Archive for February, 2017

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This is one of those Life Lessons that pop up in the course of going about one’s day, which perfectly illustrates a concept you have difficulty explaining to others:

ALWAYS START YOUR BOOK WITH ACTION

The thing about cramming an entire concept as integral and complex as this into a six-word fortune cookie is that you loose the complexity. You loose the way the concept is meant to integrate into the rest of your story. So what you end up with is just a “rule” which inexperienced writers often treat like a law set in stone. Then, when they critique the work of other writers (which every writer should do as part of their education), they flag every instance when one of these “laws” is broken, without understanding how it is possible to break the rule and still write well.

Here’s an example: DON’T START YOUR BOOK WITH DIALOGUE. This is a good recommendation.  It often gets misquoted as “Never Start Your Book with Dialogue.”*  The reason for this advice is pretty compelling and common-sense, once you understand it. Without any reference or character description or setting established, your reader can’t hear whatever voice you are writing or hear whatever emotion is supposed to be there. Writers are engaged in a constant juggling act, balancing between describing details and leaving details for the reader to fill in. Its like creating a coloring book with hints built in letting your reader know what colors to use where.  When you describe a turbulent ocean, you don’t necessarily need to describe the whitecaps and the spray and the tang of salt in the air.  You can — many writers do, and more, but if you suggest them, the reader will visualize the parts you leave out. But if the first words in your book are: “Hi. How are you, today?” your reader won’t know if the speaker is male or female, young or old, pleasant or sarcastic.  You can tell them in the very next sentence, but by then your reader will have already tried to fill in the missing details, and more than likely, they will have gotten them wrong. When that happens and your reader is forced to revise their mental picture, it takes them out the moment. It is irritating to have to go back and read it again with the new information.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make dialogue-first work.  Here are some examples I came up with on the fly:

“Touch her again, señor, and you’re a dead man.”

“Ma’am,” the morgue officer prodded gently, “can you identify that little girl?”

“Take us to your fishing line!” The translation matrix was on the fritz again.

“I love you, Daddy,” she said for the last time, but the elevator doors had already closed.

“Grab the shotgun, Billy — that fox is creepin’ around the henhouse agin.”

“Play with me, Sarah,” said the ventriloquist dummy, even though I was the only one in the room.

“But Mommy, why do we have to slaughter Henrietta?”

“Tell your brother I—” The grenade exploded, taking half of my dad with it.

The reason these work (if, in fact, they do), it is because I made it clear how the voice should sound before the end of the first sentence. Thus, the coloring book has hints about what colors to use.  Robert Heinlein opened several of his very popular stories with dialogue (proving there are real-life exceptions to the “rule”):

“Lot ninety-seven,” the auctioneer announced. “A boy.” — Citizen of the Galaxy (1957)

“He’s a mad scientist and I’m his beautiful daughter.” — Number of the Beast (1980)

“We need you to kill a man.” — The Cat Who Walked Through Walls (1988)

Okay. So, rules can be broken if you understand the reasons behind them and follow the spirit of the rule. That first one I mentioned above, about starting with action. This is possibly the most misunderstood piece of advice.  The advice, ALWAYS START WITH ACTION does not mean there has to be a car chase, a shootout, or a sword fight in paragraph one.  In fact, all of those things are bad ideas (in general), for precisely the same reason starting with dialogue is generally a bad idea — you don’t know who the players are or who you are supposed to cheer for, and you don’t know what everyone is feeling.

No, by “action” they mean “activity.” Avoid beginning with long descriptions, backstory, or other set-up. Start with the main character doing something.  The action doesn’t have to be extra action-y, it just has to be activity, not description. The other part of the “rule” that often gets misinterpreted is the word “start.” This does not mean only the first paragraph or the first scene (here comes the learn-y part, where I discover something in my own writing that illustrates this point, hence the reason I’m writing about this in the first place). “Start” means the first part of your story, or your book.  That might mean the first three chapters.  That might mean everything up to the inciting incident. And it doesn’t mean you stop there.

