Friday, August 31, 2012

Clearing Out the Clutter

by Riley Redgate

Why hello there!

I am writing this from my one hundred percent certified Dorm Room™. As of yesterday, you see, I am a fancy-schmancy College Student.

Classes started yesterday. Last week, I was lucky enough to go on a hiking/camping/backpacking trip in the wild outdoors with some folks from the College. Said trip involved a general deficit of personal hygiene, enough blisters to rival those of an entire cross country season, and campfires galore. And it was wonderful for a number of reasons:

1) I did not look at any screen of any sort for six days straight. This gave me a disproportionately heightened sense of personal accomplishment.

2) I made some excellent friends before I even got to orientation.

3) Here's a secret: Before the trip, I felt myself slipping down the slope toward Writer's Block. I was getting words out, but they were strained. The bottom of the proverbial barrel was getting severely damaged by my scraping fingernails. I was worried that when I got to college, I'd hit Real Actual Writer's Block just when I needed to be able to write for papers, etc. ... BUT, when I returned from the camping trip, my writerly brain felt refreshed. In fact, my mind had built up and saved several ideas over the six-day period, and the lack of ability to write them down made me all the more eager to take advantage of that ability when I got back.

Maybe it's nature. Maybe it's good company. Maybe it's depriving oneself of the actual physical ability to write for a while. Whatever it is, my new official advice for those afflicted by the dreaded writer's block is to take nature days. As in multiple nature days. Let fresh air clear your head; physically distance yourself from the word processor; don't think about writing unless it happens to drift across your mind in passing. Let the world flow before your eyes, easing the pressure on your writer-brain.

It's easy to get buried in the writerly world these days. We have blogs, twitter, social networking sites, email - with all of these awesome options to meet people with the same interests, it's easy to lose track of life outside all that, and the world outside our lives in general. I've often heard that the writer's best friend is a full and well-rounded life, every day/week/month filled with as many diverse experiences as possible. Maybe the fix for writer's block is to let your vat of life experiences fill back up so you can draw on it again with fresh perspective.

From this different physical place, and from a slightly different mental place, everything looks new to me. And this newness has proved wonderful for jolting my mind back to that place I needed to be. Three cheers for nature and the world around us!

Do you have any rituals to clear out the clutter?

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Genre Bending

by Mindy McGinnis

There are certain questions that make writers of all stripes both frustrated and frightened at the same time. What is it about your book that's so special? What distinguishes you from the rest of the crowd, either in the slush pile or on the store bookshelf? Is the market for your WIP over?

To my mind all of these questions are related, and boil down to the same word—genre. More specifically—your genre and how you've taken a small corner of it to claim as your own.

I recently had three separate but related online interactions that spawned this post. I'll tackle them each one at a time and draw them back together for the firework-inducing full-circle conclusion. Or at least a steepled-fingers-move from my reader and a thoughtful monosyllabic grunt.

Interaction #1—A Goodreads reviewer commented that Not a Drop to Drink sounds more like a post-apocalyptic Western than a dystopian, which is both astute of her and also very gratifying to me, as that's how I felt about it from the beginning.

Interaction #2—One of my Saturday Slash participants (a query critique on my personal blog, Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire) asked if they should change the genre for their query project from "dystopian" to "post-apocalyptic," as they were afraid that dystopian was "over." My response was that I didn't think it made a difference. Agents and readers know that the terms can (for the most part) be swapped for each other fairly easily. To my thinking it's no more different than calling chick-lit "women's literature." I told the Slash participant to go whichever way they liked, but it didn't matter. A rose by another name, and all that.

Interaction #3—Instead of re-hashing it I'm posting a screen-cap below of a Twitter exchange between myself, my fellow Friday the Thirteeners member Elsie Chapman, my critique partner R.C. Lewis and her fellow Hyperion author Tess Sharpe.

Tess's reaction to the simple re-phrasing of my genre spoke volumes to me. Even though she already felt like DRINK had a new angle for the dystopian genre, the idea of it being more akin to a neo-western than its dystopian brothers and sisters were the equivalent of "magic words" to her.

And this reaction had me re-thinking my answer to the Saturday Slash participant.

She's not the first person to mention to me they think the dystopian ship has quite sailed, left the harbor, and perhaps already sunk. And if this is the case I'm going to cry a lot when next fall comes around, and that would be a very bad thing. I am not fond of crying.

So what if I do start referring to DRINK as a neo-western? Will that appeal to more people? Will it lift the ever-present curse of it's-been-done?

Quite a few people in my Book Pregnant group of debut authors write what's referred to as Women's Literature. And they write it well. If their mss were marketed as Chick-Lit would they have died in their agent's inbox?

And what if my Slash volunteer chose the phrase "post-apocalyptic" to describe her ms instead of "dystopian?" Would the D-word close doors whereas "post-apoc" might leave room for a foot in the door?

I don't have the best answer to these questions, and I'm willing to bet that the answer changes depending on who you ask.

So what's your opinion?

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut neo-western, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, will be available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins in Fall 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book Pregnant, Friday the Thirteeners and The Lucky 13s. You can also find her on Twitter & Facebook.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Overcoming a Good Day

by Matt Sinclair

You ever have one of those days when everything goes right—until you realize that everything went horribly wrong?

The kids love every moment of daddy time at the park and hiking in the woods, but the next morning mommy discovers the tick bites. Or maybe the day after the date with the most amazing person you ever met you discover a closet full of skeletons, some with the flesh still wriggling.

How often do your characters have those good days? If you’re like me, you love posing problems for your characters to overcome, but I don’t think I often give them great days. Or if I do, I might skimp on the details. Why? Because good news is boring.

Look at it another way: Many of us complain about how we hate news of child molesters in the neighborhood or the thief who beat a grandmother nearly to death. I complain too. It’s awful, awful stuff. But do you remember the name of the autistic kid who shot the game winning basket a couple years ago? Do you know where he is now? Me neither.

