The Eyes (Don’t) Have It

Kids, we need to talk. You’ve just got to stop with the locking eyes.

They locked eyes.
Their eyes locked.

It’s cliché, it’s overdone, it’s so stinkin’ melodramatic it makes me want to throw a fit in the middle of your manuscript.

So I’m doing it here instead. A little Cranky Editor meltdown.

No, seriously. Even though I am a big proponent of simplicity in writing—and what could be simpler than two people locking eyes, right?—this phrase is running rampant in the fiction I’ve been working on lately. This and its awkward little variants like their gazes locked. (Ugh.)

You’ve heard me say this before: to be a good writer, you must be a good reader. Why? For the language. Vocabulary is built when you read great literature.

That last bit is key. You must read authors who are, frankly, better than you.

Find a book you wish you’d written. Study it. Then write.

But if your scene includes a highly charged moment in which your lovers or would-be lovers first see each other, just say no to locked eyes.

Here’s what I want you to do instead. Think creatively about what happens in the scene. Give us body language (or movement), sure, but don’t use the same old thing time after time. Open your thesaurus, yes, but remember that many of the words are not direct substitutes. (Aspect does not always work for face; it depends on the context.) Write a little bit too much; you can trim it up later when you know where you’re going.

Watch for rhythm too. Sometimes a simple he saw is perfect.

He saw her sigh.
He saw her look away.
He saw her eyes shining.
He saw the heart she wore on her sleeve.
He saw inside.

Other times you really need a fifty-dollar word to shake up the rhythm and make the moment last.

He scrutinized her face as if she were withholding key evidence in a crime of the heart.

(It’s a little over the top, but you get the idea.)

To help you think outside the lock box, I’ve collected some words that might stimulate your imagination.

look / gaze

admire, audit, behold, blink, consider, contemplate, decipher, discern, examine, eye, face (he faced her), flirt, focus, gander, gape, gawk, gaze, glance, glare, glimpse, glower, goggle, inspect, leer, look, make out, note, notice, observe, ogle, overlook, peek, peep, peer, perceive, pore, rate, recognize, regard, rubberneck, scan, scrutinize, see, sight, spot, squint, stare, study, survey, view, visualize, watch, wink, witness

hold / lock

appropriate, arrest, arrogate, bind, capture, check, claim, clench, cling (to), clutch, coerce, commandeer, compel, confine, confiscate, constrain, contain, control, convert, dominate, embrace, expropriate, force, grapple, grasp, grip, have, hijack, hold, impel, inhibit, keep, lock, make, obligate, occupy, possess, preserve, press, pressure, restrain, restrict, retain, rule, seize, sequester, stay, support, sustain, take, tame, usurp

You shouldn’t look to me for vocabulary instruction when there are lots of interesting websites about words and language out there. Here’s one: A.Word.A.Day. But what I really want you to do is read outside your favorite shelf in the library and challenge yourself to some literature. Over and over. Keep reading. It will make a difference.

Tweet: To be a good writer, you must be a good reader. Why? For the language.
Tweet: Read outside your favorite shelf in the library! Challenge yourself!
Tweet: Kids, we need to talk. You’ve just got to stop with the locking eyes.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Words & Language | Tagged as: , , , ,

Short Saturday: Isaacson’s 5 Easy Theses

As you know, I’ve become interested in the nature of creativity and inspiration, and have written about it here several times—just this week, in fact.* Shortly after I wrote that post, I read an article by author Walter Isaacson in the October 2014 Vanity Fair … about creativity and inspiration.

Isaacson calls this innovation (his new book, The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, had just released), but we’re talking about the same thing. Here are his “5 Easy Theses” about creativity:

1 Connect art and science.
2 Creativity comes from collaboration.
3 Collaboration works best in person.
4 Vision without execution is hallucination.
5 Man is a social animal.

I was particularly intrigued by number 3:

Among the myths of the Digital Age is that we would all be able to telecommute and collaborate electronically. Instead, the greatest innovations have come from people gathered in the flesh, on beanbag chairs rather than in chat rooms. Googleplex beats Google Hangouts.

