Tag Archives: literary agents

Halt! How to Not Lose Readers on Your First Page

 

When it comes to enticing readers (or literary agents) to read your novel, the first page is extraordinarily important. Many people, including agents, believe that they can tell whether a book is worth reading from the first page. This means that your first page has to deliver what a reader expects it to.

495969512_f317d59719_oThink about how many times you’ve gone into a bookstore, the library, or onto Amazon in search of the next book you’re going to read. You probably first look at the title and the book cover. If those two aspects draw you in, then you read the blurb. If you’re still interested, you’ll open the book or, if on Amazon, go to the free preview, and check out the first page. If the first page doesn’t impress, then you move on to the next book. After all, why would you stick around to read an entire novel, if the first page isn’t interesting?

So, what can you do to make your first page enticing?

While there’s no hard-and-fast rules, certain elements can help or hurt your first page. Oftentimes, starting a novel with dialogue or weather will not catch readers’ interest. Readers want to picture what is happening. Have you ever read a scene where two people are sitting somewhere and having a conversation? The conversation may be intriguing, but you have no idea where the two people are or what the two people look like? Or, maybe it’s the opposite, where you have so much description that you’re overloaded. You can probably think of a novel where the author spends the first pages describing the weather, the house, the landscape…and nothing else happens. Nothing occurs that sets the scene in motion.

When it comes to writing a novel, readers want and expect the novel to read like a movie. They want scenes to be visual, as if a camera is guiding them.

Why is this?

Because readers want to be immersed in the story. In essence, readers want to be shown a story instead of told it.

How do you go about writing a scene like a movie?

Think about scenes the way a director would. Where should the camera be angled at this moment? Where is every character positioned in this scene? If something happens at point A, how does that effect point B? For example, your two protagonists (sisters) are fighting a gang of five people. The younger sister is stabbed. This effects the older sister’s actions. She may get distracted, and so gets punched in the face. Does the camera catch the younger sister getting stabbed, or is the camera focused on the older sister, so that the older sister, and readers, only hear the younger sister scream? It’s only when the older sister whirls around to look at the younger sister that she and readers realize the younger sister’s been injured.

When combining the camera technique with a novel’s first page, set the scene with a brief camera shot. This shot shows where the character is by using sensory detail. By setting the scene, your readers can follow what is occurring.

Notice that I said, “occurring,” instead of “about to occur.” Begin the first page in the middle of an action. Readers don’t want to be told that something is going to happen; they want to be immersed immediately in what is happening. Here’s a great opening line from Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett: “The small boys came early to the hanging.”

This line throws readers into the story. Something morbid is occurring, and a group of children are about to witness a horrendous act that will change their worldview. Readers want to know more.

No matter what, the camera should never feel like it’s stuck in one place. You want to choose the best angle for each shot. A close in view will limit what readers’ experience, while a faraway shot will give readers a bigger picture view. However, while a close in shot will showcase small, vital details, a bigger picture will pass over the details for a more bird’s eye view.

You want readers to notice what you want them to see. Give readers enough information to make them want to know more.

(Photo courtesy of Stephen.)

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Why Writing for Yourself Isn’t Always the Answer

When I began writing, I couldn’t decide whether to write for the audience or myself. Writing for myself meant exploring content that was important to me. I believed that by writing for myself I would create intensely honest and captivating work. By writing this way, I wouldn’t feel like I had to impress anybody. I wouldn’t be hindered by the constraints of genre or age group. As Cyril Connolly said, “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”

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However, I wanted to get published. And, when you’re trying to get published, it helps to know your audience. It helps to write for your audience.

I’m not saying to give up your unique voice, writing style, interests, etc. All those are important in creating a compelling piece of work that differentiates itself from what’s already been published. What makes your book unique will be what ultimately gets you a book deal.

But you need to write for someone. Too often, when you write for yourself, the plot, characters…something ends up being inconsistent. You’re too close to the story to realize that there are plot holes or other aspects of your work that weaken it.

At the same time, simply saying that you’re writing for young adults, military personnel, or housewives isn’t enough. Why? Because these are generalizations of people. They’re too vague. Think about housewives. They come in all different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Their life experiences differ vastly. Let’s compare two housewives:

Housewife A: Her name is Aubrey. She is 24 years old, was born in Louisiana to a white mother and a black father. Her father died of lung cancer when she was 17 years old. She started college with her long-term boyfriend and was majoring in English—she wanted to be a middle school English teacher—when her mother was in a car accident and was paralyzed from the waist down. Aubrey dropped out of school to help her mother recover. Her boyfriend graduated and proposed to Aubrey. They married and Aubrey’s husband moved in with Aubrey and her mother. Aubrey was planning to go back to school, when she found out that she was pregnant. Aubrey is excited to be a mother, but while she loves the idea of being a stay-at-home mom, she hopes to one day go back to college and receive her degree.

