Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Back to the Future: Practitioners of Historical Fiction Look at the Future of Their Genre & the Publishing Industry

by Sophie Perinot

June 17th to 19th marked the 4th North American Conference of the Historical Novel Society. I am a sucker for this conference. I’ve attended them all. Why? Well in addition to the fellowship (and this group of writers feels and behaves like one big, happy, and occasionally dysfunctional family) I go because I LEARN. I learn about my craft, and I learn about the trends and issues in my genre.

There have been a number of super “wrap ups” of the HNS conference. If you want to savor the minutiae—who sat with whom at dinner, the details of a particular panel—I suggest you have a look at one of them (e.g. Kate Quinn's or Susan Higginbotham's or Dora Levy Mossanen's). Just remember whatever you read about me in the lobby of the hotel at 2 a.m. on Saturday night is likely an exaggeration.

My goal in this post is not to recount all that happened during my 3 days in San Diego, but rather to highlight a few, select, personal impressions & conclusions that may be useful to those pursuing publication.

Reports of the death of traditional publishing are premature. Sure “It’s the wild west out there” as editor Shana Drehs of Sourcebooks (largest woman-owned publisher. 11 national best sellers in the past 5 months) put it, but if you can land a spot with a traditional publisher they still “add value” to your product. Some examples: production, editing, meta data management, distribution, licensing and rights, tradeshow attendance ... the list goes on.

Yes, all authors need to be their own (or if their advances warrant it, hire their own) publicists, but your in-house publicity and marketing departments will do more than all the big-house-trashing on the web these days might lead you to believe. This can include coop (placement on that coveted “new release” table), store level promotions, hardcopy marketing and advertising, coordinating blog tours, and sending out reams and reams of review copies (ARCs), and more.

And let’s not forget there are purely practical, sales related matters attendant upon self-publishing (at least in paper copies). A conference highlights these. No, people were not selling books out of their suitcases or trunks. In fact, that would not have been possible because conferences have vendors. For example, at the HNS conference a vendor was selected to set up a conference bookstore. This vendor only “ordered in” books that could be returned if they didn’t sell (basically books published by large publishers and established indie houses). So, those authors with micro-houses or whose novels were self-published had to supply copies of their books on consignment (with all the lugging or shipping of books that entailed) and pay a percentage of sales to have their books stocked.

Finally, though it may not be politically correct to bring it up, the intangible “cachet” of being with a major publisher is still there. It may be waning, but it’s not gone. I am not going to belabor this, but attend a conference yourself and you will see what I mean.

If you write historical fiction, big-name historical characters still have value. Are marquee names really necessary in writing (and more importantly selling) a work of historical fiction? There was an entire panel devoted to this, folks, and a heated panel too. Yes, we’ve come along way in introducing “average people” and giving their stories value and importance (both in academic history and in historical fiction) but my conclusion is that famous names sure do help—especially if you are a debut novelist seeking to break in and stay in.

Why? Look around you, folks, we are a celebrity-fixated culture (but don’t feel bad, we always have been). Real characters (preferably famous ones) DO attract more attention and big names can equal big sales. BUT—and this may be the most interesting idea I brought home from the conference—the “marquee” that hooks an agent, an editor and ultimately readers DOESN’T have to be your main character; heck, it doesn’t even have to be a person. IDENTIFY what is marquee in your story and bring it forward—it could be your setting (major historical event, time period that fascinates readers—Tudor period anyone—etc), it could be a secondary character that your MC interacts with (or more than one, someone at the conference mentioned a book in which the protagonist interacted with numerous famous figures including Shakespeare). But, if you can’t find someone or something that’s “marquee” as a hook for a story that you are passionate about telling, write it anyway. As multi-published author C.W. Gortner said, “It doesn’t sell until it sells—it is never, never in publishing.”

Titles and covers matter (a lot). According to one publishing house insider, more books fail because of titling and positioning than any other factor. As for covers—we denizens of the historical genre are often obsessed with accuracy (is the costume on the cover figure right? Why is the figure standing on a moor when there is no moor in the book?), but being INTRIGUING is more important than being accurate. If your cover doesn’t catch a reader’s eye in a split second you are in trouble! The art & marketing departments at publishing houses know this business. They (and your editor) often reject many versions of a cover before shouting “that’s it” (Shana D from Sourcebooks told us the record for a book she’s edited was 120 cover versions. Yeah 120).

Don’t be tyrannized by fact. This is not academic history we are writing. Does accuracy matter in historical fiction? You bet your farthingale it does, but “fictional art can show truth that goes deeper than a collection of fact; it can show us what it felt like to be a particular person at a particular time.” (Susan Vreeland). And besides, “as soon as something happens people start lying about it” (Cecelia Holland) so “truth” in history can legitimately be debated.

Award winning author Susan Vreeland pointed out that selection (and correspondingly, elimination) of facts is part of the process of writing compelling historical fiction. As an author you need to select only those aspects and events in a character’s life or time period that relate to or reflect the themes and premise of your book. It doesn’t matter how pivotal an event is (Susan gave the example of the death of a beloved brother that stuck with one of her main characters for the rest of his life), if it doesn’t move the plot of your individual book forward than it needs to be left out.

Invention is also a part of historical fiction—embrace it. Invent characters, invent events, put words into the mouths of your characters, but make sure your inventions contribute to the narrative arc of your story and are in keeping with what your research has revealed to you about the nature and personality of your characters. Author Margaret George suggested this quick “gut check” for whether your invention is appropriate—imagine you are writing for the character herself/himself. Would he/she be pleased? Margaret also posited that if someone was writing about you, you might be very happy to have some things fudged.

Fess up when you stray. The general consensus among attendees was that pointing out where you deliberately deviate from the historical record in a good author’s note is a must (and not just to save you from ranting, 8-point-type, single-spaced letters from readers who feel you gotten something dead wrong). You need not point out the obvious (like you imagined the dialogue between characters dead 500 years) but if you’ve moved a battle by a year, etc. then come clean (but don’t apologize).