An early example was Bell Labs in the 1930s and 40s. In its corridors and cafeterias, theorists mingled with hands-on engineers, experimenters, gnarly mechanics, and even some telephone-pole climbers with grease under their fingernails. Claude Shannon, the eccentric information theorist, would ride a unicycle in the long hallways while juggling balls and nodding at colleagues. It was a wacky metaphor for the ferment. …

… When Steve Jobs designed a new headquarters for Pixar, he obsessed over ways to structure the atrium, and even where to locate the bathrooms, so that serendipitous personal encounters would occur. One of Marissa Mayer’s first acts as C.E.O. of Yahoo was to discourage the practice of working from home. “People are more collaborative and innovative when they’re together,” she pointed out.

A lot of people were unhappy with Mayer when this announcement was made, but I worked in the corporate/creative environment for many years, and I get her thinking. And although most of my collaboration now happens through telecommunication—I can’t have you in the room when I’m writing/thinking (#sorrynotsorry) and I don’t want you to tell me anything about the manuscript until I’ve had a chance to react to it in my own way—I do fully grok the efficaciousness of of in-person collaboration. My account of brainstorming a new title for a client’s book is a classic example of this.

So read the article! I think you’ll enjoy it. I suspect I’ll be reading The Innovators soon too. :)

* Here are a few more in this line of thought:
On InspirationFree the MarblesThe Creative SparkThe Case for ProcrastinationThe Waiting is the Hardest PartJust Open a Vein

 

Tweet: I am fascinated by the nature of creativity and how inspiration is sparked.
Tweet: “Serendipitous personal encounters” lead to creative innovation.
Tweet: Innovation (creativity) happens when people collaborate—in any field!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Miscellany | Tagged as: , ,

Learning to Collaborate

John Lennon and Paul McCartney were lucky: they met young and they learned to collaborate—in spite of their near-opposite personalities—before they grew up and, eventually, let other things (particularly adulthood) get in the way of the creativity they had together. Author Joshua Wolf Shenk has written about them and about the intersection of creativity and collaboration in a new book (Powers of Two) and in this feature story in the Atlantic. Shenk points out that each person in the collaboration has his role; it’s a give and take.

It struck me that this creative collaboration is a lot like old-fashioned editorial work. The only difference is by the time many writers find me, they’re adults with ideas and attitudes and beliefs that—at first (and maybe forever)—preclude true collaboration. Seriously, who said an author’s relationship with his editor is going to be adversarial? Not me. And this article in the Guardian posits that it’s revisionist history at best:

This myth of the destructive editor—the dolt with the blue pencil—is pervasive … A good illustration of this antipathy is the Cambridge edition of DH Lawrence. “Here at last is Sons and Lovers in full: uncut and uncensored,” the editors crow triumphantly. Their introduction goes on to allege … the text was “mangled”; that the editor Edward Garnett’s censorship was “coy and intrusive”; that Lawrence … “exploded” with rage.

Read Lawrence’s letters and you get a rather different impression. “All right,” he tells Garnett, “take out what you think necessary,” and gives him licence to do as he sees fit: “I don’t mind what you squash out … I feel always so deep in your debt.” … And when Lawrence is finally sent proofs, he’s not unhappy. “You did the pruning jolly well,” he tells Garnett, and dedicates the book to him. (Emphasis mine.)

I know it’s hard, this editing thing, for you. I have been edited myself (sometimes without even asking for it, ha), so I get it. But listen to me when I tell you this: the best (most skilled) writers I’ve ever worked with were the ones most eager to collaborate. In an editorial relationship, this involves a willingness to listen (and to hear), to consider other ideas, to just try one on for a moment. For adults, this isn’t always easy.

In practice, this takes many forms but here’s one example. I offered to brainstorm with a client to come up with ideas for a book title. I disliked what she was using, for several reasons that I was able to articulate. She agreed my thoughts had merit, and so we met at a busy little coffee shop downtown. We went over what we were trying to communicate and discussed the audience with whom we were trying to communicate; we took out some of the words I objected to and substituted simple placeholders. Then my author said one word that sparked something for me, I responded with a phrase, the author tweaked the phrase—and boom! boom! boom!— in twenty minutes we had a title, subtitle, and series title that made both of us smile. It was a very gratifying experience. The title retains little of what the author started with; but she was willing to consider and “try on” other ideas.