Housewife B: Her name is Mary. She is 47 years old, was born in Connecticut to a white mother and father. She grew up wealthy, attended boarding school, and knew that she would be a housewife just like her mother. She graduated college with a degree in sociology, but was more interested in field hockey and her sorority. Those were the girls she’d know for the rest of her life. She ended up marrying her college boyfriend, who came from an equally wealthy family of doctors, who served on hospital boards and had stakes in three hospitals. They both signed prenuptial agreements and their parents bought them their first house, in Connecticut, as an early wedding gift. Mary has three children: two boys, both who play lacrosse at their boarding school, and a girl, who plays field hockey and tennis at her boarding school. Mary loves her life of private clubs, yoga, and martinis with the girls, but she secretly wishes that she had a more exciting sex life.

These housewives are extremely different. If you tried writing for both of them, your work would turn out inconsistent. So, choose one of the housewives to write for.

Whenever you’re writing something, choose a person that you’re writing for. Maybe this person is real or maybe it’s a persona you created. Ask yourself who this person is, what this person wants, why this person want what he wants. Learn about this person well enough that you know him inside and out. Then, write a story for that person. This will help you stay focused and consistent. This will keep readers invested in the reality you created, instead of being ripped out of it by some inconsistency.

When the writing and revisions are completed, you’ll have a piece of work with a firmly identifiable audience, and a work that has a great chance of grabbing an agent or editor’s attention.

(Photo courtesy of victorio marasigan.)

Thinking About Self-Publishing? Here’s A Quick Reality Check.

Self-publishing seems to be all the hype right now. Whether you first try to get an agent or go straight to publishers and are unable to get their attention, or decide to skip attempting the traditional route altogether, you’re looking into self-publishing.

It seems like a good deal. You don’t have to mess with any of the middle men, who take the majority of the money your novel makes. You have the freedom to choose how you want to represent your work. You even get to select what you want your book cover to look like.3407402643_7d11d2717f_z

You’ve heard the success stories:

  • Andy Weir’s The Martian was originally self-published in 2011. It’s now been re-released through Crown Publishing, a subsidiary of Random House, and was made into a movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon.
  • Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James was not only first self-published, but also was based on fan fiction. The rights for this novel were obtained by Vintage Books, a subdivision of Random House, in 2012. Selling over 125 million copies, this book was made into a movie that earned over $571 million worldwide.
  • Mark Dawson’s self-published John Milton series has sold over 300,000 copies. And while that in itself is impressive, Amazon pays for Mark to speak at seminars and workshops, sort of like their poster boy for the self-publishing world. To learn more about Mark’s success story, click here: “Amazon Pays $450,000 A Year To This Self-Published Writer.” 
  • Amanda Hocking self-published out of a need to make some desperately needed money. Over a period of about 20 months, Amanda sold 1.5 million books and made more than $2 million. To learn more about her story, click here: “Amanda Hocking, the writer who made millions by self-publishing online.” 

What you don’t hear so often are the hundreds of thousands of people who self-publish in the hopes of making enough money to quit their day jobs and end up not finding success.

Talking Writing’s article “Three Money Lessons For Starry-Eyed Authors” discusses the truth of self-publishing.

In this article, three lessons are addressed:

  1. “There’s Way Too Much Competition”
    1. It’s really easy to self-publish. Therefore, everyone and their grandma feel like giving it a try. On one hand, it’s great that people have the freedom to see their work published. On the other hand, most times the work wasn’t ready to be published, or in some cases, should have never seen the light of day. (I’ve seen multiple self-published novels that have misspelled titles.) It’s this other hand that causes a lot of problems because (1) your work gets lost in the noise and (2) a stigma forms about self-publishing.
  2. “Literary Fiction Is Still the Ugly Cousin”
    1. Literary fiction, as opposed to genre fiction, has never been all that great at selling books in the traditional publishing world. Literary fiction sells even worse in self-publishing.
  3. “You Can Drive Yourself Insane Tracking Sales”
    1. Having the ability to check real-time sales is both a blessing and a curse. When your book is selling well, you get a positive boost every time you check your sales statistics. However, when your book isn’t selling, the real-time sales can become a black hole that takes over your life.