I’m not saying there’s something wrong with you for paying closer attention to the bad news. In a sense, it’s healthy. We note it because it’s aberrant.

Fine. Use that. Now give your character a great day. Show what made it great. Spare no mental expense. Maybe one of the kids says something that changes dad’s day. It seems at the moment to be such a minor comment, but it later turns out to be ominous. Or maybe the skeletons in that person’s closet include a mutual friend or maybe a mutual ex? And maybe the only reason those details come out are because the date went so well in the first place.

Ultimately, whether characters have a good day or a bad day, they need to overcome the challenges life tosses their way. Because if everything is just good or just bad and no one ever learns from the struggle. Well, that is boring.

Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, recently published a short story anthology called Spring Fevers, which is available through Smashwords, Amazon, and in print via CreateSpace. It includes stories by fellow FTWA writers, including Cat Woods, J. Lea Lopez, Mindy McGinnis, and R.S. Mellette. He also blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68.

Friday, August 24, 2012

How to Make Unlikeable Characters Likeable

by Jean Oram

Last Friday RS Mellette dug into character descriptions and today we're going to dig into characters again--they are the bread and butter of a good read, after all. And that's always our goal--creating a good read. Let's get down to it.

There is one fatal flaw you never want to commit as a writer.

Never. Ever.

And last week I  committed it. In spades.

There is one thing a reader seeks when reading a story, and in particular, a romance.

And I didn't do it.

In turn, I received a well-placed (and well-deserved) smackdown from a traditional romance publisher.

What evil sin had I committed?

I made my hero (the love interest) unlikeable.

I know! How did that happen?

In my efforts to show how screwed up he was in the beginning of my story, CHAMPAGNE AND LEMON DROPS, (so he could later turn himself around and sweep the heroine off her feet at the most inopportune time--hello!) I inadvertently made him unlikeable. The reader couldn't see what the heroine saw in him. In fact, the reader probably cheered when the heroine returned the engagement ring.

You don't want that.

You really, really don't want that. At least not in the opening of a romance when the reader is supposed to be feeling the same heartbreak as the heroine.

writing likeable characters -- even Al Capone had his good points

So, in an effort to save you all from this fatal, fatal flaw (bangs head on wall repeatedly) here are five things you can do to make for a likeable (but still flawed) hero (or heroine):

1. Show Their Redeeming Qualities.

I know. That should really go without saying, shouldn't it? But it is important to note that even villains should have redeeming qualities. You need to offset the bad with something good to make them dynamic. And believable. Because really, who is all evil, all the time? (For example: Al Capone was sometimes called "Robin Hood" due to his generosity.)

2. Make it Identifiable.

For my story, the editor mentioned that (because it was a 'romance') the hero could be moody because of a romantic falling out, but not because he was screwed up. So in other words, make their issues something the reader expects of the genre and something identifiable in that regard. Romance readers don't want to read about alcoholics (unless it is backstory I am told), they want to hear about ROMANCE, ROMANCE, ROMANCE!

As well, character flaws should be identifiable to the reader. The average romance reader can identify with someone feeling like crap because of a bad romance. But for being an alcoholic after accidentally killing their father? Well… maybe not so much.

3. Use Humor to Show Flaws.

In one of my other stories, THE FIFTEEN DATE RULE (chick lit), I wanted to create a character who was on the fringes of the social world. In other words, she is a big, ol' geek. I wanted to show how awkward she was. I hit the mark. But so much so that my first writing critique partner didn't even want to read about her! My heroine was awful and unlikeable because she was so out there (non-identifiable). My critique partner very nicely informed me that if she was going to be awkward it should be presented in a humorous way. She wanted to like her. She wanted to identify with her even though she wasn't a gangly astrophysicist with a horrible dating record. But she needed to laugh along with the craziness. If we were going to do crash and burn relationships we needed humor. It was chick lit after all. Light is good.

4. Connectable Characters Connect.

In order to feel that vital empathy and get fully involved with a story we need to connect with the characters. We not only need our readers to identify where the pain, and flaws are coming from in our characters, but we also want our readers to connect with it so it becomes their issue as well. We may not have all been broken up with via an undating service like Allie in THE FIFTEEN DATE RULE, but we have (probably) all experienced a break up. And maybe even a humiliating break up to boot. Opening this story with a break up is my hope of providing something the reader can identify and connect with. Immediately.

5. Actions Have to Make Sense.

if you can believe it, I screwed this one up too. I had my characters in CHAMPAGNE AND LEMON DROPS do some stupid things without apparent motivation. Hint: That doesn't make them likeable. There has to be a BIG, SOLID reason for doing stupid, out of character, bad things. (Think of the shenanigans in The Hangover. Bad things, but we connected and liked the characters, right? Why? Because their actions make sense. They're stupid… but they make sense.)

People read to escape from their problems and the real world. More than anything they want likeable characters (even the awful characters--because we love to hate them, right?) and a story that whisks them away. Readers want to slide into the character's world and live their ups and downs.

Now that you have looked at characters from the write angle, what do you think? Have you met some unlikeable characters? What made them unlikeable for you? Did they redeem themselves? (I'm thinking of Professor Snape, here.) If you've cured unlikeable characters in your stories and have some tips on how to do so, share them below!

Jean Oram is now going through her manuscripts making sure those blasted characters are likeable. You can find her on her blog sharing her thoughts and tips on writing as well as on Pinterest, Facebook (do you like her?--ha ha!), Twitter, &

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed—Writers Be Kind to One Another in Your Public Comments

by Sophie Perinot

It is perfectly acceptable for an author not to like another writer’s work. Writers, especially good ones, are generally prolific readers and—because we are “in the biz”—it’s not surprising that we have strong opinions as to what works and what doesn’t when it comes to plot or prose. While wearing our “readers hats” we may even have cause to comment on or review books written by others (most of us are members of Goodreads at the very least). And, I would argue, it is perfectly acceptable for a writer to express his/her disappointment with a book in a review, comments to friends, and/or even an email to the author of the novel.

