• January 4, 2017

    Ask the Agent: How does a book get selected by a publisher?

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    As we jump into the new year, I’ve had several people write to ask, “What is the process of getting your proposal selected by a publishing house?”


    Okay. First, think of a publishing house as being an actual building. Your proposal probably isn’t walking in the front door. More than likely it’s sliding into the building by way of a window known as an acquisitions editor (often an acquaintance of your agent, sometimes a person you met at a conference, or maybe a guy who lost a bet). He or she will read through it, make some suggestions, talk it over with your agent, and eventually make a decision on whether or not they think it’s worth pursuing.


    Most publishers are relying on agents to do the initial filtering of junk, so the slush pile has sort of moved from the publishing house to the agent’s office…which means you’re probably going to have to sell it to an agent first, therefore adding one more step to this process.


    Once it’s actually in the building, if the acquisitions editor likes it he or she will take it to some sort of editorial committee, where they sit around grousing about their pay and making editorial jokes. (“I’m having a DICKENS of a time with this one!” “Yeah, let’s catch a TWAIN out of town!” Editorial types love this sort of humor. That’s why they’re editors and not writers.) Eventually they’ll run out of bad puns and be forced to discuss the merits of your proposal. If it’s a non-fiction book, is it unique? Does it answer a question people are asking? Is there a perceived market for it? Does the writing feel fresh and offer genuine solutions to the question that’s posed? If it’s a novel, does the story have a clear hook? Is there a well-defined audience for it? Does it feel new, or as though it’s

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  • December 23, 2016

    What’s the BEST BOOK you read in 2016?

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    As we wrap up the past year and move into the new one, I’m going to be back on the blog — taking a look at some of the top publishing stories, making some predictions for the future, and getting back to answering your questions about writing and publishing. But first, I’d like your input on one question:

    What was the best book you read this year?

    I do this at the end of every year, just so I can start to put together a reading list and see what others have found interesting. The title can be fiction or nonfiction. It could be a new book that released this year, or some great book from prior years that you’ve just discovered, but I’d like to know what your best read was in 2016.

    Here’s my list of the top ten books I read this year, in no particular order:

    The Return, by Hisham Matar. The true story of a boy from Libya, whose father, an outspoken critic of Qaddafi, simply “disappeared” one day. Twenty years later, the boy (now a writer) goes back to try and find traces of what happened. Beautiful writing and an insightful look at politics and violence. This is the sort of book that makes you see the world with new eyes.

    One Summer: America 1927by Bill Bryson. I love history, and this year read a long list of great history titles — Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers and The Johnstown FloodShirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and several others. But Bryson’s book, which seems to have been overlooked amidst all of his cute travel tales, offered a wonderfully engaging exploration of another time in American history. Babe Ruth, Cool Cal, the strange pilot Charles Lindbergh, the self-important Hoover, and the rest of the cast of 1927 make this a

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  • December 20, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 6 (Accents and Dialect)

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    brick green no smile b:wToday’s post is dedicated to Lois Gladys Leppard, author of the Mandie books. If you weren’t a preteen girl in the 90s, you may not be familiar with the Mandie books, but they were a middle-grade series set at the turn of the century about a teenage girl living in North Carolina, and their chief charm, if I remember correctly, was that Mandie was rich and there were a lot of descriptions of her dresses. Yeah, they weren’t the deepest literature, but I DEVOURED them as an 8-and-9-year-old. Twenty years later, I couldn’t tell you much about what happened in the series (other than what her dress looked like for President McKinley’s inaugural ball), but one thing about the writing has stuck with me all this time…

     

    The series is set in North Carolina, and various characters (the African-American servants, in particular) were written as speaking with a strong Southern accent. The way you knew they spoke with a strong Southern accent was that practically EVERY line of dialogue spoken by those characters had the accent written into it phonetically, to the point that you sometimes had to sound it out to figure out what Liza was saying. “Yous sho’ did, Missy Manda! Now don’t yous go gittin’ that dirty, you heah?” This is a made-up line, but it’s representative of the way the “strong Southern accent” was written into the dialogue. Did it clearly communicate the speech patterns/pronunciation of those characters? Mmmmyes, but was it also distracting and clunky? Also yes. I’m probably remembering the extreme examples, but the point is, if that method of conveying an accent/regional speech style was conspicuous enough that I picked up on it as a 9-year-old and remember it 20 years later, it was probably a bit overdone.

     

    Now, Ms. Leppard is off the hook, both because in writing for children she probably felt she needed to be a bit more

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  • December 18, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 5 (Character Voice)

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    brick green no smile b:wI did a lot of theater in high school and college, and still act in local productions from time to time– I know some people would rather lick a battery than perform onstage, but I think it’s some of the most fun there is to put on a costume and pretend to be someone and somewhere else for a couple hours, and theater is one of the few socially acceptable ways to do this as an adult. Having spent so much time performing and teaching theater, I’ve played (or been forced to play) some pretty dumb games in the name of “character development” — many of which, I’m convinced, existed for no other purpose than to entertain the teacher who, bitter that his own acting career didn’t pan out, derived all his joy in life from watching teenagers pretend to be earthworms and vending machines. A couple of those theater exercises, however, bore a remarkable similarity to the kind of brainstorming that authors can do to fully flesh out their characters, and a fully fleshed-out character is going to have a more distinct voice on the page, and, by extension, will “speak” more compelling dialogue.