In my daughter’s and my middle grade book, we did a pretty fair job of keeping the momentum going all the way to the end of chapter three, when our hero learns she must go on a quest. And then, inexplicably, we stopped pedaling.  The rest of the book is a quest, and yet our hero stumbles from one step to the next, and the adults she meets hand her whatever she is looking for. Well, in fact they give her just enough to make her move to the next step, which draws out the quest and drives the story. But what has been missing is that the hero is not active in accomplishing each step.  She just shows up.

We’re going to change that.

Another “rule” you may have run afoul of in your own writing is: ALWAYS USE ACTIVE VOICE, NEVER PASSIVE VOICE. Most new writers I’ve interacted with take that to mean just replace all of your passive verbs with active verbs. Nope.  I mean, sure, do that; it will make your book more interesting and stuff, but you don’t have to be obsessive about it, and you don’t have to become the verb police. What the suggestion actually means is make sure there are things going on in your story, that you move from one scene to the next through activity, rather than by telling us about activity.  “Show, don’t tell” means just that.  Rather than say, “They played basketball while they talked,” have them actually moving the ball around during their dialogue. That’s active voice.

But it isn’t always enough, as I’ve recently learned. You can have a very active voice and still not have your character doing anything. My point is this: you can’t just collect a stone tablet full of writing commandments and prop them up and look at them when you write. You need to understand the reason behind the advice and know when it is acceptable — or even appropriate — to ignore it. No “rule” is correct 100% of the time. Learn about that 2% when it’s not.


*Any advice that contains “never” or “always” is probably suspect. You will be able to find countless books where the author blatantly broke that rule, and did so successfully.  It’s like evolution; the ways in which we tell stories are always changing.

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I touched on this briefly a few months ago. I’m not sure it sunk in. Of course I realize that not everyone I encounter on every writer-related website, discussion group, or social media feed is a regular reader of my blog. But I like to think they are. And I still field questions from writers asking if there is any place where they could, maybe, get a little feedback on their writing.

The level of ignorance being perpetuated is as astonishing as it is disheartening.

In one group a popular discussion started with the question:

Does anyone know of a “share site” or group where we can gather and share our stories to see if they are viable?

The question is perfectly valid. Here is a new writer seeking to expand her awareness of the writing community. She, quite naturally, gravitates toward the notion of a group of writers who swap their stories and offer constructive feedback. What shocked me were the responses.

The most common suggestions were LinkedIn and Facebook.

Wha…? How…?

Linkedin is a button-up social network for career management. There are discussion groups there, for sharing concepts and posting relevant articles, but posts are limited to 450 words. How much of your novel can you get feedback on in 450-word bites? And where is the mechanism for inviting critiques and analyzing feedback? And where is the motivation to give feedback? Facebook isn’t much better. LinkedIn and Facebook are like trying to construct a house with Tinker Toys.

One “expert” fella posted this gem (the origianal poster is a children’s writer):

Seriously doubt you can get valid comments from other adults … Suggest you beta test concepts with a group of children.

Because 8-year-olds are going to be able to coach you on your pacing, emotional arc, and key plot points. Another respondent recommended asking “friends, family, kid’s teachers/babysitters.” Worst. Advice. Ever.

This is a writer’s group. A group of writers. Who presumably write. How do they not know about critique groups and critique partners? Clearly none of these people are reading my blog.

I helpfully pointed out local face-to-face groups and Ciritique Circle and Agent Query Connect. But, honestly, these are a first step. The bare minimum anyone should do before attempting to put their writing “out there.” If you are serious what you want is a critique partner. Or three. CPs are the next evolutionary step on the ladder to getting published. What a dedicated, organized, and active critique group is to “asking your mom” to read your manuscript, a CP is to a critique group. Groups are essential, but they can be flakey. You have to commit to meeting every week or every other week, and you may find yourself surrounded by writers who simply don’t enjoy or “get” your particular genre or age group. Surely, you can find romance groups and sci-if groups, but what if you are writing children’s historical fantasy? You may be spending your weeks fielding advice from people who are not your audience and have little or no experience with books like yours.