What is not acceptable is gratuitous cruelty or, worse still, attacking the person not the book.

A blog post by fellow debut author Nancy Bilyeau got me thinking about this subject. In a piece for English Historical Fiction Authors, Nancy discussed the rise and fall of an author few of us have heard of—William Harrison Ainsworth. While there was plenty of interesting information in Nancy’s piece (about the man, his work, and how he shaped popular images of The Tower of London), what will stick with me is this:

“One writer said of him in 1870: ‘Let us start with an opinion fearlessly expressed as it is earnestly felt, that the existence of this writer is an event to be deplored.’ Ainsworth was still alive when this sentiment was published, and in reduced circumstances.” (emphasis added)

I do not know who “one writer” was but that is just as well because if I did I would be sorely tempted to dig him up and give him a stern talking to. I cannot imagine ANYTHING less appropriate or professional than wishing another writer—another human being—did not exist purely on the grounds of his prose (Nancy’s article makes clear Mr. Ainsworth was an upstanding fellow). Did “one writer” give a moment’s thought to how his fellow author might feel stumbling over such comment in the morning paper or overhearing it at a gathering of writers?

We all know this sort of behavior is, sadly, not a thing of the past. I can think of several recent examples from the blogosphere. I will not list them (or link to them), however, because to do so would be to repeat hurtful words spoken about living authors. Suffice it to say the modern examples are chilling—just as you’d expect from a culture that prides itself on speaking its mind and then some.

Civility and professional courtesy—that’s what we need. Without them we might as well be politicians. First off we need to remember we are not required to share every writerly thought or opinion that comes into our heads. But, to the extent we choose to offer criticisms of other writers work we can choose to:

  • Be polite and constructive. For example, “the novel’s pacing lagged in the mid-section” not “the pace was so slow I aged ten years in the last five chapters. I can only recommend this book to insomniacs.”

  • SCRUPULOUSLY focus our comments on the book not the writer. For example, “I found the alternating first-person perspectives confusing,” not “that Sophie Perinot doesn’t have the talent to write two viewpoints successfully. In fact I am not sure she could even pull off one.”

  • Make certain we are judging the book against the author’s goals (what she set out to do) rather than what we would have written or would rather read. For example, “the author cast the book as a thriller but I was never in suspense” not “the book is a thriller but I wish more time had been spent on the romantic plotline because I love romances.”

A great way to test whether our comments are appropriate before making them public is to imagine ourselves on the receiving end of them. No matter how deserved your comment was Mr. Edgar Allen Poe, couldn’t you have thought of kinder phrase than “turgid prose” when describing Mr. Ainsworth’s writing (another example from Nancy’s piece)?

If empathy and human kindness (our better angels) won’t sway us away from personal attacks and virulently worded critiques, then self-interest should. When you read Mr. Poe’s comment above were you disappointed in him? I was (thinking of driving to Baltimore and giving him a stern talking to). If such comments make readers think less of the writer who penned them how is that good for sales? Besides, the world of writing is a small world. Someday the author you savaged may be asked what he thinks of including you on a panel at a writers conference, or he may be asked to recommend a next novel for a book club. I am betting you get neither the seat nor the recommendation. So before you prick a fellow writer with personal attacks or cutting remarks about his novel, remember there will be blood and not all of it may be the other guy’s.

Sophie Perinot is author of THE SISTER QUEENS (NAL/2012). For those in the Mid-Atlantic region Sophie will be a Presenting Author at the Baltimore Book Festival this September. If you are looking for her in the virtual world she both blogs and tweets.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Writing Cycles

By Jemi Fraser

This summer has been a lot of fun for me with my writing & I've realized a few things about my writing process. I do things in cycles.

I often like to jumpstart a novel with NaNo. This August I signed myself up for CampNano which has been a lot of fun (almost 40k now thank you very much). I don't need the incentive to write, but I like the camaraderie and there's something about inputting the word count into the site and watching that graph climb. Love it!

After NaNo though, I tend to put the wip aside for a while - mostly because NaNo never comes at the perfect time for me. I'm usually in the middle of revisions. So after the crazy month, I put that wip on the shelf and head back to my revisions.

Because I'm a pantster,  I think this gives my subconscious some time to work on the last part of the story. If I leave the story for a bit, it's amazing how well the subconscious can pull together those plot threads.

When I head back to the NaNo story, I read it over from the beginning - and get excited about it all over again.

I like to let the stories marinate for a while between drafts - several months is best. I have a very strong memory for words and patterns. If I don't let the story sit for a bit, it's really hard to catch some things that need changing because my memory believes the words are right - just because it's seen it before. So I trick myself. :)

Rinse and repeat. Right now I've got 3 stories on the go - although I rarely work on more than one at a time. I focus on one for a few months, let it sit. Switch to the next story.

Now I just need to break the cycle and start getting ready to send some of these stories out into the world!

Do you have cyclical patterns in your writing? Do you need to let things marinate or can you dive right back in?

Jemi Fraser is an aspiring author of romantic mysteries. She blogs and tweets while searching for those HEAs.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Physical Experiment

by R.S. Mellette

Let's play a game.  It should take about 10 minutes, and be fun for you and educational for us all.  I'll explain why after the game.

Here are the rules:

1. Read the following few words of a work in progress.

"You're in a lot of trouble, young lady." 

Adults say the stupidest things sometimes.  Of course twelve-year-old Suzy Quinofski was in trouble.  She was covered in dirt and dried tears.  Her fingers were cracked and bloody from digging in the ground, and she was being questioned in a police interrogation room.  The man informing her of the obvious was Detective Mark Danner. 

"You don't know the half of it," she said to him.  Actually, he didn't know a tenth of it.  He didn't know a millionth of it.

