Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Friday, October 26, 2007
Writing The Most Excellent Query Letter
Over at the BookEnds LLC literary agency blog, one of the agents, I think Jessica Faust, in what I can only assume is an overwhelming attack of masochism, asked people to write the meat of their plot synopsis pitch and she would analyze them in upcoming blogs.
(Disclaimer: I am not represented by BookEnds. I am represented by Irene Kraas of the Kraas Literary Agency and, at present, have no plans to change agents. Yet, I did put a pitch up there, mostly out of curiosity).
When I checked this morning, there were 101 pitches in the comments section. I've read almost all of them. Check that: I've TRIED to read almost all of them.
Because honest to God, I can rarely get past the first sentence.
Am I saying mine is oh so wonderful? No. Here's mine, for what it's worth:
CIA operative Monaco Grace flies to Beijing to investigate the disappearance of undercover agent Peter Lee. Soon after making contact with Lee’s American friend, college professor Alan Richter, they find themselves on the run from assassins intent on retrieving information Lee gave to Richter. Trying to keep herself and Richter alive, Monaco makes a devil’s deal with a Chinese crime organization while attempting to untangle a web of lies and deceit that reaches back to the heights of U.S. government and threatens to topple the balance of world power.
First, I'd like to point out one or two things before I go on. I took Jessica's challenge somewhat literally. Early on in her challenge she suggested you write your query in 3 sentences. I think mine would benefit from one or two more. I'd like to get a little more specific about the devil's deal mentioned in the final sentence. I'd like to either expand the first sentence, which I think is a little bit abrupt, to give a little stronger sense of who Monaco Grace actually is. BUT...
I did this on purpose because unlike what I'm sure the majority of the bloggers were doing, ie., trying to get an agent's attention, I was primarily challenging myself to see if I could do it and how well I could do it.
By the way. From time to time I think it might be cool to be a literary agent. Then I read 101 query pitches or even the occasional unpublished and often unpublishable novel manuscript and decide that masochism (I've begun to think the term "glutton for punishment" might have been invented for editors or agents) and extreme patience may very well be the primary attributes for success in the field. I may very well have the masochism gene (I'm a fucking novelist, after all!) and I'm pretty patient, but I'm not at all sure I could slog through this crap day after day looking for the occasional gem.
So, I think I learned something from reading all those queries. And here, in my admittedly biased and not-really-knowledgable-point-of-view, are some tips:
1. Keep it short. You've got to catch the reader's attention in one big damn hurry. Read through these queries and ask yourself: Which ones make me want to read to the end of the query, let alone ask to read the book? (My opinion? Not very damned many.)
2. Don't slap it together like a first draft. Honest to God, people! Is this important to you? I wrote my query in about 10 minutes, but I didn't type it into the comments slot on the blog. I typed it into a Word doc and fussed around with it. I rewrote the thing 4 or 5 times, trying to get as much information into as little space as possible, trying to give a sense of conflict, at least a minimal idea of who the two primary characters are, and what the overall arc of the story was. If it had been an actual query letter I probably would have approached things a bit differently, starting something like: "I have a completed thriller novel titled CHINA FIRE that runs approximately 110,000 words." It was clear to me that an awful lot of people slapped their damn thing together and left it at that. But if it's that obvious, don't you think the agent or editor will think your manuscript is, too?
3. Be specific. A query that reads something like: "My character is a single Mom whose daughter is learning disabled and gets cancer," just isn't going to turn my propeller. I'm sorry. It's too general. You need to say, "Melissa Smith, single mother of Johanna Smith, who has Fragile X syndrome, is just trying to make ends meet by working nights as a waitress and days as a librarian, when Johanna is diagnosed with childhood leukemia."
4. Where's the conflict? It's hard to show conflict in 3 sentences, but you MUST realize that story, even if it's a romantic comedy, is about CONFLICT. With the #3 example, you see right away what the conflict is. Even before it continues with, "When a man she doesn't know who eats regularly at Joe's Diner where Melissa works starts paying for Johanna's medical bills, Melissa must choose between her dignity, her fear for what strings might be attached, and her daughter's life." (Yes, that's longer and less streamlined than I want it to be. I'd rewrite it. Several times).