The author to reader connection is closer than it has ever been. As writers we need to be accessible to our readers—that means having a home base (website) but not just staying there sipping coffee and eating bon-bons. Think blog tours, think social media, think outside those boxes as well. But most of all, remember that the author-to-reader relationship is NOT about you. Make it all about the reader and her/his experience and you will sell books better.

The pace at which consumers are learning to love e-books is exponential. Here are one publisher’s numbers. In September of 2010 6.7% of publisher X’s $ from sales came from e-books. In January of 2011 (that’s 4 months later) 35% of $ from sales were e-book generated. While only 25% of print books sold are adult fiction, fiction has a much bigger slice of the pie in the e-book world. Why do readers buy e-books: affordability, ease of download (allowing readers to connect with books anytime and any place), searchablity, and portability.

I will close with a few “sound-bites” answering “ever wonder” questions:

Ever wondered how historical fiction writers handle conflicting historical sources?

There are three main approaches to this—each with its devotees. First, you can “pull back” to a point where there is general agreement in the historical sources (but this can leave you in limbo if your narrative arc demands an answer to a certain historical question). Second, you can go with “majority rules” (but if you want to paint a picture that goes against the grain this approach will not suit). Finally, you can view this as “writers choice,” picking the facts as you need them and knowing that you do have a credible source (or perhaps more than one) to cite if challenged.

Ever wonder why it takes so long for a book to hit the shelves once it’s acquired?

Here’s the breakdown of the time from a publishers perspective—3 months for editing, 7 months for production, 5-6 months for pre-publication publicity (including getting the accounts on board) = a minimum 10 months from acquisition to publication.

Ever wonder what three questions editors ask when they look at your manuscript?

1) Is it good? (obvious)
2) Will it sell? (data helps answer this—especially sales data on comparable titles)
3) Is it right for our list? (this is the one an author can’t control)

Ever wonder how can you think about positioning for your novel?

1) Familiarize yourself with your book’s subcategory inside and out. What sort of things are being written and about whom? Do you want to go with the grain of existing novels or against it?
2) Consider how you would tweet what your novel is about (try it—140 characters is not a lot)

Ever wonder when this post will come to an end? Relax, you just got there.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Query Writing 101

by Calista Taylor

We've had some great posts written here at FTWA on queries and querying, but I thought it might be helpful to go back to the basics of a query. There are many formats out there, and the following is a good basic format, similar to that found on Agent Query. I've found it to be very successful, hooking the reader, and giving just enough information for them to want to request more.

I will preface this by saying the format below is for fiction queries you plan on sending via email. You can still use the query for snail mail, but you'll want to follow traditional letter writing guidelines for your format.

General Guidelines:
  • You want your letter to be at most one page in length, single spaced, with a hard return between paragraphs and no indentation at the start of each paragraph.
  • Make sure your letter is written in third person, present tense.
  • VOICE!!! The voice of your manuscript should be evident in your query letter—if your manuscript is funny and light or dark and mysterious, the voice of your query letter should reflect that. Your query MUST have voice, or you're putting yourself at a huge disadvantage.
  • Your query should be customized to each agent—no mass mailings unless you want to have your query letter deleted without ever being read.
  • Put your title in caps. You do not, however, put the character names in caps (that's your synopsis).

  • In the subject line, type: Query: Title of your manuscript (the title should be in all caps)
  • Address the agent in the following format—Dear Mr./Ms. (Insert agent's First and Last Name):
  • First Paragraph—Your Hook: Your hook should be one sentence—two at the most, and is essentially your pitch or tagline. The key is to really grab the reader and make them want to read the book. It should capture what makes your story unique. Do NOT use rhetorical questions! That's a big no-no.
  • Second Paragraph (or a BRIEF second and third paragraph)—This is a summary of the first third of your story. It should show the conflict and what's at stake for the main character. Only use two to three character names. Why just the first third of your story? You want to include enough to grab your reader's imagination, but only give them enough to hook them, so they want to request the manuscript in order to find out what happens. You do not want to include your ending (that's also your synopsis).
  • Third Paragraph (or fourth, depending on your summary)—Your bio. Only include writing related accomplishments. If you don't have any, don't worry—just skip the bio. And please don't tell the agent you've been writing since kindergarten.
  • Final Paragraph—Your closing. Include the title, genre and word count. If you're querying this agent for a specific reason (other than the obvious), I'd include that here. Also summarize what you've included, based on the agent's preferences (First chapter? First five pages and a synopsis?), and then a brief thank you.
  • Your closing information—End the letter with: Sincerely, (hard return) your first and last name. Use another hard return and then include your contact information (address, phone, email). Optional: include your pen name, blog, and/or website.

A few notes and helpful hints:
  • Test your query format by sending the email to yourself. Do not use italics—it will usually come across as jumbled nonsense once sent.
  • Save your query letter and any included pages as a draft in your email. When you're ready to query, copy the query (and pages if needed) and paste it into a new email. This will ensure you have fewer email formatting issues. Before you send, make sure to customize your query letter for the agent you are sending it to.
  • To avoid any mistakes, put the agent's email address in as the final step, only after you have double checked to make sure you've made all your changes.
  • When you do respond to a request, the first thing you should do is delete the "m" off of the ".com" on the agent's email address. Then you can make sure you've included and attached and double checked everything, without accidentally sending a response before you're ready. When you're good to go, just type the "m" back onto the end of the email address and hit send.

Querying is never easy, but I hope this helps clarify things. Do you have any favorite tricks that makes querying easier for you?

Friday, June 24, 2011

In Defense of Language

by Pete Morin

This past week, Boston’s illustrious Mayor, Thomas M. (“Mumbles”) Menino, in his inimitable high dudgeon, called upon the Nike company to cease its sale of tee shirts that, he said, condone the use of drugs.