"Then why don't you fill me in?"

"Because you couldn't comprehend it if I did."

"Suzy!"  Janice Quinofski, a.k.a. Mom, used what Suzy called her "bad dog!" voice, reserved for those rare occasions when Suzy needed disciplining.  Obviously, Mom wasn't accustomed to seeing her sweet, straight-A, multiple-scholarship-contender, daughter acting like a street kid.  This was a whole new world for both of them.

"What, Mom?  It's true."  Then to Danner, "No offense.  I don't think there's anyone on the planet who could understand it."

"It's not that complicated.  I just want to know what happened to Billy Bobble."

"I told you.  He disappeared."

"Disappeared to where?" asked Danner.

"If I knew that he wouldn't be 'disappeared,' would he?"

"There was an explosion," said Danner.

"No, there was an endoplasmic eruption of what we think might be Bose-Einstein condensate on an OTC scale."


When Suzy didn't answer, Danner turned to her mother.  "Off the chart."

"Out of all of that what you didn't get was OTC?" asked Suzy.

"Maybe I'm not as dumb as you think."

Suzy nodded her head toward the two-way mirror that filled a wall of the interrogation room.  "Maybe you've had too many lawyers complain about abbreviations in your transcripts."

"Call it what you want," said Danner to Suzy ...  "Something blew up and it took Billy with it."

"Maybe so," said Suzy, "but not in the way you think."

"How then?"

"If Billy exploded his guts would be all over the school yard.  Did you find any bloody remains in Linda Lubinski's hair?"

"Suzy!  Billy was your friend."

"Is my friend, Mom.  Billy is my friend and I wish they would let me out of here so I could help get him back."

"How would you do that?" asked Danner.

She hung her head.  "I don't know."

"Okay, good.  That was honest.  Keep it up and together we can find Billy."  Suzy's silence passed as capitulation. 

"Your friends have told us—"

"They aren't my friends."

Danner stopped to acknowledge what she said, then went on.  "They told us you and Billy were working on some sort of elaborate magic trick."

"Not a trick.  Actual magic."

"Hey, I need that honesty.  You're smart enough to know there's no such thing as actual magic."

"Okay, if you want to get all Arthur C. Clarke on me; 'Technology advanced to the point of being indistinguishable from magic' - which for you would probably be a cell phone."


"That's all right, Ms. Quinofski.  Suzy, you can be as surly and sarcastic as you like, so long as you tell me what happened.  How did Billy disappear?"

"It's a long story."

"I get paid by the hour."

"You won't believe me."

"Try me."

"Okay."  Suzy glared at him with as cold of a stare as she could muster and told the truth.  "Billy Bobble has a magic wand."


Done?  Good.  Now:

2. In the comments section write a sentence or two describing what the characters in the excerpt look like WITHOUT GOING BACK TO RE-READ IT and WITHOUT READING ANYONE ELSE'S DESCRIPTION. 

3. When you've done that, read the rest of this blog, then feel free to add another comment at the end and read the other descriptions.

You've had to go through this experiment because I am still bitter about something a high school teacher did to me grade-wise decades ago.

It was my senior year.  English Composition.  We were told to write a paper describing a person we knew.  I'm sure our teacher – whose name escapes me – was just following along in the lesson plan.  I don't think she'd been out of college a full year yet.  We were supposed to learn about descriptive paragraphs, so the assignment was to describe a person.

I happened to have an afterschool job in an ice cream shop at the time, and a girl I worked with was extremely annoying, so I wrote about her.  Thing is, I never wrote about what she looked like, only what she said.  The story was nothing but dialogue.

My teacher gave me a B+.  I think.  I do remember she thought I'd be all excited about the plus.  "It's really good," she told me, "but you didn't do the assignment.  You didn't describe the character."

"Sure I did," I complained.  "Tell me what she looks like."

I kid you not, a police sketch artist could have drawn a picture from her description, and you'd have sworn it was a photo of this girl.  I nailed it.  I put the image of the character in her mind.

No go.  Still a C+.  Or B+.  Whatever it was, it wasn't an A.

Flash forward years later to someone giving me advice on screenwriting.  "You don't want to paint too clear of a physical picture of the character because you don't know what star might read the script.  If you say she looks like Pamela Anderson, and the script lands on Meryl Streep's desk, then you've screwed up."

But now I write novels as well as screenplays, and I like using actions and dialogue to make the reader think I've told them what the character looks like, when in fact, I've only given them clues and they've filled in the rest.


I'm fooling myself and what I think is style is simply laziness.  Honestly, I don't know, which is why I created this experiment.

If you wrote a description in the comments – and I hope you have, because this post will be embarrassing without them – go back and re-read the excerpt to see if you can find where you got your ideas from.  The writing is from my latest WIP, Billy Bobble Has A Magic Wand.  I'm curious if the magic has worked.

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers anthology.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Submitting Writing Samples Q & A

by Cat Woods

You've written your manuscript, polished your query and gathered a list of your ten favorite agents to submit to. Should be simple, right? Just type in their addresses and hit send.

But, wait! There's more. Some agents want a synopsis, while others want a sample. Some may want both. Now what?

Send what is asked for. No more, no less. Agents are busy. They can receive upwards of 300-1,000 submissions a week. They don't have time to fiddle around with writers who don't follow the rules and who don't respect their time. They want a quick query to catch their attention and a smattering of sample pages to see if you can deliver what you promised. A table of contents or a synopsis is often requested to show the arc of a body of work. In other words, they want to know if your story makes sense.

Still, even when guidelines are spelled out, writers are often left with questions on what, exactly, to send.


Q1–Agent Awesome wants the first ten pages. Which ten pages should I send?
A1–The first ten. The absolute very first ten pages of prose you want your readers to read. If you have a prologue, start on page one of your prologue.