5. Stay away from the high-concept pitch. This might just be me. There are a couple high concept pitches on this blog and although I think they work okay for films, I'm skeptical about what they do for you for agents and editors. At least as a first line. You might use it as a closer. For instance, my next Derek Stillwater novel, ANGELS FALLING (scheduled for May 2008) I have called "Die Hard Meets The G8 Summit." I might sell it that way to movie people either at the beginning or ending of the pitch, but probably not at the beginning. Now, our story with Melissa, let's say the third sentence to this story is: And when Melissa begins to wonder if her mysterious benefactor is the serial killer known as DRAMA, she finds herself in a no-win situation, forced to use every bit of her wiles to escape. (Actually, this isn't where I was going with that story, but I wanted to make a point.). The high concept might then be: "'As Good As It Gets' Meets 'Silence Of The Lambs.'"
I'm sure if I keep going I'd come up with more, but these 5 points would help most of these query letters.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
The Writing Life Is Weird
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
I was reading an article about Ben Affleck in TIME Magazine last night. They mentioned that he used to be very outspoken about politics, but recently he's been keeping his opinions pretty much to himself. He said something that I've thought about quite a bit.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Happy Anniversary To Me
Friday, October 19, 2007
What I've Been Reading
Here's a list with the occasional comment of the last handful or two of books I've read.
Patriot Acts by Greg Rucka
I liked this one a lot. About a high-level bodyguard, it takes place almost instantaneously after the previous book, Critical Space, then takes place over about four years. Seems to be the end of a series.
Motor Mouth by Janet Evanovich
Light, funny, silly, fluff. Perfect book to read by the lake, which is what I did.
The Chemistry of Death by Simon Beckett
One of my favorite books of the year and for a debut novel, quite dazzling. He takes the forensic thriller, takes it to England, then twists it again by putting it essentially into a rural small town. Sad, intriguing and, I felt, remarkable.
Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child
What can you say about Lee Child's books? If you like his kind of book (if you like his, you'll like mine, I think) which is full of violence and mayhem and decent mysteries--I pretty much had this one figured out a third of the way th rough--then you'll like his Jack Reacher novels. This one is good.
Dead Watch by John Sandford
I re-read this one-off by Sandford. Same crisp writing and interesting characterizations, but the main character is a political consultant, a fixer of sorts, and I like it. A lot.
The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
Sci-Fi and a good one of the military/space opera subgenre. When a leading Colonial Forces scientist defects and turns traitor, the CF discovers the scientist, who was the leading expert on "consciousnes transfer" left his own consciousness in a computer, they transfer his consciousness into the brain of one of their ghost brigades, CF special forces soldiers who are genetically engineered, fast-grown and imprinted with all the knowledge they need to fight wars. The consciousness transfer doesn't seem to work, so the soldier is put into the ghost brigades... until memories start coming to him. Really excellent, but I recommend you read Old Man's War by Scalzi first.
Rebel Island by Rick Riordan
I've reviewed this already, but I enjoyed it.
The Wheel of Darkness by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
These guys are always good, but this one left me a little cold. I'm not a huge Agent Prendergast fan although I recognize just how daring they were in creating a main character as odd as him--a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, I think--but typically he works with somebody the reader can better relate to. In this case that's a problem. Interesting and entertaining, though.
Red Cat by Joe Spiegelman
A PI novel in New York City, pretty much reminded me of Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder novels. I don't remember the character's name now, but he's hired by his brother, who picks up women through the personals ads and has flings. Now one of his flings is threatening to blackmail him. When she ends up dead, his brother is the main suspect. A very enjoyable novel for PI fans.
