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Nathan Bransford is the author of JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, a middle grade novel about three kids who blast off into space, break the universe, and have to find their way back home, which will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers in May 2011. He was formerly a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., but is now a publishing civilian working in the tech industry. He lives in San Francisco.
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What in the world is a conscientious writer to do about all the contradictory advice out there?? It's hard enough just to write a query, let alone writing it when you're being spun in circles.
Here's a checklist:
1. Take a Deep Breath: As long as you're getting the big stuff right, you're going to be fine. You don't need to have every single little teeny tiny thing perfect. You can get my name or gender wrong and I still might request your pages (just did this last week in fact). I'm not going to reject you because you sent me the first five pages of Chapter 1 instead of your Prologue if I like the idea and your writing. Don't sweat the small stuff. Because really: if an agent is going to reject your query over some small niggling detail, are they someone you'd want to work with anyway?
2. Remember That Agent Blogs Are Just Trying to Help: I know how tempting it is to throw up your hands and just think that literary agents are so many Goldilocks with completely different ideas of how hot the porridge should be. Please just remember that we offer so much advice because people ask. We get e-mails and comments all the time asking about everything from paper size to fonts to anglicized spelling to serial commas. So we try to help, and we're not always going to agree on everything. Personally, when I'm wearing my author hat I'd rather have too much information than too little, so I tend to err on the side of dispensing too much agent advice. It's up to you to decide which advice you agree with and which you don't. Just remember that we're trying to help, not trying to make your life miserable.
3. Not All Publishing Advice is Created Equal: I went back and looked at some of my early blog posts, and holy cow after just four years they're already wildly out of date. Consider the source, consider the freshness of the advice, and beware of anyone who tries to tell you that there's one way and only one way to find successful publication. Occasionally an author out there somewhere will have a sense that the way they found success is The Way That Should Work For Everyone, whereas people who have worked across the publishing spectrum have seen the proverbial cat skinned in an impossibly vast number of ways.
Page Critique Friday!! Please stop by the Forums for your Page Critiquing Pleasure. That is, if you are not already splayed on a beach somewhere in anticipation of Labor Day Weekend and SNIFF the end of summer FOR THE LOVE OF SUNSHINE SUMMER WHERE DID YOU GO??
UPDATE: my critique and more about the danger of expository dialogue posted here.
Meanwhile, links!! I have had quite the busy week so I may have missed some news items - if you spotted a good link please share it in the comments!
There have been some more interesting Future of Publishing discussions around the blogosphere this week. Tim Ferriss of the Four Hour Workweek has a far-ranging discussion of the economics of print vs. e-books and what this means for authors, and concludes that save for a few exceptions, traditional is still the way to go. And Kassia Krozser at Booksquare has a nuanced take on the idea of books and value and what happens to the collective notion of publishers' value when they let established authors rest on their laurels and publish books they know to be of questionable quality.
Also a new book social networking community has launched! The Reading Room allows its users to generate reading groups and features a list of free e-books to peruse. Check it out.
In the wake of all the talk of whether NY Times favors men vs. women, Slate ran the numbers on the reviews for adult fiction and found that men received 62% of the reviews and 71% of the coveted double reviews (a review in the weekday paper plus a review in the Sunday TBR). They caution that missing from the analysis is the number of overall adult fiction novels that are published by men vs. women.
The $99 e-reader is here! Fresh off news that Borders will be selling Build-A-Bears (some people thought this was a spoof but it's true and hey whatever works, Borders! No judging here), they will also be selling $99 Aluratek e-readers featuring the Kobo bookstore. Meanwhile, Sony came out with a new generation of e-readers priced at $179, $229, and $279 depending on size, features, storage, and 3G capabilities. And on the horizon is an Android powered 7" tablet designed by Samsung, which will feature a bookreading App by Kobo.
Ever since I put the final period at the end of the last sentence of JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, I had always imagined the beginning of #2 starting a very certain particular way. It was unexpected! Shocking! A little bit unsettling!
But after I submitted a partial to my editor, she came back and said (very politely): the opening didn't work. My agent (very politely) agreed.
But... but... I wanted to sputter, this is how I always imagined it. It's part of the fabric of the novel. How can I write this novel if this isn't the beginning?
Then I took a step back and realized something: they were totally right. It didn't work! Not even a little!
Thankfully, trained publishing professionals saved me from one of the deadliest foes of the writer: the first idea.
First ideas are much like first loves. You fall so hard for someone, they are your everything, you love them to the point of rendering you completely bonkers. Then there's a calamitous breakup, and you think the world is quite possibly going to explode. Then some time passes and you realize that person was perhaps quite nice but you know what they kind of smelled funny and maybe I should have wondered about that throwing star collection before I found one stuck ominously in the dashboard of my car.