Conversely, some of the least experienced writers I’ve ever worked with were also the least willing to experiment or to hear any other thoughts. Sadly, these writers will never grow, because they are too busy defending their masterpieces. When an author with a first contract refuses to even consider changes—in fact, insists I don’t understand what he’s trying to do, insists the acquiring editor loves his work (oh, how many times I’ve heard that one!)—my interest in that manuscript wanes.

And when your collaborator loses interest, my friends, the quality of your creative work diminishes. That’s the bottom line.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Ask around, ask your writing friends who’ve been edited. Or read this: “Five Writers Talk About Their Book Editors.” I recommend the entire piece to you—the contributing authors are Haven Kimmel, Calvin Baker, Emily Gould, Matthew Gallaway, Don Van Natta Jr.—but here are a couple of excerpts.

From Kimmel:

Her editorial letter was thirteen single-spaced pages … I was to revise two first-person alternating POVs into close-third, meaning that the interior voices … would be gone, and all of that would have to be conveyed through prose alone. And the ending had to be the opposite of the way I’d written it. And one character had to be amplified, but she didn’t say how, and she had gone through paragraph by paragraph and marked those that had gone on a beat two long and those that needed one, two, or three beats more, which—HELLO—you tell me what that means. … My response was to lie down on the sofa in my study and stare at the ceiling for nearly a month, until my husband called my dear friend Lawrence Naumoff, a southern writer of unmatched depth and overall talent who was about as sucker-punched by New York publishing as anyone I can name. … Lawrence said, in his superfine accent, “Well, what you have to decide is if you’re a real writer or not, and if you’re a real writer you’ll stand up and get something to eat, then sit down at your desk and start at the first word and retype the entire thing—no cutting and pasting—and you will do every last thing your editor tells you to do, and you will not argue or protect your darlings, and in fact you will never again protect a darling, or think being edited is a violence. Okay?” I blinked, said, “Gotcha.” And that’s what I did. And [she] was right on every point.

From Gallaway:

My own method of dealing with editorial criticism is a multi-step process: 1) I allow myself to get angry or bitchy or annoyed that the editor didn’t understand what should be perfectly obvious, and to steam about it for a few hours; 2) I reconsider the comment a day or so later and decide that maybe she has a point; after all she’s very smart and she wouldn’t have bought the book if she didn’t love it (and she wants it to succeed as much as I do); 3) I make a genuine attempt to address the issue without sacrificing anything I consider integral to the book. …

I made it through the revision process with a lot of work and the kind of (self-inflicted) angst inherent to any meaningful writing, but with essentially no drama or confrontation, which I think is ideal for all parties concerned … Before you pick up the phone or click send on an angry e-mail, take a day off and think about a more adult way to express yourself; if your editor doesn’t support you and your work (or thinks you’re an asshole for whatever reason), it’s going to introduce a lot more uncertainty into what’s already an incredibly nerve-wracking and precarious journey.

See? Adults. Listening. Behaving like adults. Collaborating.

Not too long ago I wrote about the author/editor relationship, a post suggested by a friend of mine who’s a managing/acquisitions editor at a publishing house. Like me, she knows the process of bringing a book from the author’s mind to the printing press is all about relationship.

But it’s also about collaboration. And if you’ll think of it that way—you just might be astonished by what happens.

Tweet: Old-fashioned editorial work is a creative collaboration.
Tweet: The best (most skilled) writers I’ve ever worked with were the most eager to collaborate.
Tweet: Great things happen when you learn how to collaborate.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Book Biz, Your Editor Says … | Tagged as: , , , , ,

Are You a Prescriptivist or a Descriptivist?

Yes! I am!

A few weeks ago I had Some Guy leave a comment on a two-and-a-half-year-old post of mine called “Pronoun Abuse.” In it* he alleged my argument made no sense, said I was “clearly mistaken,” implied that any five-year-old is smarter than me, then called me a schoolmarm, a bad editor, and a prescriptivist, which he intended as a pejorative.

