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Viewing Blog: Nathan Bransford, Most Recent at Top
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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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576. This Week in Publishing 10/22/10

This Week in Publishing Normal This Time

Whew! I may have missed a few items in publishing news this week as I chipped away at the mountain that sprouted in my office while I was out, but here are a few of the many things that happened over the past week.

Don't forget about Page Critique Friday! The page up for critique is up for critique in the Forums for critique. UPDATE: my critique posted here.

Now for the news.

The NY Times had a widely linked-to article about the decline of picture books, citing ambitious toddlers who are purchasing chapter books for their parents in order to prepare them for a bright future (or maybe it's the reverse of that), and also the pesky economic downturn. (Downturn, could you please go away already, can't you see NO ONE LIKES YOU. Seriously, take a hint.)

Mother Jones summarized the maladies of fictional characters as diagnosed by various health professionals. They diagnose Darth Vader with borderline personality disorder (borderline? I think he's quite past the line), and Bartleby with Asperger's.

A lending feature will soon be coming to the Kindle, allowing users to lend a book for 14 days, during which time it won't be available to the original user (assuming publishers and rights holders approve). Pretty cool.

Eric at Pimp My Novel has a great list of publishing myths that he slays like a samurai fighting some dude who was crazy enough to mess with a samurai. The lesson: don't mess with samurai.

There has been a debate percolating on the Internet about the presence or lack of presence of strong female characters in young adult literature, including in the Forums. Natalie Whipple had a great post about this phenomenon, pointing out how complex this issue is given that what constitutes "strong" and "weak" varies so much from person to person and character to character. And editor Sarah Jae Jones and agent Sarah LaPolla had very interesting follow-up posts to Natalie's post.

Michael Stearn from Upstart Crow wrote an upstanding post about some of the differences between middle grade and teen literature, including the levels of complexity and interority (a word I cannot say out loud for the life of me).

There are some beloved novels headed for the silver screen. GalleyCat had an early look at the Hunger Games script, and Peter Jackson announced the cast for The Hobbit, including Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, which I think should be spectacular. What sayeth you?

Moses Siregar uncovered plans by Nielson to begin tracking e-b

40 Comments on This Week in Publishing 10/22/10, last added: 10/26/2010
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577. The Temptation of Thinking Someone Has Made It

One of the corollaries of the "if only" game is that there are some writers out there who could not possibly have reason to worry about anything as they have achieved a level of success that is unsurpassed, and who represent the pinnacle of the writerly world.

Examples include King, Stephen; Rowling, J.K.; Meyer, Stephenie.

There's a temptation to think that once an author has "made it" and made it bigger than anyone else, this author will have achieved boundless happiness and contentment and couldn't have a thing to complain about.

In the comments of my recent "When Dreams Become Expectations" post, as Ermo pointed out, people tended to think of true satisfaction always being perennially elusive, unless you're a Rowling and King. Then, it seems, people believe that would be completely satisfying.

I don't know these mega-authors personally, but signs point to this not being the case. In the recent Oprah interview, Rowling said, "You ask about the pressure... At that point, I kept saying to people, ‘Yeah I’m coping…’ but the truth was there were times when I was barely hanging on by a thread."

Not the sound of someone who feels like they have it made in the shade. I personally doubt Rowling would trade in her success and the sheer level of love for her books for anything, but I also don't think there's anyone who ever feels total and perfect contentment and satisfaction with their station. We keep striving no matter how high we've climbed, even those who have climbed the highest. Pressure can cut into satisfaction, and the spotlight can be uncomfortable.

It all reminds me of the speed of light (or at least my own understanding of the speed of light, which is likely wildly flawed). The way the physics of light works is that no matter how fast you personally are traveling, from your perspective a beam of light will still look like it's traveling at the speed of light. You can't travel alongside a beam of light. There's no catching up.

And I think there's actually something great about that. There will always be something to chase, always something to strive for, always another horizon to pursue. Who wants to be perfectly contented? Where's the excitement in that? There will always be something great to chase around the bend.