Um. Where was I? Oh yes. First ideas.
The point is this: first ideas have a tendency to become intertwined with your conception of the entire novel. You start to think: this is how this character is. This is how this world is. This is how this novel is. If it doesn't work, well I guess the whole thing isn't going to work.
But who owns those characters? Who owns that world? You do! You're the writer. You can change it to make it work. You really can. You own your character and plot and setting.
Every book on writing I have ever read talks about how dangerous your first ideas are, and it's positively absolutely true. Some say you have to think of ten bad ideas to find every good one, some say you should discard five GOOD ideas for every one you keep, Stephen King advocates darling killing, etc. etc. The one thing all this advice has in common is that no idea should be sacred. If it doesn't work it doesn't work.
It's so important to move past those first ideas and to avoid making them too intertwined with how you envision the entire project. Obviously you can't change a novel beyond a point where it stops being the story you want to tell, but short of that, everything is changeable.
Take a throwing star to that first idea. Your second or tenth or hundredth idea is bound to be better.
There is perhaps no archetype more persistent throughout the history of art and literature and art than that of the tortured artist. From the tragically real cases (like Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and David Foster Wallace), to self-conscious poseurs (who shall remain nameless), angst-filled writers in both fiction and real life are an enduring staple in culture.
Is there something to it? Is there a link between creativity and the darker sides of life? Does angst help you write?
For me, I can't get a lick done when I'm feeling down. But then again, my books involve corn dogs and space monkeys.
I haven't yet read FREEDOM, but from the early reviews this novel is everything that our Internet-manic, high concept craving, supposedly dumbed down culture is not. It "[deconstructs] a family’s history to give us a wide-angled portrait of the country as it rumbled into the materialistic 1990s." (NY Times) It explores "the unresolved tensions, the messiness of emotion, of love and longing, that possesses even the most willfully ordinary of lives." (LA Times).
You can't exactly Tweet a summary of what this book is about. Whether you like Franzen's books or not (as you can probably tell: I'm a big fan), it's a novel that punches a gaping hole through the remarkably persistent idea that the publishing industry, and the culture as a whole, is only interested in high concept schlock and the lowest common denominator.
On the other hand, FREEDOM, in its bigness, in its You Must Read This To Be a Thinking Person in America, is already a novel of the times - the big books getting steadily bigger, accumulating hype with gravitational pull, and then there's everything else fighting for attention.
We seem to be a culture that is simultaneously craving books that fit our exact specifications at the same time that we want the shared experience of reading something, loving it, and sharing that experience with our friends (virtual and real life). Culture seems to be moving two contradictory ways - fracturing into ever-smaller niches at the same time that it's coalescing around a few massively popular books and movies. We normally think of the blockbusters in terms of James Patterson, Suzanne Collins, and Stephenie Meyer, but even in literary fiction you have your FREEDOMs and OSCAR WAOs.
And in a still further sign of the time, even though Franzen once said of his disdain for novels in e-book form, "Am I fetishizing ink and paper? Sure, and I'm fetishizing truth and integrity too," FREEDOM is available for sale as an e-book simultaneously with the hardcover.
If high concept were a person it would be a teenager because it's often totally misunderstood. If high concept were a tool it would be a sledgehammer. If high concept were a okay I'll stop now.
So what does high concept mean?
High concept means that a novel/movie/TV show's plot can be described very succinctly in appealing fashion.
Kid wins a golden ticket to a mysterious candy factory? High concept. Wizard school? High concept. There's this guy who walks around Dublin for a day and thinks about a lot of things in chapters written in different styles and he goes to a funeral and does some other stuff but otherwise not much happens? Not high concept.
High concept is very often misunderstood because what it sounds like it means and what it actually means are basically completely opposite. It doesn't mean sophisticated (opposite), it doesn't mean cerebral (opposite), it doesn't mean difficult to describe (opposite). And it's very important to know what it means because although high concept is often a term used derogatorily, I am hearing from more and more editors that they want high concept novels, even for literary fiction.
Why? Well, my hunch is that the more media, the more Tweets, the more links we're constantly besieged with, the more readers are drawn to hooks that we can easily understand and digest.
So not only do you need to know what high concept means, you might also want to consider embracing it if you're thinking of a new project. But only if it's true to the story you want to tell.
Page Critique Friday is alive and well!! It's happening over in the Forums. You do not need to register in the Forums to check out the Page Critique thread, but you will have to register if you'd like to leave a comment. To register, just click here and it should be quite self-explanatory. Other than that it's the same as before, so stop on by.