The tee shirt has the word “dope” printed in large red letters, above a prescription pill vial, out of which spilled skateboards and snowboards. It is part of Nike’s campaign to celebrate vigorous outdoor physical activity:

"These T-shirts are part of an action sports campaign, featuring marquee athletes using commonly used and accepted expressions for performance at the highest level of their sport, be it surfing, skateboarding or BMX.”

Menino—an infamously dull-witted fellow who rarely completes a sentence without a malaprop—isn’t buying this clever marketing. He thinks the campaign is “outrageous,” and he’s calling on the company to cease and desist.

“Dope” is a versatile word, for 4 letters. Depending on its context, it can mean any number of things. From the Dictionary of American Slang


a stupid person. :  That dope has done it again!
drugs in general; marijuana. :  How much dope do you do in a week anyway?
news; information; scuttlebutt. :  I got some dope on the tavern fire if you want to hear it.
best; most excellent. :  We had a great time there. It was dope and dudical.

I love that—“dudical.”

It can also be used in a verb phrase, dope out, to mean (a) to figure out; calculate; devise: to dope out a plan; (b) to deduce or infer from available information: to dope out a solution to a problem.

But for Menino, there is only one meaning conveyed—or understood—those nefarious substances that are the bane of the inner city streets.

A while back, I posted about a kerfuffle involving a blog participant’s use of the phrase “tits up,” to mean—as was perfectly obvious in context—a business failure.

This was met by a chorus of outrage from some women who were offended by the slang use of their cherished body parts to convey the intended, and understood, meaning. That men have tits didn’t matter. If it is capable of offending someone (regardless of its intended meaning), it needs to go. This notion goes well beyond the venue of online chats.

As writers, while we are not constrained to leave our ideologies on the stoop, I submit that we have a superior fidelity to the meaning of language. Our task is to use words to convey thoughts and images as perfect and true to our intent as our language will permit (and even make up our own words, if that’s what works). This is not an obligation that ought to be confined to the work-in-progress. We do not sweat out perfect prose in fiction, punch a clock, and then slouch to the misuse of nouns—or too their misinterpretation, whether we are the speaker or listener. When we see or hear a word with multiple meanings, we don’t apply one that is obviously unintended.

What is at stake here is something quite sinister—something George Orwell portrayed in a rather iconic masterpiece. That is the risk that someone else is going to tell you what your words mean, or worse yet, whether you can say them at all, and they might even spy on you to do it (that last link is frighteningly replete with such instances). Someone else is going to determine that your speech has racist intent. Or that you are a sexist.

Or that you are promoting drug use.

There is nothing relative about language. Words have their etymology. Used with care and clarity, they convey a specific, intended meaning. Where they are misinterpreted to mean something clearly unintended, it is not the fault of the speaker.

As you slave over your manuscript tonight after the children are in bed, consider how difficult your task would be if you had to examine each of words to insure that they were not capable of being misinterpreted by someone with another agenda—one having nothing to do with truth.

[I am glad that—to date—Nike is sticking to its guns (oh my, how inappropriate a metaphor!) on this. For my part, I think the campaign is anti-drug. Get high on life; surfing, snowboarding and surfing are our drug of choice, etc.]

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Non-Fiction World

by Darke Conteur

Most of the posts on this blog deal with genre fiction, but I wanted to take a moment and talk about non-fiction.

Memoirs, self-help, academic, there are so many types of non-fiction; it’s as varied as genre fiction, but unlike genre fiction, the main thing you need to sell your book is a platform. Some kind of credentials that says you know—or are qualified—to write this particular book. This is most evident with self-help or any academic novels. Here are several key things I found very interesting.

Platform is EVERYTHING in non-fiction. That notion was driven home at a recent writing seminar I attended, and the main thing they suggested for new authors to use to build their platform? Self-publishing. According to the speakers, the best way for non-fiction publishers to sign you on is to have a certain number of books already sold. If the number is high, they see it as testament that your book is good, and they are willing to RE-PRINT that book and distribute it to a wider audience. Yeah, floored me too.

Now, memoirs are a different read. While they still follow the same path as self-help and academic, you better have one Hell of a story to tell. Sorry, just surviving a horrible disease doesn’t cut it anymore, but surviving a horrible disease by administrating your own biopsy skills while living on a frozen tundra where the next shipment of supplies aren’t due for another six months, is gold. (HINT: Think researcher in Antarctica).

Children’s books are another big seller, but I was astonished to learn that they suggested you market your story to the PARENTS, and not the child. After all, it’s the parents who are buying and reading the story, not the children.

One thing that genre fiction has over non-fiction is numbers in the digital market. From what I could gather, non-fiction is slower than Big Publishing to delve into eBooks. Perhaps that’s because genre fiction is written by more people, I don’t know, even the speakers couldn’t explain that one, but they are gathering more interest.

With the digital tsunami rolling through the publishing industry it will certainly be interesting to see what the future holds for this branch of the publishing world.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Good Art, Bad Art, Selling Out My Share

by R.S. Mellette

So, is a stop sign art?

By the previously stated definition a stop sign in the street is not art, one hanging in a gallery is—but does that make it good?

Like most words in the English language, Art has many meanings and uses. When I talk about Phil Jackson's job as the Lakers' head coach, I might say, "The man was an artist." Do I mean he was an actor, writer, painter, director, choreographer, composer, etc.? No, of course not. I mean he was a great coach. I might say, "He raised the job to an art form," but again, I'm not talking about The Arts, I'm using a metaphor.

In talking about The Arts, when we say something is "a work of art," it is often interpreted as meaning "it's a work of art that is also good." If you'll excuse the play on words, an object of art is objective. It either is art or it isn't. The quality of that object of art is subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Back at UNC-C I once asked an acting teacher for advice on being a playwright. She said, "I don't know anything about writing, but I know this: A Broadway ticket costs $75 dollars." Okay, I've just aged myself. "You have to write a story that's worth $75 to the average working person."