Photo by Mila Zinkova via Creative Commons

65 Comments on The Temptation of Thinking Someone Has Made It, last added: 10/24/2010
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578. You Tell Me: Are You Participating in NaNoWriMo?

The leaves are beginning to change, the days are getting shorter, and the air is filled with a faint whiff of "I'm going to write me a novel." Yes, it's nearly November, which means nearly time for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, wherein thousands of people around the globe attempt to write a novel in a month and opt for plot over pumpkin pie, turning points over turkey, and foreshadowing over football.

Are you participating? What do you think of NaNoWriMo? Is it a great opportunity to finally get over the hump and get that novel going? Or is writing best done when not in a mad dash?

Let this also serve as a preview for a NaNoWriMo themed week on the blog next week, wherein I will attempt to get those who are participating in the right frame of mind to write pages like they have never written pages before.

142 Comments on You Tell Me: Are You Participating in NaNoWriMo?, last added: 10/24/2010
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579. Back!

Whew! Back in the office, where I returned to the sound of 421 queries simultaneously shouting "Hi! Hi! Where have you been?!" from my Inbox. Needless to say, query response time is going to be delayed for a while. Not least of which due to the monumental jet lag that led me to arrive at the office at 6:15 this morning since, hey, I was wide awake anyway!

Also, while away I entered the ranks of those who have read Jonathan Franzen's FREEDOM. Loved it. Seriously. That guy really knows human beings. Frankly I'm surprised he can walk down the street with that much awareness of what makes every single person around him tick. It's no wonder he loves bird watching.

But more on that when my brain knows what time it is.

Lastly, a major THANK YOU to the incredible lineup of guest posters for their amazing series of posts. I don't know that this blog has had a better week in its history. Thank you thank you.

42 Comments on Back!, last added: 10/22/2010
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580. The Narrowing of the Perceptible World

By: Bryan Russell

The ant clambered over a few grains of sand. “Come with me,” he said to his friend, and his friend followed.

The ant dodged a wayward leaf and clambered over a twig. “This way, this way,” he said, waving his friend forward. They trudged ahead. The ant scampered over fallen blades of grass. He was excited – home was close.

He sighted the entrance to the tunnel. “We’re here,” the ant said, pointing, but the rhinoceros had trouble making out the doorway and squinted in vain.

A little joke, yes, but such little jokes often occur accidentally in the writing of fiction. Specificity of details is necessary for creating vivid fiction, yet the devil is in those details, hiding away his little horned head and laughing.

Details are necessary, it’s true, but just as important is their proper sequencing. If we want a joke, we withhold the fact that the ant’s friend is a rhinoceros. But if we’re trying to create a vivid fictive picture, what John Gardner called the dream vision, we need to be able to see what’s happening. We need to know that the ant’s friend is a rhinoceros right from the start. The image is unclear (and untrue) until we know.

A joke is a trick; fiction is a matter of trust. A reader must trust the writer to create a world, a world they can see and feel, a world in which the rug is not always pulled out from beneath their feet.

And if we are to create a vivid new world (as all writers do, whether writing something fantastical or utterly familiar), we must do so by creating the sensual experience of this world using only our words. For what we know of our own world is through our senses, through the physical impressions that reach us, and if we want our fictive world to be convincing (and, for a time, overshadow the real one) we must not only find the right sensory details but also properly sequence them.

Without this, the dream vision lacks harmony and flow. The vision will jar the reader. Ripples will appear in the fabric of the story, the reflected vision becoming blurred and distorted.

To sequence these details we must not only know what we sense about the world, but how we sense it.

Let us say we want to fabricate a river in our new world. Yet to do so, to create a convincing river, sometimes we need something more than the word itself. How do we come upon a river? Rarely do we first see the glistening shell of the waterbug on its surface, but rather a sense of the river as a whole. Our gaze, our sensual experience, narrows as we take something in, moving from large to small. Indeed, our senses typically work this way.