Lots and lots of news this week, so let's get started.
First up, the most comprehensive review I have ever seen about the relative environmental benefits of e-books vs. paper books was published by Slate's The Green Lantern. The winner? E-books on every count, provided you read more than 18 books on an iPad and 23 books on a Kindle. Even on chemicals/metals, often cited as a problem with e-readers, the Green Lantern judged the side-effects of producing ink more harmful than the metals that go into e-readers. Worth a read.
Random House and agent Andrew Wylie have settled their standoff over the rights to backlist e-book titles that Wylie had announced would be exclusively published by Amazon. In the end, Random House and Wylie came to terms, and the e-books will be published by Random House after all. Word this morning is that Wylie and Penguin are negotiating as well. Bloomsbury publisher Peter Ginna has a great analysis of some of the implications. While early reports tended to characterize this as a "win" for Random House, Ginna points out that it really depends on the deal that was struck (and the ones yet to be struck).
I am an adult book buyer, but our children's buyer convinced me to read the three Suzanne Collins books. I have just finished Mockingjay. I admit they are compelling and one reads steadily to learn what happens next. They are even inventive and the characters are fascinating people, yet the more I read, the more uneasy I became until I could barely get through to the end of the third book. Why, I wonder, is no one (that I am aware of) talking about how violent these books are? [Ed: emphasis mine. The post goes on to describe some of the violent scenes in MOCKINGJAY, which I won't quote out of spoiler concerns, but which you should click through to read if you're curious.]
Well, let's talk about it.
Some of my absolute favorite children's books of all time are violent -- beloved characters dying, murder committed, danger around every corner. And certainly going all the way back to Aesop's Fables and the Brothers Grimm, instilling morality in children by way of scaring the bejeezus out of them is a very old tradition.
But is there a line? If so, where's it at? How much is too much?
Speaking personally, ever since a high school classmate of mine was murdered I've tended to be more squeamish about violence in books and movies than the average American, but that's not to say I don't ever enjoy violent stories provided the violence is true to the story and not gratuitous. It's all case-by-case for me.
As surely as the changing of the moon and the appearance of new seasons of Survivor, there always seems to be a website out there devoted to poking fun at bad queries. These come and go, with varying levels of humor and angst.
The most recent iteration has been the subject of some debate on various blogs in the past week, and I'm curious what people think. Do you find these sites rude, funny, educational, malicious, informative, privacy-invading, entertaining, possibly a combination?
And, just FYI, my personal policy that I will never ever make fun of a query that is sent to me, nor will I quote from one without your permission. Query freely.
As you probably know if you have ever been asked to ponder the relative benefits of trim size and paper stock and e-book conversions, there is whole a lot more that goes into a book than just writing it.
Another way of thinking of publishers is not as companies that decide your fate as an author, but rather as companies that offer the authors they've chosen to work with a comprehensive package of services.
Here are the basic services traditional publishers provide for an author, why these services matter, and how this is (and isn't) changing:
Editing and Copyediting:
While the myth that editors don't edit is alive and well, the truth is that books are edited and copyedited at traditional publishers (please please please know the difference between editing and copyediting). This affords a certain degree of quality control. Now, sure, we've all spotted typos in books, which infect us temporarily with disproportionate outrage and a jolt of smugness. It happens. But all you have to do is read this blog on a regular basis to see the horrorshow of typos that results from text published without copyediting.
Editors and copyeditors (yes, still), provide professional editorial expertise that improve books. I'm sure you've heard they don't edit and copyedit anymore. It's not true.
Cover, trim size, interior design, illustrations/photographs, font choice, paper choice, etc. The best-designed books are works of art.
Printing and Distribution:
Once the books are actually produced, someone has to get them into bookstores and e-bookstores. Traditionally this has been the irreplaceable service offered by publishers. Not only would they make the books, they would draw upon their reputation, sales teams, and infrastructure to get print books into bookstores in large numbers.
Even in the e-book era distribution still matters. There are new e-book vendors cropping up every day, and publishers have the scale to sell their e-books in as many venues as possible while dealing with all of the accompanying electronic conversion headaches.
Publicity and Marketing:
At minimum publishers get their books sent out for review and do some basic advertising. When a publisher turns on the publicity and marketing fire hose for their biggest books, they will manage book tours, author appearances, giveaways, major advertising campaigns, co-op, and much more. Publicity and marketing aren't everything, but they can provide a major boost.