I only asked her the question because I had a crush on her, but damned if that wasn't the best advice I've ever been given when it comes to the arts.

Decades later I sat in on a workshop of a one-woman show in a Los Angeles garage theatre. After the reading, the audience—all theatre artists—were encouraged to comment. One person said, "I don't mean to say you should concern yourself with the audience, but ..."

That's a phrase you hear a lot in theatre and it has two sources. The proper one comes from acting. An actor has to forget there is an audience out there in order to stay in the moment of their character. At the same time, they have to keep their artist's eye aware of the same audience they're trying to ignore. An actor can't face in the wrong direction, block the audience's view of another actor, mumble, etc. If an actor misses this balance, they may hear from the director, "Don't concern yourself with the audience, that's my job."

The not-so-proper use of that phrase comes from bitter artists of all disciplines. As I write this I'm sure there are novelists blogging about what a bad piece of writing Twilight is and how they will never simply "cater to the audience."

No one is saying you should, but...

I raised my hand in this workshop to say, "I think you should consider your audience. They're paying you. A 99-seat theatre ticket costs $15. You've got to take your audience on a $15 ride, at least."

No one agreed with me. Some were downright offended. I would understand if they'd said, "Give them a $100 value if you want your play to show to more than just your friends and family," but they didn't. I was chastised for trying to put a monetary value on art.

And they wonder why theatre is dead.

Yes, it's true that an artist who tries to guess what the world wants to see is guaranteed to miss the mark. It is just as true, and infinitely more pretentious, for an artist to claim that they don't have the audience in mind when they work.

How far would a restaurant get if the chef claimed, "The customer is not my concern. They don't have my knowledge of the culinary arts, so they cannot possibly appreciate my explorations of the taste of human shit."

The artist who faces the blank page, or canvas, or sheet music, is exactly like the performer on stage. They must split their focus between the work they are creating and the people they are creating it for. Like so many things in life, this is a balance. On one extreme is a journal, where the writer has no audience but his or her self.

On the other extreme is... what? Network Television? Children's Theatre? Pop music? Sexy Vampire Novels? The sellout of your choice?

I don't think so. I've worked in network TV, children's theatre, film (independent and studio), the music industry, and publishing and I can tell you, there is no such thing as selling out.

How do I know? Because I'd do it in a heartbeat!

But there's no one standing on the corner of Hollywood & Vine saying, "Hey, buddy, come here. You want to publish a book, make a movie, be a star? You just take this money and do what I tell you and I'll make it happen." Even if you want to do porn, there's a line around the block of porn star hopefuls. You have to work your ass off to show your ass off.

Music aficionados particularly like to accuse bands of selling out, or saying some kind of music is "just pop music." In the visual arts, their counterparts talk about "pop culture" like it's evil incarnate. Well, I have news for those people. Culture that isn't popular isn't culture, it's just a bunch of crap no one has heard of.

The artists who create Pop Music like Pop Music. The people who put out the poster of Farrah Fawcett in a bathing suit like hot chicks with luscious hair. They aren't selling out, they are making the art they like and appreciate.

By the same token, my learned professor of music from UNC-Charlotte, as smart as he was, would probably not do as good of a job composing "Lollipop" or backing up Jim Morrison. If van Gogh had painted Farrah Fawcett's poster, not as many young men would have held it up with one hand—and consequently, she would not have become the icon of a generation of Americans.

And no one would ask these artists to create that kind of work. It's not their voice.

Only Michelangelo could find David inside that rock. Others tried and failed. Only The Kinks could turn a 3-cord riff into a new class of Rock & Roll. Each artist does what they do, keeping one eye on the work and one on who they are working for, the audience.

So is a stop sign art? On a street, no. On a wall, yes.

Would I buy one to hang in my living room? Hell, no!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Amazon: Publishing Friend or Foe?

by J. Lea Lopez

I'll be honest—I'm not a trendsetter. At least not when it comes to the publishing revolution. I'm cautious. I like to spend a lot of time gathering facts, weighing options, learning from those more opinionated and in-the-know than I. One thing I do know is that Amazon's name is on everyone's lips these days—a result of Kindle Direct Publishing, CreateSpace, and their newest publishing imprints. This is great! Isn't it?

I'm not totally sold, to be honest. Let me tell you why.

I used to be completely intimidated by the thought of publishing direct through Amazon KDP. I can do a fair amount with my computer, and I love learning new things, but formatting and creating an eBook seemed like a rather daunting task. When the crew at AgentQuery Connect posted their fabulous guide to publishing with Amazon, I thought Hey, I think I could do that! And I almost did, too. I came thisclose to self-publishing my first manuscript. But after some amazingly supportive beta readers encouraged me, I've decided to continue pursuing a traditional print deal a little longer. But that's beside the point. I was certainly enticed by the idea of 70% royalties, creative control over things like cover art and word count, and finally being able to say I have a published novel. If I was so gung-ho about it just a month or so ago, why does the thought of it make me feel a little dirty now?

One thing for sure irks me, and that's the issue with potential plagiarism on Amazon. To be fair, they seem to have favorably resolved every issue of plagiarism I've heard of, but the fact remains that it is simply too easy to do. When was the last time a check-box stopped anyone from doing the wrong thing? Oh, it says checking here means I have the authority to publish this material. I'd better stop,then, since I actually stole it from someone's blog/website/whatever. Sure. In what reality does that happen? Not mine.

If they valued intellectual property as much as they say in their Conditions of Use, I'd think they would incorporate some sort of detection controls in the KDP uploading process, and/or make it a little easier to report plagiarism/copyright infringement. As it stands, you have to scroll way way way down to the very bottom of the product page (which, depending on the length of product details, reviews, discussions, etc. can be immensely long) to find out how to report an infringement. But guess where the option to report a lower price is located? You probably guessed it. Much higher up, right after the product details.