Q2–"But," you argue, "my prologue isn't my story. I don't even talk about it in the query letter."
A2–Then why do you have a prologue? If it doesn't enhance the story and doesn't provide an enticing place to start, then you might want to reconsider keeping it. While the issue of prologues is widely debated, my answer remains the same as above. Send the absolute very first ten pages of prose you want your readers to read.

Q3–Chapter one is kind of slow. I like chapter two much better. Can I start my first ten pages with chapter two?
A3–Hell no. If chapter one is boring, ditch it. If the action starts in chapter two and your MC is rockin' pages 12-27, those might just be your first chapter after all. If you don't want to read it, why would an agent want to read it?

Q4–Agent Incredible wants the first ten pages. Do I stop at the bottom of page ten even though it's mid-sentence?
A4–Do chickens have lips? (For non-farm readers, that would be a no.) I recommend picking the strongest ending closest to ten pages as possible. If your chapter ends on page twelve, send the first twelve pages. If your chapter ends on page eight, why not stop there? If, however, you have long winded chapters, don't drag the first ten pages out to twenty-seven. Simply find the strongest ending within the ten page range—-give or take two or three on either side—and send those.

Q5–Uber Agent allows writers to send the first three chapters or the first fifty pages. My chapters are only twelve pages long. Where should I stop?
A5–Whichever gets the most quality writing in front of his eyes. Here's the deal, if an agent is still enthusiastically reading at the end of page thirty-six, he will keep reading to page fifty if it's in front of him.

Q6–Super Duper Agent X has like four different sample policies. Her agency website states queries only, while her personal blog says she'll take the first ten pages. Yesterday, I noticed a tweet from her stating she would take the first fifty pages, but her Facebook page says three chapters. What do I do?
A6–Refer to A5. Get as much of your story in front of her face as you can while still respecting the information out there and Super Duper Agent X's time.

Q7–Do I end my first fifty pages at fifty or can I send 52? What if I only send 48?
A7–Always send as much of your story as you respectfully can while stopping in the best, most cliff-hangy spot you can. Your sample is a sales pitch. If you end right in the middle of a cry-baby fest on page fifty, Agent Awesome may not feel as compelled to request more as he would have if you ended on page forty-eight with your MC clutching a butter knife while hiding from the antag's sneaking, AK-47-toting shadow. Sell your story. Because if you don't, no one else will.

Q8–How do I send my writing sample?
A8–Unless otherwise instructed, paste it into the body of an email. Business Spam Filters eat attachments for lunch. Viruses keep agents from opening many attachments from unknowns. Because of this, your safest bet in ensuring that your manuscript sample will arrive in Uber Agent's inbox is to paste it. But, paste it simply because many formatting options get bungled up when emailing.

Q9–What other ways might an agent request me to send a writing sample?
A9–Usually only snail mail or an attachment if they're expecting it. In the good old days, I've sent disks. But that was waaaay back when. R.C. sneaks in to add, "Several agencies now have an uploading option on their websites, so you submit your query and sample using their electronic form. Follow their instructions."

Q10–I'm writing nonfiction. Which chapters should I send?
A10–Typically, your three or four strongest ones. When submitting a nonfiction proposal, you will need to have a detailed table of contents instead of a synopsis. Chapters do not have to be consecutive. Rather, they should highlight the arc of the book if possible.

Q11–I'm writing fiction. Which chapters should I send?
A11–Start with chapter one and end with the third chapter or page ten or page fifty. Never, ever send pages out of order. Not even if you're sending snail mail. And don't turn one page backwards in the middle of your submission to "check" on whether an agent/editor read the entire thing. These tricks are sure signs of unprofessionalism and agents and editors typically steer clear of unprofessional writers.

Q12–I write children's books and like to make dummies. Should I send that with my story?
A12–Nope. Agents and editors with an interest in juvenile lit have an instinctive feel for page breaks—the purpose of a dummy—so your vision isn't necessary to help them make a decision. If anything, it looks amateurish and can detract from your story.

Q13–I write children's books and have illustrated some of it. Should I send my illustrations?
A13–NOPE. Publishing houses often work with a stable of illustrators. Publishing houses often have very different illustration ideas than authors. Publishing houses rarely consult authors on the visual end of a picture book project. So, unless you are a professional illustrator, do not send illustrations.

Q14–My manuscript is single spaced, but I just learned that agents expect them double spaced. Do I double space my ten pages and send the seventeen, or do I double space first and only send the first ten?
A14–Whenever we submit, we should always have our manuscripts formatted properly. In essence, this means one inch margins, Times New Roman, double spaced. Do this formatting first and send your pages accordingly.

As a side note: we can waffle all day long over ten pages versus twelve pages or three chapters versus five chapters, but at the end of the day, it's the quality of your writing that will determine how many of those pages Agents A-Z read. If your first paragraph sucks, Agent Awesome will not read all forty-eight pages just because you sent them. Likewise, if your writing is utterly and completely amazing, Agent Z will keep reading to page twelve even if he requested only the first ten.

So, provide ample opportunity for an agent/editor to read your sample while still respecting her time and guidelines. Act like a professional and you'll be treated like one. And, please, send only the best first pages you have—no matter how many there are.

For more on how to polish your manuscript into submission readiness, check out Noah Lukeman's writing bible: THE FIRST FIVE PAGES.

What submission guidelines questions do you have? What tips do you have for sending sample pages to potential agents/editors?

When Cat Woods isn't polishing her own writing samples or pondering the exact science of the publishing industry, she can be found blogging at Words from the Woods or moderating at AgentQuery Connect.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Attention to Retail

by Stephen L. Duncan

I recently stopped by a Twitter chat with DGLM agent Michael Bourret to pilfer some of that publishing mojo he was slinging and while I was there, ended up sharing in some mutual hate with agent Lauren Abramo for our detest of Manchester United.

Really? You like the Reds? How original. How trendy.

