books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, April 25, 2010


In spite of all the brouhaha about iPads, Kindles, Nooks, et al. I’m not seeing a lot of discussion about the actual content publishers plan to provide for these pricey little appliances.

That’s why I was fascinated by the piece in the Huffington Post this week from thriller writer Jason Pinter, arguing against the publishing industry dictum that “MEN DON’T READ.” He points out this is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy: don’t market to men; don’t publish what they like and—guess what? They don’t read!

He supports this by relating some of his own hair-raising experiences in the industry in the middle of the last decade. He describes being forced to pitch a manuscript for a wrestler’s memoir (which later became a bestseller) to the editor’s 15-year-old nephew. The editor said if the kid didn’t go for it, the project was dead. Yup. A 15-year-old was given power of life and death over a literary work.

And that was in economically booming 2005. It’s way worse now. The American publishing industry isn’t just anti-men. It’s becoming anti-adult.

I don’t think all those grown women are reading the Twilight books because they’re dying to relive their high school years. I think it’s because there isn’t much new commercial fiction being marketed to them. These days, if you want to find the hot new fiction, you pretty much have to move to the Young Adult aisle.

Yes, adults still have romances (although most are paranormal/fantasy, which don’t appeal to many women over 40) and the phenomenon that is Dan Brown. James Patterson still employs his stable of ghostwriters to grind out sadistic crime fiction, and every so often a fad sprouts up for something like Nordic misery mysteries or zombie mashups.

But when grown-ups want a light, smart read, we’re increasingly shuffled off to the backlist. How many times can we re-read Jane Austen?

If you look at the recent fiction sales on agents’ websites, they’re almost all YA, and most new agents rep YA/MG exclusively. At a writers’ conference recently, I was told publishing houses have been firing editors in adult genres and hiring specialists in children’s books.

Sophisticated humorists like Sophie Kinsella and Jennifer Weiner are dismissed as purveyors of totally-over “chick lit,” and bestselling US author Catherine Ryan Hyde has to go to England to get her adult fiction published.

This isn’t because American adults have stopped reading. It’s because publishers can make more money on one kidlit phenomenon like Twilight than with scores of traditional adult titles. In YA, the risks (& advances) are smaller, and the possible pay-out is astronomical. But other genres have been eliminated or left to stagnate. Big-name adult authors are expected to grind out cookie-cutter product and the rest of us are either supposed to switch to YA or take up basketweaving.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the YA I’m reading is brilliant. But since I hated high school the first time around (I went to three—don’t ask) it’s not that much fun for me. I’ve published a couple of pieces in the genre, but I hesitate to start a novel for fear even that market will soon be oversaturated, and nothing will remain but a sign on the door of the entire industry saying,


To quote Mr. Pinter again, “if you keep telling yourself something, regardless of its validity, eventually you'll begin to believe it.”

Agent Rachel Zurakowski of Books and Such explained the industry thinking process in an April 21 post “the publishing industry is in a risk-averse period. They want to publish the books that will do well, maybe not great, but books that are almost guaranteed to make money for the company. These books come from authors they’ve published before or from ideas the publishing house specifically asks authors to write.”

In other words, the publishing industry is acting like the banking industry, which refuses to give anybody loans because of the bad economy—thus perpetuating the bad economy.

Meanwhile these fancy new e-readers offer us a cheap, lucrative venue for self-publishing. If traditional publishers don't screen and publicize new books in all genres, what are they good for? Isn't becoming irrelevant the biggest risk of all?

*For my theories on the reading habits of Trafalmadorians, check my guest post on Nathan Bransford’s blog.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Does Your WIP Have Too Much Dialogue?

I’ve been looking over some of my much-rejected early novels recently and discovered they have something in common with a lot of other unpublished fiction: way too much dialogue. They’re too LOUD. The characters need to shut up already and get on with the story.

And yet, in all the classic how-to writing books, we’re urged to put in, “more scenes! more dialogue!”

Here’s my theory of why that is: A lot of classic books on writing, like Strunk and White came out before the era of TV. They are full of warnings against the author intrusion and diary-like musings that come from imitating those wordy Victorian novels whose purpose was to fill as many long winter nights as possible.

But most contemporary writers—at least those not yet eligible for Medicare—had their first exposure to fiction via movies and TV. Even if you were lucky enough to have parents who read books to you, the tele/screenplay format probably got cemented into your brain by constant exposure.

That means the stories in your head tend to scroll by like episodes of Law and Order, rather than chapters of The Last Days of Pompeii. Most contemporary writers don’t need warnings against addressing readers as “O Best Beloved,” or waxing poetic on the subject of French pastries or cracked gold bowls.

But we do need to beware of writing novels that read like bloated screenplays.

One of my favorite handbooks on writing is agent Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages . (I was disappointed that in Nathan Bransford’s recent post on the most important books for writers, none of the 200+ comments mentioned Lukeman. I think he's a must-read for anybody trying to publish fiction these days.)