Man, that last one really hurts. :)

Who cares about prescriptivism and descriptivism? you might say. I’m just trying to write a good book. Or, more likely, Huh? It’s a dueling grammarians thing. Here’s a simple explanation:

In the prescriptivist camp falls Lynne Truss [author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves] … and your high school English teacher. Prescriptivists aim to help us use the English language properly. … The descriptivist camp, on the other hand, simply aims to describe how the language is used today. This camp is perhaps best embodied by the Urban Dictionary, a lexicon open to input from anyone.

That may seem straightforward—and, like me, you may find the Urban Dictionary just as scary as Mrs. Polensky in tenth-grade English—but it’s not. It’s more like a war for some people (like Some Guy). As Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar notes,

The problem’s only exacerbated by the fact that even those who haven’t genericized these terms don’t necessarily agree on their boundaries. For some descriptivists, anyone who corrects any error is a prescriptivist. For some prescriptivists, updating a dictionary is descriptivist madness.

The French have a solution for this problem. It’s called the Académie française, which is the body that decides all matters pertaining to the French language. They have laws, y’all! We English-speakers are not so (ahem) lucky. We have, instead, prescriptivists and descriptivists, God help us.

Some Guy falls into the descriptivist camp. And if you’re not for him, you’re agin’ him, it seems.

Certainly my stance on the singular they—particularly in the post linked above—is prescriptivist. I don’t like it in almost all cases. But my troll—and what with the snide tone and the personal attacks, that’s what Some Guy was—didn’t bother to notice that a year later I amended my stance in “You Can’t Make Me Like It, But—.” Nor did he see that I have repeatedly acknowledged our language is a living, breathing thing; it’s in a constant state of flux and can’t be held back, whether we have a yen to or not. Articles like “Your Fifth-Grade Teacher Versus … Well, Me,” “The Language Metamorphosis,” and “The Manuscript, the Editor, the Thief, and Her Grammar Nazi” all demonstrate my descriptivist tendencies. Not to mention my love of slang, which is decidedly descriptivist.

Here’s the thing, kids. I do believe you should know the rules before you start breaking them. This is true in any human endeavor, not just writing. And because I work for publishers who require certain standards (houses often have their own style guides, but they all are quite fond of the Chicago Manual of Style too), I tend to function as a mild-mannered prescriptivist when I’m working.

And that’s OK. I really want your prose to be graceful. Elegant, even. I want it to make you look good. Knowing the—prescriptivist—fundamentals of writing really helps here. I also want to keep you from errors (spelling, definitions, logic, and so on). This causes me to err on the conservative side when I’m working on your manuscript.

Want to discuss my changes and suggestions? No prob! I enjoy a lively discussion, as you know. But don’t look down your nose and call me a prescriptivist as if it’s a dirty word. Because I’ll just write a blog post about you. :)

* I’ve deleted it in anticipation of running this post and am not going to name him, but if you’re curious, here it is in its entirety: Take it up with the Bible, Chaucer, and Shakespeare (all of which use singular they). Singular they has always been a part of standard English–both then and now, which is why your “that was then, this is now” argument makes no sense–and its detractors have always been in the (clearly mistaken) minority. The arguments against singular they are terrible, the utility of including it in the language is enormous, and the ability to comprehend it is part of even a five-year-old’s skill set. In fact, a prescriptivist about grammar ought to be in favor of singular they precisely because it has always been considered acceptable. A schoolmarm here and a bad editor there can’t change this. So really, you’re just begging the question (that’s a logical fallacy, for those who don’t know) every time you write “Blah blah blah [singular] blah blah blah [plural].” And question begging arguments are–by definition–unacceptable. What a … descriptivist jerk.

 

Tweet: Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist? Yes! I am!
Tweet: Don’t look down your nose and call me a prescriptivist as if it’s a dirty word.
Tweet: You may find the Urban Dictionary just as scary as your 10th-grade English teacher.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Words & Language | Tagged as: , , ,

Short Saturday: An Agent’s List Is Never Full

We’ve been talking about literary agents this week—what they do, what they don’t do—and my friends at Books & Such Literary Management can tell you a lot more about that than I can.

In this post, Janet Grant lets us in on a secret: in spite of what you may think, an agent’s list is never full. Or, that is, “most agents are always open to new clients; it’s a matter of being the right kind of client” at the right time, she says.