What many of the tweeps (who’d eagerly stopped by for more serious reasons) wanted to know from Michael was, what was next? Basically, what’s going to be the next Hunger Games? His response in tone had a little more in common with my conversation with Lauren—understandable from someone in his position. Imagine getting five hundred dystopian pitches on a Tuesday afternoon when all you really want is a dirty tell-all on Dan Cathy.

I’m kidding. (Sort of.)

Obviously I don’t speak for Michael, but I imagine his point in advising his tweeps to not worry about what's next is that by writing to trends, an author misses an opportunity to tell a story that’s original and, more importantly, inspired. There’s no heart in stories written because it's the new hot thing. There's no drive. No passion; their author merely another American in a Manchester United shirt. A literary tourist.

While I share in his distaste of trends, at the same time I think it’s important to be aware of what is selling in the marketplace, and sometimes more importantly, what isn’t—if only to temper your expectations of the fight your manuscript will face to get to a bookstore. Maybe you’re contemplating a cyborg mermaid romance in space, but it just so happens that there are several cyborg mermaid romantic space books out there on the shelves. If that idea is competing in your head with a quiet historical story about a boy in the War of 1812, which story do you think the market would better support a year or two from now when the book gets released?

Hint: There isn’t a right answer.

The weird thing about the market is that there’s room for anything, and there’s room for nothing. You play the odds and hope that your brilliant mastery of language and pace of plot carries your idea to the next level and gets published, regardless of what the market will bear. It is likely, though, that if your manuscript involves a subject matter that is currently saturating the market, it will have a difficult time getting attention from agents, editors, and ultimately, readers. Do we need another love triangle-bad boy–good guy–pushover girl romance? No. Would one sell to a house right now? Possibly, if it was told really, really well.

Now, look. I’m not suggesting that you let the market dictate what you write. I mean, I kinda, sorta just did, but that’s not really what I meant. The reality is, the gravity of inspiration rarely lets us writers choose which story grabs hold of our imagination. Instead, we tend to free-fall toward ideas, subjects, and plots, unable to pull out of the dive until we’ve either finished writing the book or our inspiration breaks apart and crashes into the ground.

So, let the market be persuasive if you like, but never binding. Learn what you can from it, but don't let the market overrule an idea choice that carries with it your passion of the moment. Because lacking passion is why following trends will only yield a hollow endeavor.

And for the love of Alan Shearer, take off that Manchester United shirt.

Stephen L. Duncan writes young adult fiction, including his debut, the first book in The Revelation Saga, due in 2014 from Medallion Press. You can find him blogging on and on Twitter.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Hamstringing My Story

by Lucy Marsden

I don't know exactly how it happens, but the cycle goes something like this:

1) I get an idea for an approach to a story that I spend a lot of time developing, and that I become very invested in. Once this happens, I no longer see the approach as one among many possible choices for the given story dynamic; it just is.

2) I attempt to implement the approach, but either a) the approach is inherently broken, or b) I personally don't have the chops to pull it off. In any case, the end result is that I completely gum up the action or character development, bogging the entire story down.

3) I don't question the chosen approach, because it has become invisible to me. Instead, I just continue to do whatever I've been doing harder, becoming increasingly frustrated and demoralized.

4) I lather, rinse, repeat.

5) Eventually, by the grace of the gods (or some kind but pointed remarks from my critique partner, who is fatigued by all the wailing and gnashing of teeth), I realize—to take an instance at random—"Wow, if I stop insisting that this book is the first in a series about four roommates, all of whom will use this first scene as the jumping off point for their own stories, and I allow the book to about a particular heroine whose story crosses paths with the others in the series in a fun, but non-strangling fashion, this could totally work!"

6) I call my writing buddies to discuss, once again, the warning signs of early-onset dementia, but decide that, given my baseline, it's going to be a tough call.

Am I alone in this bone-headedness? Please drop in with tales of how you, too, practically beat your story to death by insisting on a certain approach to it. (If you've never had this experience before, kindly have the common courtesy to make something up. Thank you.)

Lucy Marsden is a romance writer living in New England. When she’s not backstage at a magic show or crashing a physics picnic, she can be found knee-deep in the occult collection of some old library, or arguing hotly about Story.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Perspective on Our Times

by R.S. Mellette

My neighbor will turn 100 years old this month. She was as old as I am now when I was born. When she was one year old, the first drive-in gas station was built, bringing the total number of gasoline-purposed buildings up to 3 in the whole country.

I think of her every time I see commercials on TV for natural gas drilling in America, where they say that—using fracking—we have 100 years of gas reserves. By the time I'm my neighbor's age, the country will be halfway out of gas. By the time someone born today is her age, we will have no gas reserves at all, so I wonder what the gas lobby is bragging about.

Why do I bring this enviro-political hot potato up in a writing blog? Because of something a Turkish acting teacher told our class at North Carolina School of the Arts 30 years ago. "Know the politics of your character," she said, and followed up with, "the politics of most American characters is none at all, which is just as telling."

And I think of Steinbeck, who was 10 years old when my neighbor was born. He told stories of families and working class individuals against the backdrop of the only economic times worse than those we are living in today.

I think of Mark Twain, who died just two years before my neighbor was born. He recorded the voices of America from his youth, when this was not a free country for many of the people who built it.

And I wonder what young Twain might live in Arizona? What Steinbeck might now be on the road to a North Dakota oil boomtown? For the first time in world history, we have to change our economy from a high-density fuel source (fossil fuels) to a lower one (hydrogen, solar, wind). Will we have a writer to take us through this change the way Charles Dickens (died 42 years before my neighbor was born) took us from wood to coal, or Upton Sinclair (34 when my neighbor was born) from coal to oil?

Sure, you might not write about these world changing events, but if your stories are contemporary, they should be included. They play in the background. They are the undertow to the waves your characters face. And we, as authors, owe it to our society to record their effects.

We writers are all Tom Joad. He promised to "be there" and so should we.

