credentials/prizes: Here’s where you can list some of those credits in small presses and prizes that didn’t fit in your query. Include any books you’ve published, even if they were in a different field. It’s still up in the air whether you want to list anything self-published. Some agents say it’s a liability unless you had huge sales, but I just read a recent interview with agent Ginger Clark, who says self-pub credits don’t hurt. Don’t include anything pubbed by scam outfits like PublishAmerica, however, or you’ll look clueless.

8) Family: Use discretion here. If you write for children and have some of your own, it would be useful to mention them. If your family has an interesting claim to fame (like your sister is Lady Gaga) or if family history has made you uniquely qualified to write this book (Your father worked for Siegfried and Roy and you’re writing about performance anxiety in tigers.)

9) Performing history: It’s helpful to show you’re not paralyzed by the thought of public speaking. You can mention you’re the president of your local Toastmasters, or host a jug band program on a public access station, or you played the Teapot in last year’s production of Beauty and the Beast at the little theater.

Think like a reporter. What would make good copy in a news release?

You can find more, wonderfully detailed information on the subject of bios in the archives of Anne Mini’s “Author! Author!” blog http://www.annemini.com/

Friday, January 8, 2010

Genre Wars Anthology

I just heard one of my YA stories, The Big Ones will be included in the Literary Lab’s new anthology, Genre Wars. Nice, since it looks as if the competition was stiff. It’s only my second venture into the genre, and short stories are a stretch for me. My muse likes big, juicy novel-sized plots.

The anthology will benefit the Writers Emergency Fund.

They've designed a great cover, but I can't figure out how to copy it into this blog. I'm such a cybermoron. But you can check it out at http://literarylab.blogspot.com/. Literary Lab is a great resource for writers at all levels.

Monday, January 4, 2010

WORD COUNT GUIDELINES UPDATED FOR THE NEW DECADE

How Long Should A Novel Be?

A lot of agents have been complaining about queries with inappropriate word counts recently. If you're getting a lot of form rejections, this may be why.

Today Fineprint agent Colleen Lindsay has posted an update of contemporary word count rules on her great blog, THE SWIVET http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2008/03/on-word-counts-and-novel-length.html. She’s concerned that many writers’ sites have been giving out wrong or outdated information. Word count guidelines have been trending down in the last decade. She says most editors won’t look at a debut ms. longer than 110K, even if it’s epic fantasy—which wasn’t true ten years ago.

Like everything else, it’s all about the economy: fat books cost more to produce, and publishers make more on two short books than one long one.

Word counts are generally agreed to be the count provided by MS Word’s “Word Count” tool. Some extremely old fashioned agents prefer that you use the formula of 250 words per page (double spaced, 12 pt. font) and calculate it yourself, which seems a silly waste of time to me, but always check agent websites for guidelines.

Here is a summary of Colleen’s new word count guidelines by genre. She points out there are always exceptions, especially for sequels and established literary stars. But for debut authors, following these rules will much improve your chances of publication.

MG fiction = 25k to 40k

YA fiction = 50k to 80k

urban fantasy / paranormal romance = 80k to 100k

mysteries and crime fiction = cozies: 60k to 70k; others: 80k to 100k.

women’s fiction and chick lit=80k to 100k

literary fiction=65k to 120k, trending away from the higher numbers. “Spare and elegant” is the mark of literary chic these days.

thrillers=90k to 100k;

historical fiction=80k to 140k and up (you can still wax verbitudinous in this genre, apparently.)

science fiction and fantasy=100k-110k (definitely down from the epic tomes of yore.)

She doesn’t mention romance, so I’d say check websites. Word counts for specific romance lines (usually 60k -75k) will be posted with publisher guidelines.

******

Around 80k seems to be the magic number for most adult fiction. So it may be time to put on your editor hat and get ruthless.

But what if wordiness is not your problem and your ms. comes in under 50k words? Unless it’s MG or YA, you’ve got a novella, not a novel, and it’s going to be really hard to place. Low word count is one of the main reasons for a form rejection, says agent Kristin Nelson, who has a good post on the subject at Pub Rants. So work on fleshing out characters if it’s literary, weave in another subplot if it’s a thriller, or kill off a few more characters if it’s crime fiction.

And if that 50k worder is a NaNoWriMo effort, it probably needs more work, anyway. Don’t query until it’s ready. Really ready. That usually means letting it sit for 6 weeks, then reading the whole thing out loud before you send off that query.