But a critique partner? The idea is to locate individuals who specialize in just the kind of thing you write. Then swap manuscripts and keep each other on target. Writer besties. Someone who gets you, and who’s book you also love.

But were would one go to find such a unicorn? See, this is why everyone should be reading this blog. Invite your friends.

Here are some links. Get clickin’.

Critique Partner Matchup.  This Google Group has listings for 9 different genres/categories, including YA sci-fi fantasy, MG, poetry, romance, and adult contemporary.

Romance Writers of America offer their own critique partner matchup.

Agent Query Connect has multiple listings for CPs in various genres in their Wanted Ads forum.

Ladies Who Critique is a site set up specifically to make CP matches, broken down by popular age groups and genres. Men-folk also welcome.

The Write Life posted a piece titled, “40 Places to Find a Critique Partner Who Will Help You Improve Your Writing.”

Finally, keep an ear to the ground by way of Twitter; #CPMatch is a thing and it happens a couple times a year. During the Twitter party you pitch your book and browse the feed for others who you think might make a good CP match. Follow Megan Lally for details, or get it straight from her blog.

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Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave or possibly just awoken from a prolonged coma, you will have noticed that all of the literary genre’s have come unstuck. Once upon a time they were pretty straight-forward: fantasy, science-fiction, romance, horror, mystery, western, and “mainstream.” There were books for adults and books for kids, broken into books for little kids (board books, and storybooks) and books for big kids (Nancy Drew and The Babysitter’s Club). And like old-time manners, these genres and age groups kept politely to themselves and did not step outside of their own social circles.

Then Something Happened, and the genres started to mix and mingle and breed offspring which had their own ideas and demanded to be recognized. Horror and fantasy got pushed aside by paranormal and magical realism, while science fiction shelves became segregated into military, post-apocalyptic, and space opera. Today there are hundreds of genre “grandchildren” to be found (biopunk, cyberpunk, decopunk, dieselpunk, solarpunk, and steampunk are all established genres).

And of course children’s books age categories went through a similar evolution: pictures books, early readers, and chapter books for the little kids, and “juvenile” and “teen” gave way to lower middle grade, upper middle grade, young adult, and new adult.

The mixing continues. Today you can find historic fantasy, comedy space western, and paranormal romance.

The challenge of coming up with something original seems a bit daunting. I have been scribbling down notes for a new series of adventure books for a lower middle grade audience (because they can be shorter), that has a steampunky feel to it. Well, fantasy steampunk. Contemporary fantasy steampunk adventure. Ahem. The thing about steampunk is that is has definite adult conventions, such as buxom women in leather bustiers, dark alley murders, and lots of absynth. Naturally, none of these things have a place in books written for 7-10 year olds. I discovered in my research into children’s steampunk that there are not very many books written like this. To be sure, steampunk is very popular in the young adult market, where those adult themes can make an appearance, but not for “children.” This means two things: there are few examples I can use for inspiration and guidance, but it also means this is a largely untapped market, if I can find the right balance.

There is certainly a great deal of material left to work with in the steampunk genre. Kids love the idea of building elaborate gadgets – have you been to a toy store lately? Kids love any kind of machine that goes – fast cars, flying machines, rockets, submarines, walking tanks, you name it. I do not intend to set this in Victorian England, which is the gold standard for steampunk, however I have seen plenty of examples of people being transported to parallel worlds or alternate timelines where technology is more primitive or electricity and fossils fuels are unavailable.

I just happen to have this contemporary fantasy world laying around (from my daughter’s and my Fae-born series, where descendants of the fearie-folk live among us). In the third book were were planning to have the classic fae of old descend upon the earth when their faerie realm is unlocked, resulting in a war. It would enhance that storyline and perfectly set up the new series to have the fae’s magic and presence in our world completely disrupt our modern technologies. If you take away electricity, that pretty much kills everything – vehicles, the power grid, communications, even nuclear and solar power. What you have left is clever clockwork versions of traditional gadgets. Lots of steampunk relies on crystals for power. Our hero will have access to magic. And LEGOs. And comic books full of superheroes for inspiration. Imagine an 8yo inventor with a cape and a jet pack (powered by a flying spell), and goggles that let him see through walls. With faerie assassins and gangs of goblin thugs to fight, as well as mysteries to solve with clever gadgets.