An agent’s list might be “full” in that he has as many historical novelists as he thinks he can place in the current market. Or his list might be “open” if he is aggressively looking for more memoirs.

Agents are clear on their websites as to what they represent and don’t represent, but within those confines, an agent can decide to ramp up the number of clients in a category that’s growing or to slim down clients in a genre that’s not getting much traction with publishing houses. But that does not constitute a full list, by any means. Only the agent is likely to know the ways in which she wants to shift her client base.

Grant lists four reasons why an agent’s list might be closed (or open), and ends with the admonition that you should never assume an agent’s list is full … until he tells you it is. Good advice!

Tweet: Here’s a little secret: in spite of what you may think, an agent’s list is never full.
Tweet: Advice about literary agents FROM an agent!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as:

Just Open a Vein*

There are days when I write these posts and the words just come. (Possibly because I’m all worked up about something. Possibly because I’m not worried about meeting a deadline. Possibly because I’m feeling writerly.)

There are other days when I scroll through my list of ideas (some more fleshed out than others) and … nothing. When that happens, I don’t fret; I just move on to something else (often my other blog**). After all, I write out ahead of myself: I normally keep about two months’ worth of posts ready to go.

Except it’s been happening a lot lately—my stash is dwindling (so I’m nervous) and the muse is still just dancing right outside the reach of my fingertips. The ideas are still there, all sketched out and organized by categories. Waiting. I’m just not moved to write any of them.

I appear to be blocked.

Oh, sure, I could force my way into something. Actually, that’s usually one of my strategies: Just. Start. Writing. But I’m never happy with those. They have to be set aside and reworked later.

And I do that—reworking—anyway. I don’t (can’t) write a blog post quickly. (Mike Hyatt says he writes his in an hour, for example. There is no freaking way that happens in this office. My guess is I average about four hours per. Some take much, much longer.)

I agonize over them. I worry about them and want them to be, you know, good. I write them and read them out loud to the Irishman and to myself. I tweak and read out loud again, until I decide it’s good (or good enough). Sometimes y’all surprise me. You really love a post that I thought was only good enough (but maybe not great). So I try not to judge myself too harshly. But I’ve endured enough trolls to know the only way I can move past them comfortably is when I’m sure about my writing. And when I’m (pretty sure I’m) right.

Apparently this obsessing and suchlike contributes to writer’s block. :)

So (ahem) helloooooo, Morning Pages. You know about Morning Pages, right? Three pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness writing—basically a brain download. Every single day. (I’ve blogged about this concept—created by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way—before.) Morning Pages are a discipline, yes, but they’re also a way to slow down, breathe, feel productive. Or, as author Lili Saintcrow says,

You do not sit down and write every day to force the Muse to show up. You get into the habit of writing every day so that when she shows up, you have the maximum chance of catching her, bashing her on the head, and squeezing every last drop out of that bitch.

This post was my first exercise. It was suggested by a good friend who knows one way to move past writer’s block is to set all your own ideas aside and work on someone else’s. She gave me this quote too:

Writing is easy—you just open a vein and bleed.

How do you get past writer’s block?

* This post was written when I was struggling with writer’s block before my hard drive failed. For a few more weeks I wasn’t just blocked, I was in shock. Happily, inspiration has returned … but I’m not going to waste a perfectly good blog post. :)

** What? You didn’t know I write another blog? I do. It’s personal and I do it for fun. And I never have any trouble with writer’s block when I want to work over at Wanderlustful.

 

Tweet: A way to move past writer’s block: set your own ideas aside & work on someone else’s.
Tweet: When nothing writerly comes, I don’t fret; I just move on to something else.
Tweet: One of my strategies for writer’s block: Just. Start. Writing.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Writing Craft | Tagged as: , ,

You, Me, and Literary Agents

Some time ago I got an email from an unsigned author I’d worked with years before:

I would like to hire you to look over my much-fretted-over query and synopsis and give me your feedback. Also, I would like you to critique the first five pages of the manuscript since this is what many agents want to see along with the query. I would also like the names of five agents you think might be interested in my manuscript.