Lukeman's book gave me my first wake-up call about overdone dialogue. He wrote, "Dialogue is a powerful tool, to be used sparingly…it is to the writer what the veto is to the President…if you overuse it, people will resent you for it."

Whoa! I’d been bullying my readers without realizing it.

I thought about his caveat last week when I read a story in the New Yorker that had no dialogue at all: The TV by Ben Loory. Seemed a little weird--but the next day Publisher’s Lunch announced Mr. Loory had sold a collection of short stories for some serious cash. (Yeah. A short story collection. Who does that? Congratulations, Ben!)

So is dialogue going out of style completely? Perhaps with the MFA set, but I'm pretty sure commercial books still need a healthy dose. However, we need to be increasingly careful it's not over-done.

I believe the newbie’s tendency to create overly chatty characters may be why so many agents caution against opening a novel with dialogue. The problem may not be the opening line itself, but the amount of blabbering that follows. If your opening pages look like a script, they probably won’t be read.

It’s not a bad idea to do another run-through of your WIP, keeping an eye out for these dialogue no-nos:

1) Big chunks of dialogue with no action. Don’t turn your characters into talking heads. Move them around. Let them do something. Feel. Think. You don’t have any actors to do this work for you.

2) Too many unattributed lines. If the reader loses track of who’s talking and has to go back and puzzle it out, she gets annoyed.

3) Reader-feeder: This is when your characters tell each other stuff they already know in order to fill in backstory for the benefit of the reader. “As you know, Bob, our grandfather was bitten by a radioactive spider…”

4) Showing off: Yes, that ten page scene shows how perfectly you’ve captured the patois of young stockbrokers in their native habitat, but does it actually further the plot?

5) Too much realism. Yeah, in real life, people do have these conversations:

"Gonna go to the…?"
"Dunno, you?"
"Gonna, um…?"

I'm bored already, aren't you? This is why we read fiction.

For more tips on writing dialogue, Roni Griffin at Fiction Groupie had a great post on dialogue last Friday--a must read.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Self-editing is the hardest thing a writer has to learn. Yes, you can read that “kill your darlings” advice over and over in the how-to books, but without a professional editor, most of us are blind to our own work’s flaws. We keep saying, “But I LOVE that scene. That’s where I explore the hero’s touching relationship with his pet griffin and…what? It doesn’t further the plot? Yeah but…”

Unfortunately, very few beginning novelists can afford to hire a professional freelance editor to help commit those verbal murders. But without a good edit, your work is not likely to reach a publisher’s desk—especially in today’s ultra-competitive market.

As Nathan Bransford said in a brilliantly funny recent post, what we have to learn isn’t so much how to write as how to REVISE.

However, if you live on the Central Coast of California, this month you have an amazing opportunity to take an intensive course in self-editing from a great American writer—for a whole lot less cash than it would cost to hire a professional editor to work on just a chapter or two.

After managing the Pay It Forward foundation for a decade, Catherine Ryan Hyde has stepped down to allow more time for writing and teaching. Catherine—who wrote the 1999 bestseller Pay It Forward as well as 13 other literary and YA novels and too many prize-winning short stories to count—is offering an intensive self-editing course on the weekend of April 24-25, in Cambria, California.

This is your chance to edit your WIP with the help of a successful writer who is also a wise and caring teacher.

I first met Catherine twenty years ago when visiting a local critique group. I’d already published my first novel (as a serial in an entertainment weekly) and although Catherine’s short stories had appeared in lots of prestigious journals and won some impressive awards, she was still struggling with book length fiction.

I found her prose electrifying, but several members of the group didn’t seem to get it, and made what I thought were harsh and unhelpful comments. Because I was a guest, I wasn’t allowed to critique, but when I ran into Catherine later in the Post Office, I told her I didn’t agree with what had been said. She just smiled. “I always consider the source,” she said. “If a criticism is valid, it will bring an ‘ah-ha’ moment. Otherwise, I let it go.”

She had already learned the art of self-editing.

We ran into each other again at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference a few years later, when she was reading another brilliant short story. At that point she had found an agent to represent a collection of her stories, but the agent wasn’t impressed with her novels and told her that Pay It Forward, especially, “needed a lot of work” and would never sell. But Catherine didn’t rewrite to please the agent. She put the book aside and started another.

A year later, another agency cold-called Catherine to say they’d fallen in love with one of her stories in an obscure literary journal (yes, that used to happen) and did Catherine have any novels? She sent Pay it Forward and the rest is history. (BTW, she didn’t have any input on the 2000 film starring Kevin Spacey, which deviated a good deal from the book.)

Catherine's own experience makes her a uniquely qualified teacher: she won’t tell you to redo your work to fit a cookie-cutter mold or the latest trend. She’ll teach you to hone your work into the best version of your own story that it can be.