Meet Thomas Brökkenwier, the Gadgeteer.

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There is a lot of advice out there about querying your manuscript, but one of the most common pieces of advice is “Don’t give up!” Variations on this include “Aim for 100 rejections a year,” and “Don’t stop querying until you’ve queried at least 80 agents.”

Fine. I have no problem sticking it out that long. I’ve gotten a grip on my self confidence and can keep this up for as long as it takes. The problem actually comes when you start to run out of agents to query. So what do you do then?

I’m not sure it’s possible to run out of agents to query — only to run out of places to look. There are hundreds of agencies in the U.S. alone, and even if you strike out with one agent, rarely is it prohibited for you to try again with a different agent at the same agency. So where do you look? Following is a list (far from exhaustive) of places you can find agents eager to read what you’ve got, or at least eager to take a look.

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  • Annual Guide To Literary Agents. This is basically an alphabetical directory of agencies, with detailed information including what they are looking for, what terms they offer, recent sales, how to submit, and the names of individual agents. The book also has detailed articles on how to write a good query, how to write a synopsis, what agents look for, etc. The book also contains a directory of conferences. In addition to this book, you can also find similar books such as Writer’s Market, Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, Christian Writer’s Market, and Poet’s Market.
  • AgentQuery.com.  “The Internet’s largest free database of literary agents.” You can search by quite a large selection of genre keywords in fiction and non-fiction.  The site also contains many resources for writers, including information on e-publishing, networking, what to do with an offer, etc. There is also an active writer’s forum, including critique groups and genre discussions at agentqueryconnect.com.
  • ManuscriptWishlist.com.  This site continues to expand and improve, and now includes extensive articles by active agents and writers, and a monthly e-newsletter to whitch you can subscribe. Manuscript wishlist grew out of an annual Twitter event during which agents and publishers would post on the hashtag #MSWL what kinds of things they were looking for. The main (and best) feature of the site is the searchable database, which focuses on what each individual agent is looking for and how best to get their attention, as well as specific submission guidelines. There is also mswishlist.com, which is basically just an agrigator of Twitter posts using the #MSWL hashtag, which by this point is just a contrast stream. This site also has streams for #AskAgent, “queries” (such as #500queries, #100queries, #tenqueries, etc., where agents post their responses to a set quantity of queries they receive in the course of their daily routine), and #PubTip, as well as a listing of agents on Twitter, including the genres/age groups they represent. You can click on any of these tags, such as MG, and get a filtered list of agents who represent that category.
  • Twitter. Yup. It isn’t just for witty observations and pictures of you lunch anymore.  Haunt the writerly hashtags, such as those mentioned above, as well as #QueryTips, #AmQuerying, #AmWriting, or even just your genre or age group, and you will find an active flow of tips, advice, announcements, offers of assistance, and upcoming events. Many of those who post on these hashtags are agents seeking submissions or offering the benefits of their experience. This is a great way to connect with agents who share your tastes and interests.  Pay attention to the contests, too, because even if you don’t choose to enter, most of them include a roster of participating agents and their bios, wishlist, and contact information.

These are all really just the starting point. Because once you find a potential match through one of these resources, you will want to investigate further before dashing off that query burning a hole in your hard drive. Find them on Twitter and explore their posts. Visit their website — many have both an agency page as well as a personal page. Search the Internet for interviews and read them; you will often discover some pet peeve to avoid or some special interest you share. But most importantly, you will want to find that thing in common between what you have to offer and what they most want to discover in their in-box. This is the key to personalizing your query to each agent.

My last piece of advice is to start a spreadsheet to keep track of who you have queried, by date, and what responses you receive, if any.  Many agents will indicate that no answer after a certain amount of time = a pass.  I personally use Microsoft’s OneNote, because it is free and mobile. I have it on my PC, my iPad and my phone, and they are all automatically synced.

Now, you should have no problem putting out a query a day, or five a week, or whatever goal you set yourself. Get to it, and good luck!