Dead Heat by Dick Francis & Felix Francis
A good, solid read. Not Francis's best, but not his worst and I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Outsourced by RJ Hillhouse
Oh boy. Talk about topical. David Morrell's blurb suggests it's fiction that reads like nonfiction. Yeah, it's a spy thriller, military thriller about a company very similar to Blackwater. It's laden, and I mean really, really filled with details about how these outsourcing military operations work. My problem with the book besides the "faction" tone was that when I got to the end I felt like the two main characters were so odd that I'd never really run into anybody like them before--ever. And I've known a few military people and the occasional spook. And the ending left me grinding my teeth a bit, but that's a separate issue that has more to do with my philosophies than any faults with the book. Worth reading, but a bit of a cold puzzle at times.
Dirty Martini by JA Konrath
I thought Joe and I were using the same outline that I used for THE SERPENT'S KISS. In this book, Lt. Jack Daniels is tracking a mass poisoner through Chicago. The humor seems muted, but the pace is spot-on. I have a few issues with overall characterization and the sort of over the top ending that seems somewhat out of keeping with the rest of the book, but it's an enjoyable read. I also feel like the character of Harry is becoming irreversibly cartoonish, but I'm probably just being hard on Joe because he's so much more successful than I am.
Dark of the Moon by John Sandford
Just finished this last night. Sandford's always reliable. This follows Minnesota State cop (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) Virgil Flowers into the countryside to investigate a double-murder that rapidly escalates in the very small town of Bluestem. It's very good. I have a problem with a town this small and gossipy not already being aware of what's going on, but I thought the main character's approach to things was refreshing and the writing, as usual, is so crisp and clear and pungent that it overwhelms any story deficiencies. Neat trick, if you can pull it off.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Seducing the Muse
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
You Are Where?
There's been some buzz lately about Reed Coleman's piece in Crimespree Magazine called "How Did I Get Here?" It's fairly easy to take this piece as a rant against promotion, even though it ends with a declaration that it isn't. Here's some of what Reed says, though:
"What I realized, finally, was that it was not so much these things themselves but what they represented. Each bad meal, each tour date—good or bad—each night away from home, each convention, and book launch, I came to understand, was a small step away from what mattered. And what mattered to me, what will always matter to me, is the work itself. It was as if one day I went to sleep back in my boyhood home in Brooklyn, but woke up years later in Buenos Aires or Burkina Faso. I had let myself get farther and farther away from being a writer. It had happened by the inch, in tiny, almost imperceptable, increments. Whether I’d done it gladly with eyes wide open or had it foisted upon me was beside the point. I was no longer where I wanted to be, not even close."
I have a pretty good idea where Reed is coming from and I've had nowhere near the success he has had in the fiction arena. Lately I've been spending a lot of time trying to sort out my feelings about fiction. Some of this has to do with some of the changes going on in my nonfiction business. You see, in 2007 I got a little complacent. I had let a number of my clients go because I was so busy with ONE BIG CLIENT and OBC paid a lot of money and kept me very busy... until recently. They'll probably keep me busy still and probably still pay me quite well, but the fact is, my work with them is changing... and I only found out yesterday when I called them and asked about some work they had mentioned I might be doing in 2008. And I find that, underneath my feet without anybody mentioning it to me, their priorities had changed. They had decided what type of work they wanted me to do and as far as I can see didn't consult with me on this for even a millisecond. Ultimately that's fine. I'll still be working for them and the pay is still good, but the work they want seems to me to take me a ways away from what I ultimately want to be doing.
I'm not exactly scrambling, but my priorities changed pretty much overnight and what I'm kicking myself about isn't that it changed, but I had forgotten momentarily a key rule of the freelance life--things change. So I've gotten a couple of my previous clients back and I'm looking for new ones and already have one or two.
So that's all affecting how I feel and what I think about publishing fiction. I still very much love writing fiction. But the business end of it, the numbers games, the promotion, the never-ending rejection that is just a fact of life of the fiction game, the little dance writers, agents and editors dance is wearing me out. It's not fun; it's not exhilarating; it's not exciting. It's irritating and unpredictable and, unfortunately, a little depressing.
On my walk with Frodo this morning I was thinking that the problem is that a publisher is a corporation and when we expect corporations to act like anything but a corporation, we're complaining about zebras having stripes.