Enrollment in her self-editing workshop is very limited, to allow intensive one-on-one teaching, so if you’re interested (think what cred it will give your query letter!) I’d suggest contacting her ASAP. The email address is:

If you’d like to study with her, but can’t make the April workshop, it might be worthwhile to contact her anyway. She just might offer it again. I hope so.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Seeking Zoticus Weatherwax: Tips for Naming Fictional Characters

In his painfully funny 2006 book, Famous Writing School, a Novel, Stephen Carter’s writing teacher-protagonist advises his students to seek character names in the obituaries. But although Carter’s bumbling protagonist offers mostly dubious advice, that tip is a keeper. Obits are full of great names. I keep a list in a notebook by the breakfast table. I haven’t yet written about Normal Peasley or Lamia Trowbridge, but they’re ready when I need them.

My favorite name source is spam, although, since I increased my security, it isn't as colorful as it used to be. Every morning I used to cull a few from my “bulk” inbox before I deleted them. I still can always perk up a story by subjecting my heroine to a blind date with Zoticus Weatherwax or Hassan Snively.

Creative monikers don’t just add color and humor to storytelling. They help the reader keep track of a large cast, and offer a shorthand reminder of their identities. Instead of calling the pizza delivery guy “Bob,” if you give him an interesting ethnicity, a cowboy hat and a name like Galveston Ngyen, readers will remember him when he shows up dead 50 pages later.

Here are some basic guidelines for naming characters.

1) Name only players, not spear carriers. Don’t clutter the story with too many names. A named character needs to play a significant role. Just call him “the pizza guy” if his only purpose is to deliver pepperoni with extra cheese.

2) Choose names that are different from each other. Names that begin with the same letter can be confusing on the page: no rival boyfriends named Tim and Tom unless your heroine can’t tell them apart either.

Note: this doesn’t apply to real or well-known characters. An agent once told me I couldn’t put characters named Morgan and Merlin in the same novel. Rules are helpful, but abolishing the entire Grail saga is a bit much.

3) Don’t change names mid-story. In real life, an indigenous person called Fall-in-the-Fire might change his name to Jump-in-the-Pond after his vision quest, but it’s better to use the same identification throughout. That way Reader-of-Fiction won’t morph into Throws-Book-Out-Window.

4) Choose names to fit the era. A recent editing client called a contemporary fifty-year-old librarian “Mildred”—an unlikely name for a Baby Boomer. I suggested Linda or Judy. On the other hand, Linda and Judy don’t even rank in the top thousand names for the last decade. If your character is under twelve, try Madison, Kayla or Ada.

I made a period mistake myself when reworking an old story. Morgan was an unusual name for a girl when I wrote the piece fifteen years ago. Now it’s way more common than Anne.

You can look up American baby names by decade at the Social Security Administration site.

But remember US, Canadian, Aussie and Brit names differ. Hyphenated names like Jean-Claude and Mary-Ellen are rare in the UK. But Zara, Nigella and Callum—all popular in England now—don’t appear on any US lists. (But keep Nigella out of that Regency Romance. Cross check with your Jane Austen collection.) One of the top 25 names for Canadian girls is Brooklyn--who knew all those polite Canadians were such New York-ophiles? (Wadda you lookin' at?)

UK names by decade are available at the government statistics website.

For naming Canadians try the Perfect Baby Names site. And for Australians (including Aboriginal names and their meanings) try Babynology.

5) Don’t fake foreign or antique names. Your Roman gladiator can be named Brutus or Africanus, but don’t try Waynus or Garthus. (Ancient Roman first names were not numerous, which is why they called their kids stuff like “Quintus” and “Octavian” (literally, “five” and “eight.”) As adults, Romans often earned Mafia-style nicknames. The poet Ovid was known as Ovidius Naso—Ovid the Nose.)

Genealogy sites are great for historical names, and for contemporary foreign names, surf around the many baby-naming websites.

6) Give your character’s name a Google before going forward. I recently wanted to name a porn star Peter McHugh until a Google search showed a local County Supervisor with that name.

7) Avoid over-used names. It’s hard to know these if you don’t slog through weekly slush piles, but I’ve seen agents complain that all variations of Catherine/Kate/Caitlin have become ho-hum. Ditto Jake/Jack. Browse new books in your genre for patterns.

8) Run a final search-and-replace if you change a character’s name. That’s one I learned the hard way. I sent out requested partials to two agents before I realized I’d reverted to the old name for an entire chapter. That might not have been the only reason for my rejections, but I know it didn't help. Sigh.
PS—I’ve had some great responses to this post both in the comments section and via email.
1) Hampshireflyer gives a scary example of why you REALLY want to Google all your character names before you publish them. Especially in the UK.
2) Paul Fahey says for foreign names, he finds the
Writers Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon very useful, although he wishes it had more cross-referencing.