Plagiarism potential aside, the recent announcement of Amazon's latest publishing imprint was the thing that really put this bitter taste in my mouth. On the surface, this is encouraging to writers. The largest online book retailer is getting into the publishing game! They've been a pioneer in the world of self-publishing, making it accessible to everyone and giving authors a chance to earn money and see their name in print. They must care about writers and the future of publishing, right? Well...

Amazon has several imprints. Their career listing has openings for acquisitions editors and more, implying expansion and growth for this aspect of their business. And yet there's no way to submit to the imprints for consideration. It appears Amazon hand-picks the titles to which they'll lend their marketing prowess and brand recognition. In other words, if you want a shot at being considered, you'd better get your book on Amazon. Instead of a slushpile where writers are hoping to get published and be presented to the buying public, we'll have a slushpile of self-published writers hoping to be vetted by Amazon. Just when the stigma surrounding self-publishing was beginning to let up, I fear this will create a backlash. But what does Amazon care? They make money either way.

Because that's what I fear this boils down to. Money. I don't think Amazon cares one whit about publishing as it relates to writers and writing. If I can channel Jessie J for a minute, this IS about the cha-ching cha-ching. The allure of KDP is that it has the potential to give voice to many excellent writers who have been overlooked by the traditional publishing industry. But now they want to get INTO traditional publishing? It just doesn't make sense on any level other than a monetary one, in my rather humble opinion. And let's be clear on that: they're much more interested in putting money in their own pockets than they are in yours.

Going back to the title of this post, do I think Amazon is a publishing friend or foe? Let's just say that they aren't looking so friendly on my radar right now. I don't think I'll be self-publishing anything on Amazon in the very near future. Does that mean I won't purchase anything from my friends and fellow writers on Amazon? Not necessarily. I rarely shop on Amazon to begin with, but I'll gladly support a friend if I can. Does that mean I'll refuse any part of a traditional deal that involves Amazon should I snag an agent? Hmm... I can't say for certain. There may be a day when you can call me a hypocrite, but for now, for me, it's a matter of principle. I'll be keeping my eye on you, Amazon.

What's your take on Amazon's place in the world of publishing?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Exploring the Idea Store

by Matt Sinclair

"Where do you get your ideas?"

If you've not heard the question yourself, you've probably asked it of your favorite authors even as you keep turning the pages that you spent good money to buy. It's an understandable question—one I've asked in my head a thousand times even though I know where that question leads.

You see, there is no magic "idea store" where the concepts of great novels waiting to happen sit in a box marked "Just add Writer." You're more likely to get an idea by walking to a real store than expecting something to spring up in your mind from seeming nothingness. Despite what I sometimes heard in college English classes, I refuse to believe that only well-schooled, well-read thinkers can create a viable literary idea. In fact, I'm not even sure I believe ideas are "created" per se.

An old friend of mine is a Grammy-nominated music producer. (Nominees get cool medals like kids who finish first in track meets!) Years ago, we were chatting about songwriting and he reflected on how music evolves by grafting things together. It's like a Mendelian experiment: Let's see, if we take these folk lyrics and mix them with a bassa nova beat, what happens?... Hmmm, how about a ska sound instead?...

We grow—physically, intellectually, creatively—by taking what we've done in the past and tweaking it somehow. Sometimes it's by consciously going in a totally different direction; of course, that implies you knew which way you were heading. Other times, it happens by being deflected ever so slightly from where you thought you were going. I've known people who came up with entirely new novels because of a typo!

In my opinion, creativity is about being able and willing to ask questions—my favorite is "What if?"—and then being courageous enough to explore the answers.

You see, the scary truth is ideas are common, everyday things we trip over or avoid like toys in a toddler's playroom. (Where did the idea for that image come from? My daughters' room, which gets rearranged at least a half dozen times a day—not always by them.) Case in point: I'm working on a novel that takes place largely in Antarctica. I have never been there, nor do I have any friends who have. As a result of the research I've done, I have learned a lot, and in the process I've spoken to people who work there as field researchers. From there, the story has gotten better and fuller.

But where'd the idea for the story come from? A press release. I kid you not. In fact, it was a press release about microbes. Not a subject I typically cover in my work, and not exactly what you would expect for a novel about a woman whose parents die in a fiery car crash.

But when I read that random press release, characters appeared in my mind. In fact, they were so vivid and powerful I had to put aside my other work and write stream-of-consciousness pieces about who they were, what was going on in their lives, how they get along, who's married and who isn't and how that affects their relationships... I went on for a good half hour, at least. It could easily have been twice that.

Of course, once I really started writing that manuscript, lots of things changed. The basic idea was there, but as often happens when people are involved—fictional or not, it doesn't really matter—things went in unexpected directions. And that's a big part of the fun in writing: exploration.

So, back to the original question: Where do ideas come from? I recommend you go exploring and find out. I think you'll be amazed at what you find. And please share some of the locations of your favorite idea stores. Perhaps we can find something you left on the shelves.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Who Reads YA?

by Jemi Fraser

I've recently heard some people talking about not wanting to write YA because they think the market is too narrow. Is it?

Young Adult fiction is aimed at young adults. Obviously. But are young adults the only ones reading YA?

You might be surprised at the amount of people who are NOT young adults who are reading YA. If you visit book bloggers who review YA, you’ll see a lot of adults are reading and enjoying YA. A lot of these people are writers, but not all of them. So why are so many adults reading YA?

Our teen years are powerful. There are a lot of emotions in those years. We learn who we really are and what that truly means. We learn what makes us strong, what devastates us, what we can push ourselves to accomplish. Most of us have our first loves and our first broken hearts in these years. Many of us find our career choices and start aiming for those stars—which we know are within our reach.

Seriously, what’s not to love?

On the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of kids who are definitely NOT YA age who are reading YA books. Is this a bad thing?

I don’t think it is. When I was in grades 5, 6 and 7, there were no YA books. I was finished with most kids’ books by that time and looking for more. So I read adult books. Most of what wasn’t appropriate for me to read went right over my head. The rest of it opened my eyes to the adult world. Which wasn't a bad thing.