Patronage (i.e. an advance):
While debut novelists almost always have to figure out how to write a novel on their own time and dime, publishers nevertheless offer nonfiction authors and previously published novelists money in advance of writing the actual books, which both rewards authors before their book actually comes out and theoretically supports them as they're writing it. Obviously the degree of support this affords the author depends on the amount of the advance, but money up front that the author doesn't have to pay back even if the book tanks ain't nothin' to sneeze at.
Aside from all the tangible services publishers offer authors, there is one intangible element: cachet. There is something to be said for the sel
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As much as I have been enjoying the Monday Page Critiques, I'm afraid there's been a noticeable downward tick in participation, comments, pageviews, etc., and I worry that it was getting a little stale as a regular blog topic. Ratings were too low, alien plotline didn't catch on with viewers, had to make room for new J.J. Abrams show, you know how it goes.
So rather than devote every Monday post to the page critiques, I shall be returning Monday to original topics.
BUT! Weekly Page Critiques will live on in the Forums, where I'll host weekly Friday Page Critique threads with the exact same idea. I'll link to them in This Week in Publishing to remind everyone to click over, and hopefully the Forums will be a better place for the critiques. Please continue to enter one page in this thread if you'd like to have your work critiqued.
And now, since this could hardly thus far be considered a proper blog post, I will leave you with the most hilarious cat video I have seen on the Internet. Everything is better with hilarious cats:
There were a few controversies this week in publishing. Firstly, if you have ever attended a conference with the fabulous YA Author Ellen Hopkins, you know that in addition to being a brilliant writer and storyteller she's also a terrific, honest, and inspiring speaker and devotes a huge amount of time to mentoring up-and-coming writers. So it was very distressing to hear that she was dis-invited from the Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas, due to a librarian's complaint. In the wake of the news about Hopkins, several additional writers subsequently withdrew from the event in protest.
Secondly, bestselling author Jody Picoult made some waves this week when she accused the NY Times Book Review of a white male literary fiction bias in the wake of Michiko Kakutani's rave about Jonathan Franzen's upcoming novel FREEDOM. While I leave it to you the reader to agree or disagree with this characterization of the NYTBR, PWxyz's Jonathan Segura recalled the Kakutani/Franzen spat of 2008: After Kakutani slammed Franzen's memoir THE DISCOMFORT ZONE, calling it, "an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed," Franzen shot back, calling Kakutani "The stupidest person in New York City."
And in further controversy (or is it?), industry sage Mike Shatzkin wrote a post that characterized print books, as "On a path to oblivion." The crucial takeaway: "Indeed, the insistence by some people that they will “never” give up the printed book — which leads to rather ludicrous glorification of the smell of the paper, ink, and glue and the nonsensical objections that the screen would be unsuitable for the beach (depends on the screen) or the bathtub (I can’t even imagine what the presumed advantage of the printed book is there) — must ignore the fundamental dynamic. Print books aren’t getting better. Ebooks are." No doubt there will be lots of reactions to this article, and we have already been discussing this in the Forums.
Once you have followed the gentle suggestions in the How to Write a Novel post and done gone and written yourself a novel, (or if you've written a nonfiction book proposal), it is then time to see what the world thinks of it. The first step in this process if you are seeking traditional publication is to find an agent.
Please check out this post about how to find a literary agent, since a query letter is not the only way of going about it. But chances are you will at some point have to sit down and write one of these beastly missives. Here's how you do it. What to Know Before You Start
A query letter is part business letter, part creative writing exercise, part introduction, part death defying leap through a flaming hoop. (Don't worry, you won't catch fire and die during the query process though it may feel precisely like that at times). In essence: it is a letter describing your project.
The first thing to know about writing query letters is that there are as many opinions out on the Internet about query letters as there are, well, opinions on the Internet. You will find lots of dos and don'ts and peeves and strategies and formulas. The important thing to remember about this is that everyone is wrong except for me. (Just kidding. The important thing to remember is that you will need to choose the ideas that work best for you).
As the immortal Douglas Adams said, don't panic! Write the best letter you can, be yourself, don't overthink it too much, don't sweat it if you realize the second after you sent it that you made a typo or accidentally called me Vicky. If an agent is going to get mad or reject you over something trivial like that they're probably not the type of person you'd want to work with anyway.
The second thing to do before you write the query is to research. This is because you need to do your darndest to:
1) Figure out which agents would be the right fit for your work - Three basic things to figure out: a) does the agent represent your genre, b) do they represent something too similar to your project, c) do they seem like they would be a good fit for you. The answers should be a) yes, b) no, c) yes. 2) Figure out the agent's submission procedure
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