We first hear, perhaps, the roar and rush of water. It is not a clear sound, at first, but a background noise, a natural white noise underlying the sounds around us. It grows louder, and as it does (as we draw nearer) the roar becomes more particular. The sound sharpens, becomes clearer. Individual sounds become distinguishable: a few rapids; water falling on stone; the eddy and rush of a whirlpool; the trickle of a stream feeding the hungry river.

We still can’t see the river itself, perhaps, as it is blocked from view by a wall of pine trees – though the brightness of their greenery speaks of water and life. Yet we can smell it. The clear scent of water beneath the scent of pine needles. And after a moment this, too, sharpens. A scent of moss, a hint of wet shale. A green and thick smell where the water has pooled in little grottoes.

The river manifests itself through the trees: sparks of reflected light, and then as we part the trees the bright surface of the water, a sense of movement and weight and width. Our gaze draws in, and we note the texture of the water, how it moves and shapes itself over stones, how lines of flow mark its bends and twists. Rounded stones resist the movement of the river, skins of moss like green shadow. A leaf floa

46 Comments on The Narrowing of the Perceptible World, last added: 10/21/2010
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581. Cozy Mystery. What's That?

By: Kay Elam

When I was writing my first novel, I knew it was a mystery, but I wasn’t sure of its sub-genre. At a writing conference I was telling someone about my book and they said, “Oh, it’s a cozy.” I simply agreed instead of admitting I’d never heard of such a thing. Since that conference I’ve found many people (including writers) aren’t aware of this popular sub-genre even if they’ve been reading cozies for years.

A cozy is fun. It’s a fast-paced, feel-good read that, when you put it down, you can hardly wait to get back to it. Clues (as well as a few wild-goose chases) are given so the reader will want to solve the mystery along with the sleuth. The victim is not someone with whom the reader has a real emotional attachment—he’s the villain after all—so the reader isn’t dismayed by his/her death. There are twists and turns as well as surprising revelations but, in the end, justice always prevails and the sleuth is the heroine (or hero).

The cozy’s heroine is usually an amateur sleuth (think Jessica Fletcher). This is a role she’s just fallen into because she’s intelligent, intuitive, and inquisitive. She’s usually connected to the crime by someone she knows or because she was nearby when it happened. Often she solves the crime to protect someone important to her. The sleuth is likable, though flawed in a way that is not going to offend the reader. (She eats in bed, is always late, smokes, gossips, smacks chewing gum, or has some other character defect that shows she's less than perfect—just like the reader.)

The sleuth has strong relationships, though not necessarily romantic. She has lots of friends, family, acquaintances who feed her missing links to solve the mystery. These characters are often eccentric, annoying, or amusing—just like people we all know. Frequently the protagonist has a friend or spouse who know facts about the crime that aren’t yet public. This could be a member of the police force (or the sheriff), the medical examiner, the district attorney, a nosy neighbor—you get the idea.

The cozy’s sleuth usually has another job—solving crimes is just something she does because somebody has to do it. She might be a business owner (florist, bookstore, hotel, caterer, etc.), doctor, lawyer, chef, librarian, journalist, tour guide, pet sitter, and so on—or she might be retired with extra time on her hands. Instead of or in addition to a profession, a cozy might center on hobbies such as crafts, puzzles, sewing, needlework/knitting, quilting, golf, tennis, gardening, and genealogy, among others. Some cozies have a theme like the holidays, animals (cats, dogs, horses, birds, etc.), or even religion.

There is often a romantic subplot, but no explicit sex scenes, and there is little, if any, profanity.

The murder in a cozy isn’t described with a lot of details. It usually happens before the book begins or at the very beginning. Sometimes there are multiple murders, but even they are usually off the page. They’re described in general terms—no blood and gore.

A cozy is often geographically specific, usually in a small town or village, but may also be in a “closed” setting like an office, hotel, train, etc. My novel is set in a well-known medium-sized city, but is limited to a specific section of town.

Of course there has to be law enforcement—but they are often short-staffed, kidnapped, out of town, or otherwise unavailable which is why a small town setting works so well. Procedural accuracy is often overlooked in this genre and the police seldom take the protagonist seriously. A lot of cozies are written as a part of a series becau

34 Comments on Cozy Mystery. What's That?, last added: 10/19/2010
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582. Who Would Be Your Literary BFF?