I get asked about agents all the time. Do I know any? (Yes.) Can I recommend one or more to you? (No.) Why? (Different agents specialize in representing different types of books. I just don’t keep up with all that.) Can I recommend you to an agent? (No.) Why? (You are asking me to use my personal goodwill reputation to recommend your project. Think about that. When you hire me as an editor you should assume you’re going to get editorial work from me.)

Honestly, kids, I’m really not your woman for advice about why you need an agent, where you might find the right one, and how you get on with him or her after you’ve signed a contract. But I’ll tell you what little bit I’ve picked up.

What agents do …
• There are lots of literary agents out there. Some are better than others. Some are more experienced than others. Some have no idea what they’re doing at all.
• Agents choose which types of books they want to represent. Some of this involves personal preference; some of this is knowing what publishers are looking for.
• Agents have connections at publishing houses and they maintain them. They also maintain their relationships with other agents, so it’s not a good idea to play one off against the other. They talk to each other, y’all.
• Agents are keeping up with trends, news, and activities in the industry. They know what’s selling and what’s not getting any traction.
• You may have written a perfectly splendid manuscript, but if an agent or agency already represents a writer in that genre or a project very similar to yours, they cannot sign you, because your project would represent competition to what they already represent.
• Legitimate agents do not charge writers for the opportunity to represent them. If you find an agent who charges an upfront fee, look elsewhere.

How to find an agent …
• Follow agents on Twitter! They say all sorts of things an unsigned author might be interested in. Here’s a list (incomplete) of agents who are active on Twitter. There are probably others.
• Do your research; don’t send queries about your YA project to agents who do not represent YA. Selectively target the agents who represent the sort of book you write.
• Check the acknowledgments of books you love; the agent is often mentioned here.
• Go to writers’ conferences. Go to several conferences. Network—with agents and other authors.
• Be patient. And don’t ask anyone if he or she (or I) can recommend you to his or her agent. Wait for them to make the offer to do so (if). No one likes to be put on the spot.
• There are several websites that maintain lists of agents:

> Absolute Write Index to Agents, Publishers, and Others
> AgentQuery
> Guide to Literary Agents blog
> Literary Rambles
> Preditors and Editors
> QueryTracker

Be persistent. Don’t give up.
• That said, most authors don’t land an agent with their first manuscript, but with their second or third manuscript. Those first-novel-I-ever-wrote success stories are outliers. Honest.
• So when I say Don’t give up, a big part of that is Keep writing.
• Timing is also important. Agents often receive several manuscripts based on the same hook, the same idea, the same period of history, the same locale—all in the same month. (Like something’s in the air!) But if yours is the third such manuscript, it’s going to be a hard sell.
• You could also enter pitch contests.
• The surest way to interest an agent is to write a great book. Then you polish it up and submit it to said agent. However:
• All agents have guidelines for submissions. One size does not fit all. Follow the guidelines to the letter.
• The query letter is crucial. Check out Query Shark.
• Get organized. Keep track of which agents you’ve queried.

Working with an agent …
• Don’t assume your new agent will edit your manuscript. If it needs an edit—listen to me! if?—you should hire one and get your manuscript into great shape. Never, ever send an agent your first draft.
• Agents don’t make a dime until they sell your book. This can take weeks or months and even years of time-consuming work. Be patient, trusting, and kind.
• Remember nothing happens fast in the publishing world.
• Follow the agency blog.
• Don’t discuss the details of your agency contract or your latest book deal with anyone but your agent.
• Listen to your agent, and follow his or her advice. Your agent is interested in a long-term career relationship.
• When you have questions, complaints, or doubts, take them to your agent first. Probably best to keep them off social media altogether.

Bottom line …
Me, I’m paying attention to the craft of writing. Agents know about craft too—they have to!—but they are paying a lot more attention than I am to the business of selling books.

Tweet: Do I know any literary agents? (Yes.) Can I recommend one or more to you? (No.)
Tweet: I’m not your woman for advice about why you need an agent or where you might find one.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as:

Short Saturday: Nouns and Verbs

It’s not often you see an article as well-written as this one. It is, in fact, a “Study This” piece—writer Michael Bourne has isolated an aspect of the best-selling novel All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) and imagines a class he would teach using the book as a case study.