These three challenges aren’t meant to deter you, if you’re interested in self-published. They’re here to show you that you most likely won’t get rich quick with self-publishing and that self-publishing involves a lot of work (potentially more work than traditional publishing because you are responsible for doing and paying for everything). But, like with everything, self-publishing presents opportunity, and with opportunity, there’s always a chance of phenomenal success.

Have you ever self-published or been interested in self-publishing?

(Photo courtesy of khrawlings.)

Is This Sexist? The Bechdel and Mako Mori Tests Are Here to Help

The other day I was reading an agent’s blog and came across two types of tests she prefers that novels pass before queries are submitted to her. I’d never heard of either one of these tests, so I was curious and looked them up.

The first is the Bechdel Test. This test was introduced back in 1985 through a comic strip. 521f82bc22887

Dykes to Watch Out For Comic Strip

In order to pass this test a movie, story, etc. must have (1) at least two female characters, (2) these female characters must talk to each other, and (3) they need to talk to each other about a topic other than a man.

Basically, this test is meant to show whether or not a story is gender biased. It indicates that women’s relationships are more complex than being a man’s sidekick or love interest, and that women do not exist solely in relation to men.

The second test is the Mako Mori Test. Mako Mori is the leading female character in the movie Pacific Rim. 521f8027f17e4

Mako Mori

When the movie came out a lot of people were upset that it did not pass the Bechdel Test. Mako Mori was nearly the only female character in the movie, and she never talked to the other much smaller supporting female character.

However, Mako Mori was not the stereotypical female character. She didn’t pose on a car in skimpy clothes. Her life didn’t revolve around a man. She fought for her place within the hierarchy and was overall a strong female lead.

Thus was born the Mako Mori Test. To pass this test a film or story must have (1) at least one female character, (2) this character must get her own narrative story arc, and (3) her story arc is not about supporting a man’s story arc.

Both the Bechdel and Mako Mori Tests are simplistic. Critics of the Bechdel Test have stated that all the requirements can be fulfilled and the story can still be sexist. None of the requirements for the Bechdel Test state that women must have character development. Technically, there could be two women in a film, who are inseparable best friends, and who only talk about shopping. That scenario passes the Bechdel Test, but it’s stereotypical and not at all empowering to women.

As for the Mako Mori Test, there can be an incredibly independent and strong female lead, but still contain sexism. In the movie Avengers, there are two female characters, however they’re rarely on the screen at the same time and don’t talk to each other (thus failing the Bechdel Test). The movie does pass the Mako Mori Test because of Black Widow, who is a major force within the movie. Yet, she is a sex symbol, which is stereotypical for Hollywood films.

I love the idea of creating tests to ensure women are something other than supporting characters for men, but creating such a test is harder than it seems and neither the Bechdel Test nor the Mako Mori Test ensure independent female characters. What might be a better alternative than having one test is to combine the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests.

What do you think?

[Photos courtesy of Bust.]

Getting a Leg Up: Improving Your Chances of Getting Published

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I’m always searching for ways to improve my chances of getting published. No matter what avenue you pursue getting published is a challenge. Many times it seems more about luck than talent or perseverance, though without staying power the chances of getting published are reduced to zero.

I’ve joined a critique group, taken creative writing classes, read several creative writing books, analyzed commercially successful novels, and am now working toward a Masters in Fiction Writing. All of this done in an effort to polish my work into a piece of writing an agent and then an editor will take on.

wanted lit agentBut even as I do all of this I know my chances are still slim. And before I go off on a bunny trail and start talking about how many poorly written novels end up being bestsellers (readability is one of the most important aspects of successful commercial fiction, not literary finesse), I would love to know what others are doing to improve their chances of getting published.

Currently, there’s the debate of whether or not to pursue an MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) in creative writing. Thousands of people apply each year to get into this program, while each year thousands snub the program. Real fast: an MFA is a terminal graduate degree, usually taking two to three years to complete, that offers students the opportunity to focus on their writing and grow as writers. Students participate in traditional style classes and workshops, where they read and critique other students’ work and where their work is read and critiqued.

One of the best attributes of the MFA is the opportunity to have your work read and critiqued. The program provides you with a community of writers that will give honest and thorough feedback on your writing. Sometimes when you have family or friends read your work, they’ll want to be encouraging, and so will be afraid of truly critiquing your novel. When you’re in a workshop setting, that is not the case. You will get straightforward and truthful feedback, whether you want to hear it or not.