These days kids who are ready to read beyond MG books have a lot more choices. When the Twilight books were at the peak of their power, every single girl & about 3/4 of the boys in my class read them. At the time, I was teaching 10- & 11-year-olds. Today I have kids in that same age group reading Hush Hush, Shiver & Linger, Pretties & Co., Vladimir Tod, Beastly, the Mortal Instruments series, The Summer I Turned Pretty, Speak & many more.

Do all of my students read these? Nope. Actually only a few. And even when those kids rave about the books, the others (who aren’t ready emotionally) aren’t interested. Kids seem to find books that fit their emotional/maturity level quite easily. They might try a page or two, they might even skim a few pages to make it seem like they’re reading it. But they won’t read it. (In another post I'll talk a bit about the censorship issue for kids.)

So, if you’re ever tempted to think the YA market isn’t as wide as some of the other markets, I hope you remember you don’t need to be a young adult to enjoy YA fiction!

Have you read a lot of YA fiction? What’s your favourite YA book?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Guns, Dames, and Dark Streets. We're Talkin' Noir, Folks.

by Robert K. Lewis

I decided yesterday, as I was sitting at the stick of my favorite watering hole, that I should just start my journey here on From the Write Angle by giving you some basics about the writing that’s as near and dear to my heart as a new fifth of Johnny Walker Black: The hard-boiled detective story, otherwise known as noir.

I love this description I found in Merriam Webster: Crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings.

Hard-boiled, cynical characters. Bleak, sleazy settings.

How can you go wrong with that?

Let me begin with the writers and/or books you need to know about. I’ve already written, to a fair degree, about some great, yet pretty unknown hard-boiled writers, so I won’t beat that dead horse here.

So, belly up to the bar, people...

Black Mask. If there’s a bible for this stuff, then the magazine Black Mask is it. Was in publication from 1920-1951. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler polished their chops writing for that mag. Erle Stanley Gardner, John D. MacDonald, and Lester Dent also got their start there. Every one of these guys went on to become a part of the canon of detective fiction.

The Maltese Falcon. Any list has to start with this book, and with Dashiell Hammett. Sam Spade is the iconic, tough private eye. The guy you think about when someone asks about tough guy private detectives. This book has it all: tough cops, a dame that’s not to be trusted, and a psycho killer. The way Hammett draws San Francisco, you can smell the fog rolling in off the bay, the fish being unloaded at the wharf. This novel is considered by many to be the great “opening salvo” of the genre.

The Big Sleep. And if Sam Spade is the granddaddy of all noir gumshoes, then Philip Marlowe is the grand uncle. In fact, Chandler did more to change the face of crime fiction than any other writer. So much of what Chandler wrote is now the granite-like foundation of the canon, that his contribution is often taken for granted. Let me just give you a small example, from this novel:

“You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was."

THAT, my friends, is tough, gritty writing, at its best.

Mickey Spillane. What I linked to here is one large volume that contains his first three, tough-as-nails novels: I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, and Vengeance is Mine! What? You’ve never heard of Spillane? Well, have you heard of his legendary private detective, Mike Hammer? No, not the coked-out, 80’s TV show, but the gumshoe in these novels. Spillane learned from the guys that came before him, like Chandler and Hammett, and took hard-boiled/noir to a whole new level violence and grit.

There are a few other guys that I think you should hop on down to your local used bookstore and check out: Ross MacDonald, Don Westlake (and his pen name Richard Stark), Frank Kane, and Brett Halliday. If you’re looking for more modern variants of this hard style of writing, then check out Dennis Tafoya or Michael Connelly. Hell, there’s even surf noir! If you haven’t read Kem Nunn’s The Dogs of Winter, then you are really missing out. Not really a detective novel with a private eye or anything, but there is a mystery, and how Nunn creates this dark sense of dread and impending doom (a staple of the noir style) is truly the work of a master writer.

I want to end this by hipping you to some quotes from Raymond Chandler’s treatise on detective fiction, The Simple Art of Murder. These snippets will give you a great idea of what exactly noir is about, and how the detective fits into the dark world he finds himself in:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor­–by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge.

The story is this man’s adventure in search of hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sex in YA—You Know You Want It

by Mindy McGinnis

"... and you know you want me to give it to you." Biff's words to Lorraine in Back to the Future had me totally flummoxed for a looong time. What was it? How could Biff give it to her? And why was he trying to touch her panties in the front seat of the car during the dance? Why was Lorriane talking about Marty's Calvin Kleins in their meeting scene? What's the fixation with underwear?

I remained in the dark about these topics for awhile. I knew sex existed, but I didn't have the whole Tab A, Slot B mechanics of the dance figured out until er... well... later. Not so today's teens. Blame it on the media, blame it on the culture, blame on parenting, blame it on the rain. (How many '80s references can I get in here?) Let's just set blame aside and focus on the fact that it simply IS. My opinion—kids aren't having more sex, or earlier than before—it's simply no longer a taboo subject.

So, because it's not taboo, because they do know the mechanics—what do we write about it? Do we write about it?

It's up to you. I've read some really graphic sex scenes in YA. I don't find them offensive. I have a hard time believing there's anything in there that the average teen hasn't already been exposed to. However, I do monitor content in the books that I give out to junior high students—not necessarily because I think they're about to have their minds deflowered—but because their parents DO believe that, and they might have my ass in a sling. And I need my ass. I use it every day.

My own philosophy runs thus: I have always believed that less is more. Why does Jaws work? 'Cause you don't see the shark. I typically refrain from physically describing my characters because I want my readers to fill in their hot guy, their hallway bitch, themselves as the MC. So when it comes to those backseat moments, or when my MC invites a guy over to "watch a movie," (yeah right, I have yet to see the end of Ferris Bueller's Day Off), I want them to fill in slot B on their own. Something happened. Unless it's imperative to the plot, does it matter what? Do they need the description? Do they need to see that shark?