    One of the theater exercises we’d do during high school was to interview each other in character using a list of biographical questions designed to make the interviewee put some thought into her character’s history and life. Answering these questions for your characters forces you to think about your character as a 3-dimensional person with a past instead of just a puppet in the scene you’re currently writing… and a 3-dimensional character is always going to have something more interesting to say than a puppet.

    Consider answering the following questions for each of your main characters. You might be surprised how giving some thought to seemingly trivial information about a character’s past (even information that may never come to light in the novel) informs the

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  • December 15, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 4 (Punctuating Dialogue)

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    brick green no smile b:wIf you’re new to the blog, you may have missed my previous scintillating posts on writing effective dialogue. Today’s topic is slightly less scintillating but just as important to creating readable dialogue which draws the reader into the story rather than pushing him away.

    I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from authors who say their biggest struggle in writing dialogue is punctuating it correctly, and I’ve read too many manuscripts where the author’s incorrect punctuation and/or indentation distracted me from the actual content of the dialogue.  The good news is that the majority of dialogue punctuation rules are very straightforward and easy to apply, so punctuating your dialogue doesn’t have to feel like some mystical roll of the dice if you take some time to familiarize yourself with the rules and practice using them. Here are some basic rules to remember when punctuating dialogue:

    • Always put periods and commas INSIDE quotation marks. It doesn’t matter if the quotation marks are single or double, whether the quotation marks are setting off dialogue, quoted material, or the title of a work; periods and commas go inside the quotation marks.
      “I love chimpanzees,” she said. “I’m also afraid of them.”
      Caesar looked around at the trees, and then back at Will. “Caesar is home.”
      “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape,” he said angrily. (I watched “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” this weekend, in case you were wondering.)
    • Put colons and semicolons OUTSIDE quotation marks. These aren’t used as frequently in dialogue as other punctuation, but if you have occasion to use them, always put them outside quotation marks.
      Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage”; if that’s the case, we’re in desperate need of a stage manager.
    • Put exclamation points and question marks INSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a line of dialogue and OUTSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a sentence as
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  • December 12, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 3 (Realistic vs. Natural Dialogue)

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    brick green no smile b:wToday I’m continuing my ongoing conversation on dialogue and discussing the difference between realistic and natural dialogue, and the way each can strengthen or sabotage a story.

    Realistic dialogue is conversation that occurs exactly the way people talk in real life, complete with hems and haws, boring filler/minutiae, mundane back-and-forth, sound effects,  etc. The small talk and discussions over where to go for dinner that really do populate our everyday conversations usually serve next-to-no purpose in fiction, unless your purpose is to put your reader in “skim” mode for the rest of the book. I read all too many manuscripts where the author seems to have painstakingly transcribed real-life conversations directly onto the page in places where I have no need (or desire) to hear them. The pleasant small-talk at the beginning and end of a phone conversation, the back-and-forth between a husband and wife over breakfast, the dialogue with a waitress at a restaurant– these are all exchanges of dialogue that happen on a daily basis, but who wants to open a rom-com novel, get to the big date, and have to sit through the waitress listing the specials? Those exchanges don’t drive the story, and they usually slow it down. Unless an exchange like this reveals something important about a character– the main character’s date is incredibly rude to the waitress, or he orders four rare steaks and that’s when she first suspects he’s a werewolf, etc.– this sort of dialogue can be culled from a story and will never be missed.

    Also falling into the realistic-dialogue category is dialogue punctuated with sound effects/hems and haws. The only thing more awkward than a character running into an ex while on a date with someone new is having to read their conversation in which every line starts with “uh” or “er.” You can communicate that a character is uncomfortable much more effectively (and cleanly) by telling the reader that

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  • December 8, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 2 (The Sooner the Better)

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    brick green no smile b:wIf you caught Tuesday’s post, you’ll know I’m spending a few days talking about good dialogue in fiction– how to write it, how not to write it, how to recognize it, and who does it well.

    One of the suggestions I often make when reading manuscripts is for the author to use dialogue earlier. In general, the more pages that pass without hearing a character speak, the more distanced I feel from her and the longer it takes for me to engage with/care about her. The most common source of this problem seems to be the author’s compulsion to tell the reader EVERYTHING he knows about a character right away. I’ve lost track of how many manuscripts I’ve read that started out with a literal biography of the main character from childhood to the events of the story– what she was like in high school, how many relationships she’s been in, what her friends are like, what her work history is, etc . While it’s important for the author to know all this so he can write intelligently about the character, the reader doesn’t need to find out all the background info at once (or ever, in some cases). My favorite way to get to know a character is to hear him talk and to see how he interacts with other characters and his environment; to be dropped in the middle of this character living and breathing rather than shown his baby album and medical records, and so I frequently encourage authors to examine whether they need to pare down their opening content in order to get to the first “live” scene sooner. Now, obviously I’m not saying there’s a hard-and-fast rule for how early in a manuscript dialogue should appear, or that you should manufacture some if it’s not a natural place for it, but how do you make that call? Though by no means a comprehensive list,

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  • December 6, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 1

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    brick green no smile b:w“Stories are told in action and dialogue.”