Anyway, Reed wraps up his piece with these words of wisdom:
"Don’t misread this essay as a rant against promotion. It isn’t. It’s more a warning or suggestion to my colleagues that they take inventory of their lives and careers on a regular basis and that when so doing, they pay particular attention to what it is they want out of this life. I submit, however, that regardless of what they want out of the life or wanted out of the life when their careers began, and in spite of the increasing pressures to promote themselves and their work, that if the balance of their energies aren’t focused on producing the best work they can, something is wrong. Ask yourself, 'How did I get here?'”
Friday, October 12, 2007
When Book Marketing Doesn't Work
One of the magazines I get is PODIATRY MANAGEMENT. Yeah, odd, isn't it? I'm not a podiatrist. But I write regularly for PM--mostly on topics of practice management, things like 7 ways to market your practice, or my most recent article yet to come out, ways to plug revenue leakage. I'm such a regular contributor that it was easier to just give me a complementary subscription rather than deal with me nagging for the issues my pieces are in.
There's a first of two-parts article in the latest issue by David Zahaluk, MD, called "The Top Ten Reasons Why Advertising Frequently Fails--Part 1." I thought there were enough interesting things in the first five that I'd mention some of what he has to say here.
#1. People don't want to be sold. Zahaluk notes that we're inundated with advertising messages. In fact, he notes that the average consumer receives about 3000 sales messages per day. (Think about that for a second. What the hell does that say about modern civilization, anyway?). The result, he suggests, is we have a tendency to automatically weed out sales messages as being "just advertising." I think of the number of times I've stared at the TV through some amusing ad and some member of my family comments on it and I think (or sometimes say), "Uh, what was it for? I wasn't paying any attention." There's some ad out now for Stanley Steemer where the dog drags his butt across the carpet and the woman acts like her son slit his throat with a butter knife and the only thing I got out of it was it was for some carpet cleaning company, but I didn't know which one until my wife commented that it was for the same damned company that came to our house that week.
#2. Being boring. Here's how Zahaluk starts this:
"Perceptual studies have been done on the behavior of reading the newspaper. The reader scans the page quickly and separates news stories from advertising content. Then headlines are scanned with about 4 seconds each devoted to each headline. After that, articles of interest are read, and boring articles are skipped. Finally, ads are scanned and interesting ones are read, while most aren't."
The point is that for a print material ad you've got about 4 seconds to attract the attention of the reader.
#3. Lacking credibility. Here he talks about using specific measures in an ad, something like "73% of patients with severe foot pain get complete relief using new treatment" versus say, "Read my Damned Good Book." I'm thinking of how to apply that to a marketing hook for your book. "83% of book buyers read this on the potty without getting hemorrhoids!" Well, maybe not.
#4. The 'Me-Too' Approach. Here he basically says most ads look alike, especially when made by people who don't know what they're doing. A marketing expert called Dan Kennedy calls this "marketing incest" which I think nails it. In other words, how do you make your ad/marketing stand out from the other 100,000 writers currently marketing in the exact same damned way??? How, if asked, say, to do something for AuthorBuzz, do you make your thing not look like the other 4 books a week run there every week?
#5. Being tacky. Ha! I don't need to go into this one, do I?
Anyway, I thought these were interesting.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Why Do You Write?
I wanted to title this "What works in marketing your novel?" and make it a very short article: two words, "Who Knows?"
There are some writers who have done little and taken off. There are some who have toured, done all sorts of media, and who have faltered. Some writers got great publishing support, and prospered. Some got great publisher's support, didn't earn back their advance, and got dropped like a hot potato. Most of us get little support and have to work from there. It is a crap shoot. Most writers don't earn back their advance. Most books lose money to their publishers.
I do believe that, if your publisher plans to spend tens of thousands of dollars in co- op (basically bribes to bookstores to mention the book in their newsletters, and display it prominently) then you stand a better chance of success. Don't hold your breath.
I also believe that writing a break-out novel has little to do with the quality of your writing, and at lot to do with fit, accessibility, publisher co-op and luck. Fit means hitting a topic that is hot. (Not like current events, but a topic that catches someone's interest in the seven seconds it takes for them to decide to pick your book off the shelve and look at it. Like a serial killer who only kills serial killers.)
