Friday, June 29, 2012

Fridays With Agent Kristin: Episode 8 - Three Reasons Why Prologues Don't Work

STATUS: Agency is going to be closed Monday through Wednesday of next week for the 4th of July holiday. It's a summer mini-break!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? VIVA LAS VEGAS by Jimmy Buffett

When reading requested sample pages, every agent I knows skips a prologue when reading the sample. Today I discuss three reasons why that is so!

Enjoy and have a great holiday next week!


Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Quick Look At Tag lines

STATUS: Come on rain! Don't just be cloudy and not give it up. Pour gosh darn it!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? PUMP IT UP by Elvis Costello

I'm getting ready for tonight's workshop so I'm reviewing all the tag lines submitted by the workshop attendees. I asked all participants to submit one sentence as a baseline. So we can do a before and after during the workshop--which is often fun to see.

In other words, I don't expect everyone to have nailed that tag line. It's often hard to nail your plot catalyst in one sentence--especially if you've never really done it before. Hence the workshop.

But in reading them in prep, I can give my blog readers a bit of insight into what I think these attendees are struggling with. In the workshop, I'm going to clearly explain how to nail a plot catalyst tag line and then how to build your query pitch around that--using three different approaches.

Problem 1: The writer is trying to summarize the novel in the tag line.

Wrong use for it. You just want to nail your plot catalyst. But great, we'll talk about it tonight.

Problem 2: The writer is relying on reader's previous knowledge of a story or fairytale.

Not a bad starting point but it's not going to be quite enough to carry the cornerstone of your pitch. Will work on that tonight.

Problem 3: The writer highlights two necessary elements of the story but alas, in the tag line, they don't have a relation or a cause and effect so mentioning both doesn't quite make sense.

In other words, one doesn't necessitate the other. I'll just need to point that out and I think this writer will get it.

And there's still time to sign up if you want to join us! Just click here. I'll be getting the tag lines soon for any day registers. However, we are going to close the class in an hour or two so if you want to join in, don't delay.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Writing Craft: Mechanics Vs Spark

STATUS: Everything is literally on fire around the city of Denver. From Colorado Springs and Monument to Boulder to Fort Collins. I was so happy to see the rain this afternoon. Sadly it only lasted 20 minutes. We need more rain.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? WINDOWS ARE ROLLED DOWN by Amos Lee

When I'm doing the Agent Reads The Slush Pile workshop, the toughest moment is when the volunteer reads an entry that is completely sound. In the reading, there is no problem that I can point to and say, "here, this is the issue" or "this is not working." On a mechanical level, there is nothing wrong with the opening pages.

The form is acceptable, the grammar is fine, the writing is solid. I can even identify that the writer understands the tenets of craft. By all the "rules" of writing and publishing, I should be glowing about this entry.

But something is missing.

And I have no other word for the "what" that is missing except to say the work is lacking narrative "spark."

In other words, the writing is missing a distinctive voice.

And when that happens, what can you say during the workshop? That I don't love it? Well, that's not accurate either because when something is missing "spark" it's probably not just a Kristin subjective thing. Listeners sense it too. I can tell by watching the workshop audience. When something lacks spark, it loses people's attention. They start to shift in their seats or stretch or focus on something else.  It's not just me that notices the absence.

On the other hand, when a work has that elusive spark, I know it, because the workshop audience becomes completely still and enrapt in the reading. Their attention is glued to the reader so as not to miss the next sentence. It's a palpable change in the atmosphere of the room.

Sadly I can't give an example because none of my authors have this problem. I'd have to grab something from the slush pile and I certainly couldn't post it here without permission.

And speaking of getting read, it all begins with the perfect pitch paragraph in your query letter. Pub Rants University is hosting Goodbye Slush Pile: How To Write The Perfect Query Letter Pitch Paragraph for your Novel tomorrow night, Thursday, June 28 from 6 to 8 pm Mountain time. Given by yours truly.

I can't tell you the number of emails I've received over the years from participants who have attended, revamped their query pitches, and then landed an agent and went on to sell. Dozens and dozens. In fact, one person even came up to me during the Litfest closing party the week before last to thank me.

You won't want to miss it!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Writing Craft: Action Vs Active Openings To Grab Attention

STATUS: 105 degrees today. WTF? It's like walking in an oven…

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? HOSPITALITY by Friends of Friends

Can I see a show of hands of how many of you have been told that you need "to grab an editor or agent's attention" right away at the beginning of your novel?

This is actually true. You do need to grab our attention immediately but when new writers hear this, they confuse an action scene with an active scene.

These two things are wholly separate.

If a beginning writer hears this mantra, they often interpret it to mean that they need to inject some kind of physical active scene to create tension at the beginning of the novel.

This translates into a whole host of odd openings with car chases, prologues, or dream sequences with "action" to start the story despite the fact that these are unnecessary to the story being told and don't feel organic to what will unfold.

Besides, how the heck are you going to include an action scene in a literary novel? That makes zero sense.

So I want to take a moment to explain the difference between an "action" scene versus an "active" scene--which can be equally compelling in terms of grabbing attention.