An MFA program also teaches you to read with a critical eye. As I’ve delved deeper into the literary world, I’ve noticed my reading style changing. Whereas I used to read solely for pleasure, now I automatically dissect technique and literary elements within any work of fiction I read. On one hand this is great because I come away with a better understanding of the work I just read. On the other hand, I don’t enjoy books as much as I used to because I can better pick out the inconsistencies, plot holes, flat characters, etc. Though in order to improve as a writer, you have to learn what to avoid when writing, and one of the best ways to learn that is to become a critical reader.

As with all programs, there are downsides to the MFA. One, there’s the cost. Very few programs cover expenses. Most will cost students anywhere from $30,000 to $65,000. That’s a lot of money for a degree that provides little opportunity in the professional world!

There are no guarantees that you’ll get published. You’ll spend thousands of dollars and years of your life focusing on improving your work, and nothing may come of it. One of the most common pieces of advice writers hear is to not quit their day job.

Also, an MFA tends to be literary. If your focus is commercial, it’ll be challenging to get accepted into such a program. The literary world tends to snub the commercial world, while the commercial world doesn’t care all that much for the literary one. As stated earlier, one of the biggest proponents of having a commercially successful novel is readability. I’ve read many novels where the characters are two-dimensional and stereotypical, where the plot is nothing new, and where the writing is average at best, but I’ve come away liking the books because of their readability. (Literary fiction usually doesn’t promote readability to the extent of well-crafted writing.)writer

In the end, what you choose to do to improve your writing will be based on personal preferences, what you can afford, and what other successful writers in your genre have done.

I’m happy with my decision to work toward a Masters in Fiction Writing part time (this is different from an MFA) because it gave me a group of writers and professors – all published – who provide me with feedback for my work and gave me a group of people who understand what it’s like to pursue writing seriously and who know how difficult it is to be successful in the literary world.

No matter what it’s important to read and read widely. Reading books in your genre is vital, but so is reading books outside your genre. Join a critique group, and in doing so be open to (1) putting in the work and (2) being open to criticism. (I recently learned of a critique group where everyone wants their work read and critiqued, but very few want to read and critique anyone else’s work. Reciprocate people!) And when your novel is finished, revise, revise, revise. If you’re not great at editing, consider hiring a professional editor (if you have the funds to do so). Attend writer’s conferences. Immerse yourself in the literary world.

A great article I’ve read recently about the MFA and whether it will give you a leg up in the publishing world is “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.” It’s worth a look.

How do you improve your chances of getting published? What’s your stance on the MFA?

(Photos courtesy of The BookBaby Blog, The Graduate21, i am CAM Jr!)

Sucking Readers into Your Story: the Narrative Hook

204NeverlandThe narrative hook is how you grab readers’ attention from the onset. It’s a speedy way to draw readers into your story, making readers want to know what’s going to happen. This literary device is what keeps readers reading.

A narrative hook is important because readers, literary agents, and publishers dedicate very little time toward deciding if a book is worth reading. Sometimes this time is as little as a few seconds! Your story needs to grab people right off the bat.

One of the best ways to utilize a narrative hook is to have it pose a question in readers’ minds. This doesn’t mean literally writing a question into the text, but showing the readers a scene that formulates questions. Here’s an example:

“Across the room a woman holds her front teeth in the palm of her hand.”

  • Ron Rash, “Not Waving, But Drowning”

From this opening line, readers want to know what happened to the woman. Why is she standing there holding her teeth? Etc.

Narrative hooks arouse readers’ curiosity.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

  • George Orwell, “1984”

It’s likely you’ve seen an analog clock at some point in your life. Have you ever seen one strike thirteen? It’s doubtful. Clocks don’t strike thirteen, so why are they doing so here?

Great narrative hooks hint at something more. They intrigue readers by showing there’s more than what’s on the surface. They should set up expectations, and then follow through on them. If you mention the protagonist’s kid sister in the first paragraph, she should play a big role in the story.

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”

  • Suzanne Collins, “The Hunger Games”

Prim isn’t physically in the novel for long, but she’s the reason why Katniss, the protagonist, enters The Hunger Games. Prim is the reason the entire novel occurs.

Plus, readers want to know what “the reaping” is.

Narrative hooks should be used early on, usually in the first sentence, sometimes the first paragraph, and rarer, at the end of the first page. Remember, it’s very easy for readers to bail on a story. If they’re not pulled in immediately, they won’t consider the book worth their time. There are agents, editors, and publishers who will reject an entire novel based on the first sentence! That’s a lot of pressure for the opening line, and a very good reason why your opening should be phenomenal.