Accessibility means writing a book that is hard to put down because of it's compelling plot and simple, readable language. Is The Da Vinci Code a better book than To The Lighthouse? Who cares?
Co-op I mentioned already, and consult the Tarot to find out about luck.
What are you in it for? And that is not a flippant question. Do you want financial success, or do you want to be an excellent writer? Sure, ideally both. But which is more important? If it is success, then pick your hero, your topic, and even your nom de plume carefully, to hit the broadest target market. Louise Foster's introspective police procedural about a feisty but insecure new female homicide detective is likely to hit a wider reading audience than Joe Foster's action-packed military novel. (80% of readers of fiction are women. And women tend to read more women writer than men writers. Men usually always exclusively read men, but who cares, the number of male readers are insignificant.)
Or you pick door number two, and write the book that calls you to write it. There is such satisfaction in following your muse, and then actually getting your book recognized and published. It's a great rush. If you are lucky, your book will sell enough copies so that the publisher will consider your next proposal. If not, well it was fun, wasn't it?
Buddha says, "All suffering comes from unmet expectations." Be clear about your expectations. Are you writing for dollars, or for the joy of mastering the craft of it? Know what you are in it for, and you might cut down a bit of that self-imposed suffering.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Body of Work
Monday, October 08, 2007
John Scalzi--On The Edge of Greatness?
Friday, October 05, 2007
The Bourne Hook
I'm guest blogging over at Natasha Fondren's blog (aka Spy Scribbler) with a piece about hooks and The Bourne Ultimatum. Check it out.
Thursday, October 04, 2007
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
The Persistence of Memory
Monday, October 01, 2007
Writing Inspiration: Just Showing Up
October 1, 2007
I think Woody Allen was right when he said that 9/10 of success was just showing up.
In my current work-in-progress, I sort of wrote myself into a corner. I knew I hadn't, really, although as any writer will tell you, self-doubt is such a big part of the gig that sure, I was convinced the novel was dead in the water right around page 100.
Here's the thing: I know that right around page 100 is where we end act I and start act II. There should be, from a totally structural point of view, some sort of reversal at this point in the story.
I know this intellectually.
It just didn't occur to me.
Now, for those of you who might wonder, no, as a matter of fact, when I'm writing, I don't think about story structure that way. Not exactly. It's a gut feeling, one in which I'm thinking, "Hmmm, something needs to happen here, something big." I tend to think, when this happens, that it's just my Boredom Meter red-lining. "Eh, I'm a little bored, let's have something exciting happen here." That's part of it, sure. But it's also a sort of built-in meter in my head that understands the three-part story structure in a subconscious way--after all, like most modern people, I've read thousands of books, seen thousands of movies and TV shows. The three-part story structure is essentially: beginning, middle, end. But most people aren't all that aware of it. But by writing a million or so words or more, it gets embedded in your subconscious. It's the skeleton that you build your novel on.
So, anyway, I was struggling with this. You could call it writer's block (you could, but I won't). But I kept showing up at my desk and staring blankly at the screen and maybe writing a page each day, then the next day invariably tweaking it. In other words, the story wasn't going anywhere and I knew it. I didn't know what to do.
So I told myself: "Self, come up with something."
And I did. Something big. Something dramatic. And something that restructures the story in a way that makes complete sense based on what I know about the main character.
And I realized--belatedly, I think--that I just had hit the "reversal" and that the story had taken on a different tone, that I had solved the problems I had been wondering about: What to do with the civilian my main character was teamed up with and even more importantly, what to do with the really complex secondary opponent.
I had, as it turns out, hit the second act. And the second act is going to structure the middle section of the book until the third act, which generally requires some sort of major reversal and, no, I don't actually know what that is. Although I would guess it has to do with the main character discovering what the whole plot is about and preventing it from happening.
The point here is that I kept showing up. I was hoping for inspiration--I went looking for it, instead--but I kept showing up and doing some work in hopes that it would happen. And it did.
The muses can be fickle, that's for damned sure, but I have faith that if I show up, they'll show up.