An action scene is just that--an opening that has a lot of physical action to open the story.

A great example is Janice Hardy's opening for her fantasy THE SHIFTER. But notice, in this opening, she creates tension but the pace is not necessarily fast and furious (a la a car chase solely there to grab attention) and it doesn't need to be. Yet the action is physical and it is creating forward momentum.

Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack and make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don’t like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it’s close. And they squawk something terrible.

The trick is to wake the chicken first, then go for the eggs. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to figure this out.

“Good morning little hen,” I sang softly. The chicken blinked awake and cocked her head at me. She didn’t get to squawking, just flapped her wings a bit as I lifted her off the nest, and she’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm. I’d overheard that trick from a couple of boys I’d unloaded fish with last week. 

A voice came from beside me. “Don’t move.”

Two words I didn’t want to hear with someone else’s chicken under my arm.

I froze. The chicken didn’t. Her scaly feet flailed toward the eggs that should have been my breakfast. I looked up at a cute night-guard not much older than me, perhaps nineteen. The night was more humid than normal, but a slight breeze blew his sand-pale hair. A soldier’s cut, but a month or two grown out.

Stay calm, stay alert. As Grannyma used to say, if you’re caught with the cake, you might as well offer them a piece. Not sure how that applied to chickens though.

“Join me for breakfast when your shift ends?” I asked. Sunrise was two hours away.

He smiled, but aimed his rapier at my chest anyway. Most times, I enjoyed handsome boys smiling at me in the moonlight, but his was a sad, sorry-only-doing-my-job smile. I’d learned to tell the difference between smiles a lot faster than I’d figured out the egg thing.

If the above is action, then what do I mean by an "active" scene--which can equally work to grab attention? Active scenes don't have physical action unfolding yet the narrative propels the reader forward through the author's distinctive voice and because there is something about the scene that can't be reconciled unless the reader reads on.

A great example is literary commercial writer Kristina Riggle's opening for her novel REAL LIFE & LIARS. Here's the opening:

    My tea tastes so fresh, and this joint is so fine, I might melt right into the red velvet cushion and run down the walls into a silvery pool on the floor.

    Sure, I’m a little old to be toking up. Just north of sixty. So sue me. It’s been a rough couple weeks around here.

    The kids – actually, just my oldest, the other two are dragged along under the wheels of her train – are throwing us an anniversary party. By tomorrow night they will all be here, with spouse, children, suitcases, plus the usual petty arguments and festering resentments.

    And I thought my being a hippie would free them of all that crap. The joke’s on me.

    “Mira!” calls my husband from the kitchen. “Mira?” he says a second time, maybe realizing how frantic he sounded.

    “In here!” I know he will follow my voice and check on me, and ask me some ludicrous question like where the spatula is, when he knows darn well. Lately, he can’t let me out of his sight for very long. It’s like living with a toddler again. I’m surprised he doesn’t come into the bathroom while I’m taking a dump.

    But then, didn’t I long for this, his fervent attention? As they say, be careful what you wish for. It’s like some sort of medieval fable where a wish has been granted, with a horrible catch in the bargain.

    In the echo of all this deference rings that horrible fight, when he turned into someone else, something alien possessing him such that I’ve never seen in 40 years. I take a deep drag from the joint, and shake my head a little, shaking away the memory.

    Max pokes his head into the study, and I place my joint carefully in the ashtray on the seat next to me. He’s got Einstein hair this morning. His sandy colored curly mop sticks up on each side, but he’s bald in the middle. His spectacles are up on top of his head, and his ratty red bathrobe hangs open over his boxers and t-shirt. He doesn’t mention the marijuana smell, nor the joint smoldering next to me.

In this opening, there is very little physical action. Her character is sitting on a couch smoking. That's it. Riggle grabs attention by setting up a dichotomy--a grandmother smoking a joint. It's not what we imagine or expect so immediately the reader is questioning the why and the character. It's an active scene just for that reason.

Whether the opening works for you as a reader, is not the point here. I'm simply pointing out the difference between "action" and "active" when writing openings to grab attention.

So don't confuse the two when your critique group says you need to immediately grab an agent's attention in your novel.




Monday, June 25, 2012

Writing Craft: Breaking The Rule: Show Don't Tell

STATUS: What is up with over 100 degree days in Denver in June? We live here because summer tends to be awesome. We could be confused with Phoenix this week.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? NOVEMBER by Ben Williams

A week ago I attended Denver Lighthouse Writer's Litfest where I gave my Agent Reads The Slush Pile workshop to over 50 hearty souls--which convinces me yet again that writers are gluttons for punishment.

As I was giving the workshop, inspiration hit for a couple of blog posts I could do on writing craft that I think my blog readers would understand and find helpful.

So guess what I'm going to do this week if I can find 30 minutes of time to get one posted?

Writers are often given writing "rules" that woe be you if you break them. And for most cases, because beginning writers have not mastered craft yet, these rules hold true. But if a writer knows what he or she is doing, breaking the rule can often create something really unusual that will work and be amazing (but will have a lot of aspiring writers crying foul that so-and-so writer does it and gets away with it.)