    I don’t remember a whole lot from my fiction writing classes in college– judging by the notes I scribbled in the margins of my carefully-preserved notebooks from that era, my attention during these classes was mainly focused on what items I needed from the grocery store and the correct ear-to-head ratio of a classic Mickey Mouse outline. That being the case, it stands to reason that my various professors must have all hit the “action and dialogue” rule pretty hard for it to have broken through the hungry-doodling haze and stuck with me all these years. While all the poets reading this are already clamoring that I’ve forgotten narrative/description, let’s run with this simplified definition of story for a few weeks while we talk about crafting effective dialogue. I’ll be talking about the role of dialogue in storytelling, achieving balance between action and dialogue, and common dialogue problems and how to avoid them, but today, I thought I’d tackle one specific element of dialogue which has the potential to derail even the most eloquent exchanges of dialogue: attribution.

    Attribution is the means by which a writer informs the reader who said what and (sometimes) how they said it. What I’ve noticed after reading millions (more or less) of manuscripts is that someone can actually be pretty good at writing dialogue and still be lousy at attribution; the two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. The good news for these writers is that bad attribution habits are pretty easy to recognize and to break, once you’re aware of them. Most attribution offenses I see fall into one of three camps:

    1. The “said” synonyms. Answered, retorted, chortled, whispered, exclaimed, muttered, queried, replied, agreed, voiced, uttered, pronounced, laughed, joked, lamented, groaned, mourned, insisted, demanded, raged, fumed– there are literally dozens of synonyms for “said,” and yes, sometimes one of them is just the tool you

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  • December 3, 2016

    8 Common Usage Errors, or: How to Make Me Judge You, part 2.

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    brick green no smile b:wErin again, just trying to confuse you by posting my picture right under Amanda’s name. Last time, I started to share some of the common mistakes I see in manuscripts and why such seemingly minor usage errors can incur such harsh and swift judgment on my part. (The short version is: agents are cranky. Usually because we’re hungry.) Several readers commented to add their own pet peeves, and as it turns out, agents aren’t the only ones who are judging you for your grammar and punctuation mistakes. Felicia and Rick are judging you for apostrophizing your plurals (here are your menu’s, the Smith’s live in this house, etc.), Ted can’t stand when you use “I” as an objective pronoun (she went to the park with Kim and I), and April, Brian, and Sally judged ME for not proofreading the blog I typed on a touchscreen the size of a postage stamp in the gol’ dang middle of the night after a 16-hour day at Disneyland, and are henceforth banned from this blog. (Okay, fine. This is an equal-opportunity judging zone. Consider yourselves on probation.)

    Several folks commented on it’s/its confusion, your/you’re transposition, and the there/they’re/their problem, and I thought it was worth mentioning that those are probably the three most common mistakes I see, but strangely, they don’t bother me as much as some of the other errors I cited, maybe because I’ve become desensitized to them from overexposure, or because I assume that, nine times out of ten, the offenders really could use each correctly if they were to think about it long enough and are just writing lazy. Laziness doesn’t bother me as much as ignorance, apparently. The mistakes I selected for my list (using a painstaking scientific ranking process in which I wrote down the first eight things that popped into my head) aren’t much more confusing or complicated than the more common problems, but I read

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  • December 1, 2016

    8 Common Usage Errors, or: How to Make Me Judge You, part 1.

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    brick green no smile b:wErin here again today, while Chip is sunning himself in Hawaii (and I’m still working on getting my own blog credentials so I can stop using Amanda’s.) Okay, listen: I have a superpower. Most agents do, actually. It’s not terribly useful unless you’re trying to decide whether or not to stake a large amount of time and energy on a person’s potential as a writer, but it comes in real handy in that situation. My superpower, which I share with many agents and editors, is this: I can pass judgement on a person’s writing after reading just a few pages. A few paragraphs, in some cases. Heck, I’ve read some opening sentences that have deterred me from reading any further (see Tuesday’s post for the discussion on effective opening lines), and generally, the criteria that make it easiest to say no to a project are recurring errors in how words are used or spelled and a complete “spray and pray” approach to punctuation (in which the author loads a machine gun with commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, sprays the manuscript with them, and prays everything lands in approximately the right place). That doesn’t seem fair, the general public may cry, my writing gets really good in chapter two! Or, my story is so compelling, you won’t even notice the mistakes once you get hooked.
    People, people.
    I got my degree in English. In case you don’t know, English majors basically do two things in college: read and write. This means that we not only become very familiar with the rules of grammar and mechanics that some of the rest of the world forgets after middle school, but we SEE those rules in action in book after assigned book, and the main result of that language-based education is an inability to read anything– books, cereal boxes, instruction manuals, the birth announcement for our best friend’s baby (“Its a boy?” Really?)–

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