Typically your original opening is not the one you end up with. As you gain a deeper understanding of your story and characters, you’ll be able to write a better opening. If you write a great hook, readers will have a hard time pulling away from the story.

What are some great narrative hooks you’ve read?

(Photo courtesy of Wikia.)

Quotes and Rejections: Surviving the World of Publishing

It’s safe to say writing is my passion. I like the act of writing, reading about writing, learning about writing, reading in general, both fiction and non-fiction, adult and young adult. Without writing my life would lack a vital component, but there are times when I don’t feel like writing or I feel like I’m not any good at it. Sometimes I’m tempted to throw down the pen and quit.

Writing isn’t easy. Shelling out an entire novel, revising, getting it critiqued, and revising a few more times is a long process. Then, having to write and revise the synopsis, blurb, and query letter all in the hopes of having an agent declare your book worthy of being published is another arduous step in the very long process of finding a place for your work among the shelves of other published novels.

Sometimes it all just feels futile, like you’re bashing your head repeatedly against a brick wall.

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When these moments of futility occur, I turn to quotes by published authors. It helps to know that I’m not alone in this process or feeling like I can’t find the right way to describe something…or that my work is a load of crap that should be burned.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite quotes:

“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or ten pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”
– Lawrence Block

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
– E. L. Doctorow

“You can’t write a novel all at once, any more than you can swallow a whale in one gulp. You do have to break it up into smaller chunks. But those smaller chunks aren’t good old familiar short stories. Novels aren’t built out of short stories. They are built out of scenes.”
– Orson Scott Card

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
– Ernest Hemingway

“It’s like making a movie: All sorts of accidental things will happen after you’ve set up the cameras. So you get lucky. Something will happen at the edge of the set and perhaps you start to go with that; you get some footage of that. You come into it accidentally. You set the story in motion and as you’re watching this thing begin, all these opportunities will show up. So, in order to exploit one thing or another, you may have to do research. You may have to find out more about Chinese immigrants, or you may have to find out about Halley’s Comet, or whatever, where you didn’t realize that you were going to have Chinese or Halley’s Comet in the story. So you do research on that, and it implies more, and the deeper you get into the story, the more it implies, the more suggestions it makes on the plot. Toward the end, the ending becomes inevitable.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

“We writers are apt to forget that, as the gunsmoke fogs and the hero rides wildly to the rescue, although the background of this furious action is fixed indelibly in our own minds, it is not fixed in the mind of the reader. He won’t see or feel it unless you make him—bearing always in mind that you can’t stop the gunfight or the racing horse to do the job.”
– Gunnison Steele

“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!”
– Ray Bradbury

“Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood—you will either write or you will not—and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.”
– Jim Tully

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”
– William Faulkner

“Don’t expect the puppets of your mind to become the people of your story. If they are not realities in your own mind, there is no mysterious alchemy in ink and paper that will turn wooden figures into flesh and blood.”
– Leslie Gordon Barnard

“Don’t be dismayed by the opinions of editors, or critics. They are only the traffic cops of the arts.”

– Gene Fowler

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.”
– Leigh Brackett

At times it may seem like published authors were immediately successful. Agents and publishing houses love advertising their wildly successful writers. However, most writers didn’t get an agent after they queried only five agents. They didn’t sell millions of copies of their debut novel. Most authors worked hard and diligently for years and received countless rejections before finding success.

Probably one of the best examples of this is J.K. Rowling. Though she got an agent quickly, she was rejected by almost every publishing house in the UK before her book sold. On top of that, she was told to get a day job because she wouldn’t make any money off of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”

J.K. Rowling is now a billionaire and one of the most well-known authors in history.

Some other examples:

The “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series received over a hundred rejections. I don’t know about you, but I owned several of those books when I was younger, and the ones I owned were only a few of over a million copies that sold.

C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” spent years getting rejected before it sold. Not only is this series famous, several movies have been made of it.

Dan Brown was told his “The Da Vinci Code” was too badly written to be published. Millions of sold copies and a movie later, he’s doing just fine.

H.G. Wells was told his “The War of the Worlds” was “An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.’” It was published in 1898, is still in print, and was made into a movie both in 1953 and 2005.

The list goes on…

This isn’t so common nowadays with most literary agents preferring email query letters instead of paper, but authors will talk about how they received enough rejections to wallpaper a room or that they have drawers full of rejection letters. Yet, despite being told their work isn’t good enough to be published over and over again, they persisted, and enough they became published.

As Isaac Asimov says, “You must keep sending work out. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.”

Got any quotes on writing or rejection you turn to?

(Photo courtesy of Deviant Art.)