For example, how often have you heard that as a writer, you should show and not tell? Too many times to count I imagine.

Do you want to know one NLA writer who breaks this rule all the time at the beginning of her novels? Sherry Thomas. Sherry has won the Rita Award twice in a row now (the romance genre's highest honor) and her debut novel PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS was named one of Publisher's Weekly best books of the year in 2008.

So obviously somebody agrees that she has mastered craft and Sherry always begins her novels with a lot of exposition--usually a big no-no. But for her voice, it just works. Just last month, Sherry released her latest historic romance entitled BEGUILING THE BEAUTY which John Charles said in the Booklist review: "Thomas distills superbly nuanced characters and flawlessly re-created settings worthy of a Merchant and Ivory into a gracefully witty and potently passionate love story that sets a new gold standard for historical romances."

And, if you check out the beginning of her novels, it's all exposition. BEGUILING begins with the following:

It happened one sunlit day in the summer of 1886.

Until then, Christian de Montfort, the young Duke of Lexington, had led a charmed life. 

His passion was the natural world.  As a child, he was never happier than when he could watch hatchling birds peck through their delicate eggshells, or spend hours observing the turtles and the water striders that populated the family trout stream.  He kept caterpillars in terrariums to discover the outcomes of their metamorphoses—brilliant butterflies or humble moths, both thrilling him equally.  Come summer, when he was taken to the seashore, he immersed himself in the tide pools, and understood instinctively that he was witnessing a fierce struggle for survival without losing his sense of wonder at the beauty and intricacy of life. 

After he learned to ride, he disappeared regularly into the countryside surrounding his imposing home.  Algernon House, the Lexington seat, occupied a corner of the Peak District.  Upon the faces of its chert and limestone escarpments, Christian, a groom in tow, hunted for fossils of gastropods and mollusks. 

He did run into opposition from time to time.  His father, for one, did not approve of his scientific interests. But Christian was born with an innate assurance that took most men decades to develop, if at all.  When the old duke thundered over his inelegant use of time, Christian coolly demanded whether he ought to practice his father’s favorite occupation at the same age, chasing maids around the manor. 

This goes on for three pages. It's backstory. Something writers are admonished to never do. But with her skill and voice, it works.

So keep that in mind. If you can pull it off, a rule is worth breaking. The trick is knowing whether you've truly pulled it off! From most of what I've seen in the slush pile, the answer is no, the writer hasn't nailed it.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Got Epic Fantasy?

STATUS: I'm still buried under a ton of emails and whatnot as I try and catch up post BEA and New York. I have high hopes of resuming Fridays With Kristin next week!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? DRIVE ALL NIGHT by Need To Breathe

Because every SF&F editor I talked to said they were open to seeing it. Which made me extra sad when I saw the six-figure deal on Publishers Lunch for an epic fantasy by an author we offered rep to.

Sigh. But can't win them all.

Then on Monday I spotted the "major" deal for a YA fantasy I offered rep to as well. ARRRGGGHHHH!

Paper cut with lemon poured on it!

Hey, at least I know my gut instinct is still working.

But back to fantasy. If you are working on an urban fantasy, you might be out of luck. Every SF&F editor I chatted with while in New York was being inundated by urban fantasy submissions and with some rare exceptions, were not buying them.

In good news, SF&F editors were being leery about looking at science fiction stuff and now that is turning. They mentioned actively looking for it now and since I just put an SF on submission, I'm thrilled with the reception it's getting. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

What Editors Have Bought Recently - Women's Fic and Literary

STATUS: It's BEA time! Oh crazy schedule

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? Nothing at the moment.

Obviously I'm not just talking to children's editors while in New York. So here's a little snippet of what editors have been buying in the adult realm:

1) Literary novels with some sort of magical element (i.e The Night Circus)
2) Multi-cultural literary novels by non-American writers
3) Voice-driven literary novels that shed light on the contemporary modern landscape for protagonists in their 20s or 30s.


In women's fiction and romance
1) contemporary stories with small town settings
2) southern contemporary women's fix
3) looking or romantic comedies in romance (haven't heard that desire in a while!)

Off to the Javits Center!

Friday, June 01, 2012

What Editors Have Bought Recently - Young Adult and Middle Grade

STATUS: I have often said on this blog, Thank God It's Friday. Today, I really really mean it. What a crazy week. But all good stuff.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? IF YOU DON'T KNOW ME BY NOW by Simply Red

So editors have been seeing a lot of crap but they've also been buying stuff. So instead of answering the question: What is an editor looking for? I thought I'd delve into what they've bought recently.

Here you go!

1) A young adult thriller
2) Gothic retelling of a classic--in this case, The Island of Dr. Moreau
3 young adult straight fantasy (as opposed to a bent one! *grin* In other words, a traditional not contemporary fantasy)
4) a time travel young adult novel
5) realistic contemporary young adult
6) animal character middle grade fantasy

Editors have not seen a lot in middle grade (it's the hardest content to find) but what they have seen included science fiction for the younger reader and Aliens in space or similar that target boy readers.

I'm out. Literally. Like I'm now going to sleep….