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers anthology.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Romance vs Erotica vs Porn

by J. Lea Lopez

Even though I'm not a fan of Fifty Shades of Grey, have no problem with porn, and am not a mommy (to anything except my adorable dog), my blood still boils when those books are called "mommy porn." I find it extremely degrading to women as readers and sexual beings, as well as to erotica writers. While many erotica writers use terms like "smut" and "porn" to describe what they write, in an attempt to reclaim the words from their contemporary negative connotations, those words do still have that feel of negative judgment. Especially porn. I think many of us would agree that in calling a book mommy porn, the intention isn't praise.

In any case, it has brought up discussions surrounding the apparently difficult-to-define lines between romance, erotica and porn. It's fairly clear in my mind, but I can see how it might be more muddled for others. Especially as some romance gets steamier and erotic romance becomes more prominent. When I'm asked about the difference between erotica and porn, however, it's pretty obvious that the person asking is under the impression that erotica IS porn, and that they don't think very highly of that. So let's look at the difference.


Plain and simple, porn in writing is the same as porn in film: meant for sexual arousal. It's stroke material, if you'll forgive the crudeness of that term.

Some people will assume, then, that any book with super sexy scenes must be porn, because what are those scenes meant to do but to get the reader hot and bothered? Of course a sex scene in romance or erotica should be hot, but there's more to those scenes than sex. Or at least there should be, in my opinion.

In romance and erotica, the sex has purpose in the context of the story; in porn, the story is merely a vehicle to deliver the sex.

I hate to say it, but a good portion of self-published "erotica" I've come across would probably fit better in the porn category because they recycle the same tired old tropes, have little character depth or development, and the plot feels like an afterthought thrown in to hold together the sex scenes. There's nothing wrong with porn, but please call it what it is.


There are two key components that define romance: a focus on the development of romantic love between the hero and heroine, and the HEA—or happily ever after—ending. Story doesn't have these things? Chances are it's not a romance.

There are other implied expectations in romance, as well as some very specific requirements from some publishers and imprints (like Harlequin). They can include things such as:
  • Specific age ranges for hero and heroine
  • Alpha male heroes
  • Heterosexuality
  • Monogamy
  • Heroines who are vulnerable, but "complex, strong and smart."
  • "Sexual language is euphemistic and romantic, not explicit" (Harlequin Desire)
The list could go on and on. Bottom line, though, is that there's the development of romantic love between a man and a woman, and it will end with either an implied or stated committed relationship.


Erotica can trip people up sometimes. They aren't sure what it is. Is it just romance with more sex? Is it porn with a bit of romance? What IS it? It's difficult to sum up in a one-sentence definition, but I'll try. Here's what I think erotica is:

Fiction that includes explicit sex as a major part of the plot, but that is not necessarily romance.

That seems like it leaves a lot of wiggle room, doesn't it? Some people say that in erotica, sex or a a sexual journey are the story, but that feels too restrictive to me. I think there's room for a lot more than just that. There may certainly be some romantic elements in erotica, but HEA or even HFN are not requirements. What else makes erotica different?
  • Plot and writing are just as important as they would be in romance or any other genre!
  • Free to explore ideas like non-monogamy and sexualities outside of hetero
  • Bring on the love triangles! (or rectangles, or hexagons, or whatever...)
  • No need to wrap everything up neatly. Sometimes melancholy endings are good.
  • Freedom to explore, in-depth, some of the emotional and psychological issues surrounding sex and sexuality
Sex scenes should be at least mildly sexually arousing, whether in porn, erotica, or romance. (Unless there's some other purpose for the scene.) That's what sex is. So simply relegating all writing with sexually arousing scenes to "porn" would be doing a disservice to all literature.

What are some other differences you can think of when it comes to romance, erotica, and porn?

J. Lea Lopez is a writer with a penchant for jello and a loathing for writing bios. Find her on Twitter or her blog, Jello World. She has had some short stories published, most recently in the Spring Fevers anthology.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Journey is the Destination

by MarcyKate Connolly

It seems these days that we’re always rushing to get everywhere faster. We want to get to work (and home again) as soon as possible. We want the highest speed internet. The shiniest new toy.

This also translates into our writing lives. We want to finish that draft, so we can edit. Then we want to get edits over with because then we can send it to beta readers. Then we want them to hurry up so we can send it to agents, then editors, and get it onto a shelf in a book store.

You might want to slow down.

Why? Because all those places you’re rushing to, while awesome in their own right, aren’t the real destination. They’re a moving target, constantly shifting. Goals are necessary and they help you along the path you take, but are you really writing solely to get published? Or is there a deeper motivation behind that goal?

There will always be exceptions, but I suspect 9.5 times out of 10, the reason we have that goal in the first place is because we love to write. Unfortunately, this can be rather easy to forget. I hear all the time how some writers love drafting, but hate editing or hate getting the words on paper initially, but love making them shiny later. And of course, no one likes writing a query. :) When we're mired deep in the part that gives us grief, it can seem like the light at the end of the manuscript will never appear.

Perhaps if we slowed down and took a few minutes during those times we’re engaged in that part of the writing process (be it drafting, editing, querying, etc) to remember why we’re doing this, how much we love telling stories, it might get a little easier.

The thing I really hate to see is when writers lose the joy of the process. Because that’s what it is. It is a constant process that cycles around and starts back at a blank page every so often.  It doesn’t matter if you’re Joe Schmoe or Steven King—that blank page is a great equalizer. We all have to go through it, whether we’re just starting out or have several books under our belts.

So don’t forget to love it. Relish that first draft if it’s what you like best. And when you get to the parts you get stuck on, remind yourself of how much better the book will be because of it. Every part of the writing process has a place, and we need it to make the book the best it can be.

But most importantly, don’t forget to enjoy the ride.