By: Rachel Bertsche

Can you smell the sharpened pencils in the air? It's the delicious scent of another school year underway. Kids are cracking open new books and diving into the likes of Great Expectations or The Things They Carried or Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

Though my school days are behind me, as the leaves start to fall (at least here in Chicago) I get the itch for new reading lists. A fresh literary start.

On my fall syllabus? The Hunger Games, of course (I'm so behind) and Freedom (I like to know what all the fuss is about) and whatever my book club demands of me. Currently that's The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf. I could go on, but thinking too much about all the to-be-read books on my shelves makes me anxious that I should stop blogging and start curling up in my book nook, pronto.

So to usher in the new school year, something light, bookish and BFFish (my personal blog, MWF Seeking BFF chronicles my search for a new, local best friend... preferably of the Babysitter's Club variety).

I present to you the literary characters (aside from the members of the BSC) with whom I would most like to be best friends:

1) Boy, The Giving Tree. Some say he’s selfish and greedy, I say he’s lonely. He loves his tree. He could use a BFF.

2) Jo March, Little Women. Or maybe Beth. For one of my college applications, I had to name which fictional character I most identified with. I chose Jo. But I wonder if we could really be best friends? We might be too similar. As much as I love her, I could see us bumping heads. I might benefit more from Beth’s warm heart… You know, before her gutwrenching end.

3) Ginny Weasley, Harry Potter series. She’s awesome. Half badass, half girly. Not as goody-two-shoes as Hermione, but just as brave. I can totally picture us whispering together in the corner.

4) Alice Cullen, Twilight. Whimsical, fiercely loyal, and loves to play dress up. That she can see into the future doesn’t hurt.

5) Harriet the Spy/Nancy Drew. I really wanted to be a child detective back in the day. Sadly, there were very few (read: zero) mysteries that needed solving in my hometown. But I would still very much like to be the sleuthy sidekick.

6) Lisbeth Salander, Millenium Trilogy. I would not want to be on her bad side. But she is crazy protective of her friends, could dig up dirt on anyone at anytime, and would be one of those never-a-dull-moment BFFs.

7) Skeeter Phelan, The Help. She’s passionate, determined, sneaky when she has to be. I think we could be good writing buddies. Read each other’s work, give honest critiques, take breaks to discuss Hilly’s horribleness.

8 ) Oskar Schell, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I'm aware that most people think Jonathan Safran Foer’s first book, Everything is Illuminated, is his best. But I fell in love with Oskar, and this novel, early on. He’s eager

58 Comments on Who Would Be Your Literary BFF?, last added: 10/19/2010
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583. Writing Practice: What Works for Me

By: Quill

Having written five books, I have naturally developed a vast catalog of practices that work for me. Perhaps sharing a few I can help shorten someone’s path to publication. Someday I even hope to have one of mine published.

Number one: organize your material. I keep mine in plastic garbage bags. Then my research, drafts, and yes, even manuscript are set to file (curbside) when the project is done. Almost as critical is the skill of outlining. I call it outlaying. In the early stages of a book, I’ll spend many hours outlaying in the sun. Sometimes I combine this with another proven technique, mind-napping.

With fiction, pre-develop your characters. I write the names of mine on the back of my hand. That way I think of them wherever I go. Sometimes I draw little eyes on my hand and ink lips around my thumb and forefinger. Then I ask them questions and get them to speak: “s’alright?” “S’alright!”

Free your characters. Encourage them to have lives of their own. Meet them at parties, then follow them, pen in hand, on adventures you could have never dreamed of. The hero of my last novel left me, wrote his own book. A bestseller. Oprah called him. Not me. Him. I answered the phone: “Hi, Oprah! Sorry, Dirk Blowhard is indisposed. I just drowned him in the tub.”

Choose subject matter carefully. My first book idea, about the Wright Brothers’ earliest plane, didn’t fly.