But what is it that makes it so special?

This is a 500-page novel about a war increasingly few Americans are old enough to remember, in which not one of the principal characters is American. This is a recipe for a well-regarded literary novel, perhaps even a prize-winning critical darling. But a breakout bestseller so popular it leaves Amazon’s vast warehouses empty of copies at Christmas? Not likely.

So what then explains the success of All the Light We Cannot See? It all, I would argue, comes down to Doerr’s sentences, in particular his masterly use of nouns and verbs.

This is not a short read, so go get a cup of coffee before you dig in to this fabulous explication of one sentence, devoid of adjectives or adverbs:

Cars splash along the streets, and snowmelt drums through the runnels; she can hear snowflakes tick and patter through the trees.

It’s an excellent lesson. If you enjoy it, click over to Bourne’s follow-up article, in which he chooses random sentences from other books. Great discussion!

Tweet: Study this! It’s all about well-chosen nouns and verbs.
Tweet: Why is this book so popular? Great writing!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Study This: I’ll Give You the Sun

Here’s another in my Study This series about intentional reading—that is, novels you writers will read for pleasure (always pleasure!) but also to study. To deconstruct. To have a look at how the author made the magic.

You know I love YA, so it should come as no surprise that I’d suggest one to study. I recently finished Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun and was knocked out by it. But don’t make the mistake of thinking I don’t write YA, so this article is not for me. Because it is. The techniques demonstrated here—

• careful pacing/structure (the doling out of “clues” to the denouement)
• characterization (particularly the use of voice)
• tension (also a function of pacing)
• theme (establishing it, layering it in)

—are marks every type of novel needs to hit.

Here’s some of the jacket copy (I think it could have been much better—and I’m entitled to that opinion, since I’ve written cover copy for hundreds of books—but that’s a different post altogether):

Jude and her twin brother, Noah, are incredibly close. At thirteen, isolated Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude cliff-dives and wears red-red lipstick and does the talking for both of them. But three years later, Jude and Noah are barely speaking. Something has happened to wreck the twins in different and dramatic ways . . . The early years are Noah’s story to tell. The later years are Jude’s. What the twins don’t realize is that they each have only half the story . . .

Like a romance, I’ll Give You the Sun alternates viewpoints between Noah—who tells the story of the twins’ thirteenth year—and his sister Jude, who narrates from three years later, when they are sixteen. As these story lines converge near the end of the novel, you realize something is missing.

But what? What is missing? Each chapter is rich with detail and story. And, like a suspense novel, we know pretty much right up front what caused the breach: the death of a parent. What is missing, though, is what keeps readers turning the pages.

This brings us back to pacing. I’d suggest you reread once you know how I’ll Give You the Sun ends. You might even outline as you read this second time, to see where the revelations fall in the narrative. They’re all there. What is missing, then, is the shading of meaning.

And that comes from characterization. The New York Times review says IGYTS is “a testament, really, to Nelson’s ability to build a suspenseful story not on plot devices but on the tightly coiled inner lives of her characters.” Yes, that’s it. The twins each have a very distinctive voice that reflects what he or she is thinking and feeling: guilt, anguish, longing, exhilaration, love, grief, regret. (The Huffington Post says Noah’s narrative “walks the line between poetry and prose,” while Jude’s is “visceral” and raw.) It takes awhile before you realize both Jude and Noah are unreliable narrators, though in different ways.

This contributes, of course, to what’s missing. Not just shading, but the secrets the twins keep from each other. Although, again, readers know what those secrets are.

Intrigued? You should be! Read this structurally brilliant novel with the Big Themes—death, grief, fate, and family—and study it!

Tweet: I’ll Give You the Sun—have a look at how the author made the magic.
Tweet: Read this structurally brilliant novel with Big Themes—death, grief, fate, family—& study it!
Tweet: Study it. Watch where the revelations fall in the narrative. They’re all there.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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The Universe Provides (or, If You Ask Them, They Will Contribute)

Last night (well, back in mid-January when I wrote this it really was last night) I finished Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking. We are a different generation, she and I, and so I was surprised by how strongly I identified with her, how deeply I was touched by who she is, what I had in common with her.