Here's a great example from Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix: (I know you're saying "What! An HP makeout scene?") Oh yeah... it's there. A meeting of Dumbledore's Army has just ended. Everyone has filed out except for Cho and Harry, who are kinda hanging out there in the Room of Requirement... and who didn't guess that thing had multiple uses? pg. 456-457:

"I really like you Harry."

He could not think. A tingling sensation was spreading throughout him, paralyzing his arms, legs and brain.

She was much too close. He could see every tear clinging to her eyelashes...


He returned to the common room half an hour later to find Hermione and Ron..."

Hey! Wait a second!! Half an hour later? Gee... what were they doing? Now, obviously Rowling had a duty to her young readers to keep it clean, and to her older readers to keep it interesting. Not so for all writers, certainly. But I think it's a good example of letting the reader take it to their own level—of comfort, of familiarity, without being told what happened.

My own writing gives a little more detail than this highly gratuitous page break, but you get the idea.

One last thought—what do you want your readers to take away from your book? I haven't read Breaking Dawn, but I know that Edward and Bella break the headboard, 'cause that's all anyone wanted to talk about. Other than that—zero clue what the plot is about.

I'd love some feedback! What are your thoughts? Show the shark, or keep him underwater? :)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Tough Love and Tough Skin

by R.C. Lewis

Receiving criticism—if it's not in the first paragraph of a writer's job description, it should be. Handling it with professionalism and grace is a must-have skill.

Cat Woods recently discussed the basics of critique partners/groups and several real-life examples of changes made due to critter input. Some feedback resonates right away. (Yes, why didn't I think of that myself?) Some leaves you on the fence. (It could work, but the way I have it might be better, or maybe Door #3 ...) And some is immediately dismissed. (I write for teens and about teens, so while it might be grammatically correct, I'm not using "whom" in that dialogue.)

Those are the rational, I'm-the-writer-so-I-make-decisions-for-my-story reactions.

What about the emotional reactions? How do we react to "mean" critiques and reviews?

I'm not referring to an out-and-out bashing that says you have no business writing and calls into question the quality of your parentage. I'm not talking about reviews that turn out to be written by the guy/gal who stalked you in eighth grade and didn't take it well when you had to shoot him/her down. In fact, the feedback I'm talking about usually isn't "mean" at all.

It's honest. When in a pre-published critique situation, the critiquer usually intends to help. They tell you what works and what doesn't—for them. In a post-published review situation, they're doing what they're supposed to do—give their opinion of the book.

That doesn't mean it won't hurt, although some will deliver their criticism with more "cushioning" than others.

Should we hope for the "extra cushy" kind? Personally, I don't think so. Too much padding, and I might not realize how potentially serious an issue is. Tact is certainly appreciated, but not sugar-coating, at least for me.

Either way, still hurts.

So how do we handle it? Here's some un-cushioned advice, which I direct to myself as well: Suck it up.

When I'm working with my long-term critique partners, we know we're in each others' corner, so we can be blunt with both "Love it!" and "For the love of Neal Shusterman, R.C., what's with the eyebrow-raising?" Dialogue about feedback is useful, because it can help clarify both the writer's intention and the reader's perception.

In other situations, though, particularly if you're feeling hurt or have an urge to get defensive, here's my recommended response, in its entirety:

Thank you for taking the time. You've given me a lot to think about.

If you've already been published and it's a matter of negative reviews, I'll say it again: Suck it up. Moreover, ignore it. Don't respond. Stop looking at your Amazon or Goodreads page(s) if necessary.

And if you don't know why I recommend that so strongly, perhaps you missed the episode earlier this year involving the author of a book about a Mediterranean mariner.

How do you keep your ego in check when receiving criticism? What influence does the writer's possible reaction have when you offer feedback?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Critique Clinic

by Cat Woods

I won't lie to you, sometimes getting feedback from critique partners can stink worse than a riled-up midget skunk. Sometimes it makes us want to fling ourselves to the ground and pummel our fists onto the floor.

Is all feedback good feedback? No...and yes.

No, not all commentary on a piece will resonate with the writer, and not all feedback works with the writing style or the story. However, every single snippet of feedback can, and should, allow writers to see their work from a fresh perspective. Because not every reader will get the same message from our words, we need to pull on our big-girl panties and learn how to gracefully accept and use critique and commentary.

Please enjoy the snippets from seasoned writers and learn how feedback shaped their writing.

DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS: A crucial scene in an agented writer's manuscript didn't ring true to a crit partner who works in the juvenile court system. Having his young MC detained overnight in a jail cell would never happen in real life based on the story events. And yet it was imperative that she would be locked up and supervised to make her escape appear magical. Our diligent writer had to tweak the scene to make it believable for all the hoodlums who would know the system and call him out as a liar.

AUDIENCE FEEDBACK: One writer--finishing up her soon-to-be published book—needed group discussion questions. She found a beta reader who is active in the kind of book clubs where she envisions her book being read. This helped her weed out redundant questions, as well as those that typically shut down a book club discussion.

Successful juvenile lit author, Donna Jo Napoli, once stated at an SCBWI conference that she "bribes" kids with a box of chocolate to read her WIPs. They are allowed—nay, encouraged—to quit reading whenever they feel like it. Her only caveat is that they must tell her exactly where they stopped reading. Not why, but where. In this way, she can pinpoint where her writing fails to engage her audience.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: An agented writer told how she used a sounding board of fellow scribes to help her brainstorm motives for her MC. The complaint by critters had been a lack of overall character oomph. The only thing that kept an otherwise delightful MC going was...well,, the writer talked through her problem and hit upon a motive that resonated within the heart and soul of her MC—an unrealized pregnancy. No longer does she pine for love, but she has a reason to move forward. Her broken heart forced her to make choices she never would have made otherwise. All of which drastically changed the way readers perceived her MC.