MarcyKate Connolly writes young adult fiction and becomes a superhero when sufficiently caffeinated. When earthbound, she blogs at her website and ferrets out contests on Twitter.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Gatekeeper's Manifesto

by R.S. Mellette

In May of this year, founder Jeff Bezos told the New York Times, “I see the elimination of gatekeepers everywhere.”

As co-Director of the Dances With Films festival, I am somewhat of a gatekeeper myself, and I can tell Mr. Bezos, the world is not ready for raw art.  Without gatekeepers, there is nothing to tell the consumer, "This product is good; that one is a waste of time," and believe me, the majority of unfiltered art is horrid.  Much of it is so bad it's painful to experience.  With leisure time at a premium, there is a tremendous value in the consumer being able to shop from behind well-kept gates, buying only what has been keeper-approved.

As an writer, I've also run into some gatekeepers I'd like to kill.  Generally, these fall under the heading of those who use the phrase, "People don't like..."

Believe it or not, it is not a gatekeeper's job to guess what people will like—or even, what they will buy.  This concept flies in the face of what every gatekeeper thinks their job is, so I'll say it again.

It is not a gatekeeper's job to guess what people will like—or even, what they will buy. 

Marketing executives, who have somehow become the biggest gatekeepers of them all, like to think they believe this manifesto.  They rush around with spreadsheets of sales figures on works that are "like the product we're considering" (aka "comps") to predict—not guess—exactly how much people will like this new product and how many they will buy.  Often, they are quite accurate.

But it's still just a guess, and it doesn't address products for which comps are hard to find.  It only works for established customers, and doesn't consider new ones.

So what if we take out the idea of what other people like or don't like entirely?  What if gatekeepers all followed the three rules of criticism: 1) Are the Artist's objectives clear? 2) Does the Artist achieve those objectives? 3) Does the Artist do this in a way that I like?

Yes, rule number three goes against the marketing idea so many MBA's learn in college that "your opinion doesn't matter."  I say it does, and here are the numbers to back me up:

According to the US census, there are about 314 million people in the country right now.   So let's say you, as a gatekeeper, are an average member of that population.  That means you're in a group of about 157 million people.

No?  Since you're a gatekeeper that means you probably went to college, you read more than the average person, might have traveled more, etc.  Okay, so let's err on the conservative side and say you represent, not 50% of the population ... and not 25% ... let's say you share just 1% of the same taste and sense of quality as the rest of people you grew up with, went to church with and hang out with.

That leaves 3 million customers who will like the same stuff you do. 

Of course, not all 3 million are reachable and not all of them are going to buy whatever it is you're selling, but in this model, they are interested.  So let's say only 10% of them are buyers.

That's 300,000 in sales.  Is that good?  Noah Lukeman writes extensively on the subject of book sales, so an educated person's answer would be, "maybe."  But here's a quote from his calculations I find interesting.
It is easy to gauge if a book is a huge failure, selling only 100 copies, or if it is a huge success, selling 100,000 hardcovers—but what if it falls into that gray area? What if it sells 7,000 hardcovers? Or 11,000 trade paperbacks?

By those standards, one tenth of those potential buyers would be a good hit for a first time author.

So, without regard to what people may or may not like, if a company can sell to one tenth, of one tenth, of one percent of the population, or .01 percent, then they are doing well. 

Now let's look at the gate keeping process for books.

LEVEL ONE—The Author.  If an author is good—which is a big assumption—they have slaved away to create the best work possible.  This means they've had beta readers.  They've done workshops.  They might have hired editors.  They have created to the best of their ability a finished product, which they submit to:

LEVEL TWO—The Agent.  This is the front line.  The agent faces pure raw art.  Mike Rowe should do an episode of Dirty Jobs on the muck they have to slog through to find a single gem.  I know from working with the film festival, that finding those gems is as exciting for the agent as it is for the people who created them.  Together with the author(s), the agent will polish the work for presentation to:

LEVEL THREE—The Editor.  An editor is not looking for a diamond in the rough, but a diamond among other precious stones.  If the agent and author have done their jobs, then any one of the works submitted to an editor should be able to find a market (see the numbers above).  In theory, an editor should then be choosing, not so much the books that are of the best quality—since they are all gems—but the books that best fit into the entire piece of jewelry the imprint is creating.  Here is where it is important for the imprint to have good internal communications.  If the editor isn't sure what pieces they are looking for, then how can they make an informed decision?  Once the editor has found a manuscript, then he or she will work with the author and agent to present it to:

LEVEL FOUR—Acquisitions.  Mathematically speaking, at this point a blind monkey could pull the submissions from a hat and have the same chances of finding a successful book.  I don't mean that figuratively.  I can't remember where I read the article, but someone ran the numbers and found that random selection of projects submitted to a Hollywood Studio would be as successful, if not more so, than choices made by the executives.  Acquisitions often means a committee of people, usually dominated by:

LEVEL FIVE—Marketing.  Imagine an executive walking into his boss's office and saying, "I am not good enough to do my job, so you should make it easier for me."  Sounds ridiculous, but that's what marketing has been doing for years.  "We can't sell that," they say.  Or, "there isn't a market for that." 

And people believe them.  The gem that has been vetted and polished by the author, the agent, the editor, and presumably the editor's boss is tossed aside because someone says they can't find a market for it.  Out of 314 million possible customers in the United States alone, they can't find a market?  Out of 7 billion people on the planet, they can't find a market for something that every gatekeeper before them has said is a quality product?

What happened to a salesman's pride?  What happened to the salesperson who would say, "I can sell shoes to a snake?" 

Moreover, what happened to the boss who would tell the sales department, "this is the product we're making, now go sell it." What happened to the boss who would fire someone who said, "I can't do my job"?

So is Mr. Bezos right?  Will we see the day when all gatekeepers are as unemployed as the writers they reject?  I don't think so.  I certainly hope not.  But some of them should be told, "Thank you, but step away from the gate.  Your job is inside."

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers anthology.