Palmer came to fame as a musician (the Dresden Dolls) during a time when I was busy doing other things. I was aware of the band’s name … but that’s all. (That she’s married to author Neil Gaiman, whose work was well known to me, is such an interesting fillip in this story. But we’ll get to that.) Palmer became familiar to me in 2012 when she made the news by having the most successful (at that time) Kickstarter (crowdfunding) campaign for music (specifically, to pay to make an album and tour behind it). There was a subsequent brouhaha in the press about Palmer’s invitation to local musicians along the tour to appear onstage … unpaid.

You know how I feel about that now, but it turns out this is an offer Palmer had been making for years, tour after tour. Her fans were neither surprised nor dismayed by this revelation; only the press—the revelators themselves—were. Palmer has a long history of asking the universe for help with her career. And it has provided. “Given the opportunity,” she says in the book, “some small consistent portion of the population will happily pay for art.” But she’s learned to ask them to pay for it.

I can’t tell you how strongly this theme resonates with me. As a freelance editor, I have to ask for work all the time. It should resonate with anyone who is creating art and trying to make a living from it—because it’s not easy. You have to build a platform, a network, a tribe … of fans, clients, supporters.

But Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign wasn’t the most successful in that moment simply because she asked. “Effective crowdfunding is not about relying on the kindness of strangers,” she says, “it’s about relying on the kindness of your crowd. There’s a difference.”

You find your crowd—people who dig what you’re doing (remember: some small consistent portion of the population will pay for your art)—and you (net)work it. Palmer worked it. And she tells you just exactly how she worked it. If you’re considering self-publishing, if you’re considering raising funds for any artistic endeavor, if you want to see how crowdfunding works, The Art of Asking is worth the price (no pun intended) for that story alone.

But there are other stories. Palmer is a public figure. She’s loud, she’s brash, she’s brave. She’s a bit of an exhibitionist, some might say. She makes mistakes (and owns them). She gets negative press. (Wired magazine rightly points out that she’s often the victim of a double standard: women are “supposed” to be nice, feminine, soft-spoken, passive—not aggressive in pursuit of a career. Palmer is also accused of having “married into an audience much larger than the one she commands on her own”—that is, her success is due solely to her husband’s success. And you know how I feel about that.)

Gaiman and Palmer’s relationship began as a creative collaboration, working on various music/writing projects. His public persona is different from hers—private where hers is public, quiet where hers is loud—and yet, and yet. There they are, still publicly collaborating on projects. This story in the Guardian about one of Palmer’s house concerts (“around midnight her husband—the fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman—shows up and signs autographs and poses for photographs”) demonstrates he is as much in her corner as she is in his, I think.

I was touched, though, by her admission that she found it difficult to accept financial help from her husband when she was between projects and found herself short on cash. “I’d been earning my own salary as a working musician for over a decade, … paid my own bills, could get out of any bind on my own, and had always been financially independent from any person I was sleeping with,” she says. The Irishman cheerfully helped me weather the recent recession, although I had, like Palmer, never accepted money from anyone in all these years I’d been a single mom.

All in all … I liked the Amanda Palmer I met in The Art of Asking. She’s been criticized for “only” expanding on her now well-known TED Talk (it’s well worth your thirteen minutes) and at the same time for not having produced a “how-to” book (although anyone who says that hasn’t really read the book, because it’s all there). If you’ve been basing an opinion on what you’ve read in the press, read the Guardian article, which offers this—

I am left with warm feelings for Amanda Palmer. At the house party, she was happy and easygoing and approachable, and she gave her fans a very good time. Plus, I liked her music.

—in an article that is fair and balanced about her ups and downs. Again, I liked the Amanda Palmer I met in this book. She delivers what she says she’s going to deliver, and she always says thank you. She dispenses hugs with those thank-yous too. I enjoyed reading about her career trajectory and admire that pretty much everything she’s done, artistically speaking, has been an experiment (from which she learned). She’s brave. I’m learning be that too.

Tweet: Amanda Palmer asks for it! (Loved the book.)
Tweet: If you’re considering raising funds for any artistic endeavor, The Art of Asking is worth the price.
Tweet: I finished Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking. How strongly I identified with her!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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