UPPING THE ANTE: One MG writer told how crit group commentary changed the payment of the vet bill in his story from Dad's checkbook to the contents of the MC's piggy bank. By creating a scenario where the MC had to gamble with her pennies instead of her dad's paycheck, she felt the pinch. All of a sudden, she had a decision to make and a stake in the outcome. This gave readers something real to connect with—ah, yes, we've all had to weigh our spending habits carefully—and something to root for where the MC was concerned.

SEQUENCING: Have you ever tried to figure out which came first, the chicken or the egg? A chapter book writer described her timeline faux pas. A mad mama who assaulted a grumpy king for calling her family a demeaning name. Yet the king didn't actually shout his expletive until after his toes had been smacked. "Hmmm," said Writer's Agent, "how does this work again?" And so, the scene was rewritten to create a believable timeline.

BOOKSHELF BLUNDER: An amazingly gifted storyteller once tried to sell her crit group a false bill of goods. Within the first few paragraphs it became apparent the manuscript was not a middle grade novel, but rather begged to reside on the shelves in the adult section of the book store. Listen up if more than one reader hints that a manuscript is something "other." Weigh a critter's words carefully, and be prepared to take your writing in an unexpected direction.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: Winter-worn tar roads aren't the only things that need filling. Sometimes our manuscripts have more plot holes and missed opportunities than we dream possible. A journalist/aspiring novelist described how his crit group almost unanimously cried out for a key character to have an affair. All the signs were present from the first chapter and yet he was the only one who didn't see the growing attraction and potential hook-up. Whether the affair actually happens or not remains to be seen, but the writer is now aware of the vibes these characters were sending out and has consciously incorporated these feelings into the plot.

There is nothing wrong with honest feedback. It's how we handle the information that counts. Click here to see the actual evolution of a critiqued passage—pre and post feedback. To get a better understanding of how feedback affects writers and what to do with those feelings, stick around for RC's words of wisdom on wearing those big-girl panties (slated for Monday).

What feedback have you received that drastically changed a portion of your manuscript? How has feedback from crit partners helped your writing? How do you know what to accept and what to reject in terms of crit commentary?

And to answer Wednesday's question: will a crit partner lay down his/her life for you? Darn right. When things kick into high gear and agent requests roll in or edits are due to publishers, it’s important to have at least one critter who will literally set aside their real life to read an entire novel on a moment’s notice. Deadlines can be tight in this business and writers need to count on their buddies.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Crit Partner 411

by Cat Woods

When writers talk betas and critters, they don’t mean fish and insects—though sometimes it feels as if critiquers just blow bubbles up our kiesters or try to get under our skin like a bad case of scabies.

So why bother? Because all writing needs a fresh set of eyes at various stages for various reasons. Which leads me to my point—betas are great, critters are fabu, but a complete team can make the difference between helping and hindering our writing efforts.

So what makes a good Crit Team? That, my fellow scribes, depends on you. A good Crit Team will motivate, support, lay down their lives for you and (gently) slap you in the face with a good dose of reality. Essentially, they are puzzle pieces who fill in the blank spots of our abilities.

How to Assemble a Crit Team:

DEFINE YOUR WEAKNESSES. Can’t spell to save your life? Got flat characters? Does your writing have more plot holes than a Minnesota tar road after the spring thaw? Description, grammar, dialogue, consistency? Name your downfall(s) and determine your biggest needs in terms of writing feedback.

CAST YOUR NET. Writers' conferences give individuals the opportunity to meet and assess critters face to face. Conferences off limits? Join an established and respected group in your genre (SCBWI, RWA, HNS) and get to know other members who share similar interests. This can be done on or offline. Hop on over to your library and see who else has inquired about a writing group. Newspaper ads can also work, as well as contacting your local arts council. You might be surprised what a little sleuthing can reveal.

Writers in your area fewer than June bugs in January? Join writing communities on the web. AgentQuery Connect is my go to, although I’ve heard that finding like-minded writers on blogs, twitter and facebook is effective as well.

INTERVIEW POTENTIALS. Make darn sure you know who you buddy-up with and what they have to offer. Not every aspiring writer—and potential crit buddy—makes a good critiquer. Some can’t keep to a deadline. Some want more than they plan to give. Some spell hangberger worser than you do. Others may impose their writing styles onto your work and get grumpy when you don’t follow their advice. Still more will let their green-eyed monster out of the box when red-lining your pages. And let’s not forget the back-patter who has more kind—and useless—words than your great grandma or the genre-challenged who just can’t understand why your chapter book MC doesn’t silently murder the bully in the middle of the night.

Other Tidbits You Might Want to Consider

Be up front about your needs and expectations. Discuss how things will work regarding swaps and what you’re looking for from each team member. Give your team a trial run. After the first swap, do you feel compatible? Like you gained anything useful? Like you had anything useful to give in return? If not, this is the perfect time to gracefully walk away and reel in another critter.

You get what you give. Be the kind of writing partner you expect from other Crit Team members. Do not over-extend yourself or partner with other members who have poor no-saying skills. If you want a heart-felt critique, give one first.

Be flexible. Understand that sometimes you may need to find a fill-in for certain projects or aspects of a project. If your Crit Team members do not have a crucial skill you need at a given time, don’t be afraid to reassess your needs and cast your net until you find someone who can.

Will a Critter really lay down their life for you? Tune in on Friday, June 3 to find out. Also, learn why you need a pair of big-girl panties before engaging in a critique swap and experience hands on what you can do with the feedback you receive. Even if it stinks worse than an unclean fish tank and makes you itch more than a head lice infestation.

How do you find crit partners? How do you assess whether you and your writing partners are compatible and the feedback effective? How, when and where do you swap? Spill the beans on what makes your crit team tick, or ask those niggling questions on the logistics.

We’ll all learn together.

To learn how to conduct yourself as part of a team, join Joyce Alton at Yesternight’s Voyage.

Need to gracefully break up with your crit partner? Nab some sample starters at Words from the Woods.