Then I wrote about sexual bondage. The editor liked my submission, but couldn’t get the chain stores to stock me.

Know your subject and market. I wrote a book about car engines and then couldn’t find a distributor.

Be controversial, but not overly. While living in England, I wrote an expose on the House of Windsor. Three agents in black suits appeared at my door. They weren't literary agents. They told me I wouldn't be getting any royalties.

Stick with it. My first novel, ‘SNOWMAN IN SPRING’ ended up in a slush pile.

I wrote a guidebook, “How to get Married”. The editor rejected my proposal. I must have misinterpreted her advances, (which, it turns out, were for another writer). It was all starting to have a familiar ring.

Sure enough, when I proposed a book on antique firearms, she shot me down.

In the publishing biz, rejection happens. Take it in stride. It’s not personal, though it can feel pretty personal, right? I sent an article to a horticultural magazine, on farmstead flowers and fowl. The editor called it poppycock. Said the section on composting was pure crap.

For a barbering journal I penned, “The Race Against Hair Loss.” The editor called it balderdash. Even the part about selecting a toupee. Said the whole thing was a ‘bad piece’.

To get serious, establishing a routine that works is really the most important aspect of writing. People often ask me what specific techniques I use. Actually I would like them to.

I stand on my head for twenty minutes before writing. Blood rushing to my head sets off a neuron frenzy, prompting right brain left brain intercourse and an overall spiking of metabolic function. Then prone I utter a secret Jedi incantation that ends with "best seller come to da, Dah!" From there I go straight to the kitchen, cram a quick snack, rich in iron—raisin bran, maybe a donut. Then I might get lured by the tube for a few minutes, some old sitcoms… But soon, neural activity positively peaking (or more often starting into a post-sugar-high nose dive) I leap to my keyboard, and write!

Words flow from thoughts pent up in my mind as ideas crystallize, as in perfect mid air simpatico my fingers fly. Then, after a bit, usually I remember to turn on the computer.

A few tips worth sticky-noting to your forehead:

Index cards can be useful for outlining your plot. If your plot is in a cemetery that is windy, use rocks to weigh the cards down.

If you are subject to excessive distrac

42 Comments on Writing Practice: What Works for Me, last added: 10/18/2010
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584. Professionalism (It's not what you think it is)

By: Hannah Moskowitz

This post has nothing to do with writing and absolutely everything to do with being a writer.

The stereotype of a writer--the middle-aged man pounding feverishly at a typewriter, cigarette in his mouth, sending hard-copy manuscripts to his agent and protesting the change of every word--has yet to catch up with the reality of what being a writer entails today.

We are not locked in our attics alone. We are not even the romantic writers of the '20s, drinking coffee and discussing literature. We are a legion of overworked, underwashed normals, pounding away at our laptops and shooing the kids to the next room.

And more importantly, we are not alone.

If you are reading this blog, you have obviously already met at least one other writer (hello there.) Chances are, I'm not the only one. Agent, editor, and writer blogs, facebook, forums like Verla Kay and Absolute Write, and God, above all Twitter, mean that, at the very least, most writers are at least a friend of a friend of yours. The term 'networking' is so appropriate here, because, in actuality, we--writers, publishing professionals, book bloggers--are a net. A web of interconnected people.

We know the same people. The truth is, this world feels very big sometimes, and God knows everyone is talking about writing a novel, but when it comes down to it--the people who are really out there, querying, editing, submitting, representing, accepting, rejecting, publishing, copyediting, waiting...well, the truth is, there aren't that many of us after all.

Which is why the act of being a professional writer has come to mean much more than it used to. Fifty years ago, all most writers had to do was avoid getting arrested and not respond to bad reviews.

You have a much bigger job to undertake. And it's stressful, and it's scary, but it can also be one of the most rewarding parts of this job. Somedays, my writing is absolutely shitty, and the house is a mess, and I'm crying because I can't find my socks, but I have 557 blog followers and I said something funny on Twitter today, so at least this day isn't totally for the birds.

You may think that I am the worst possible person ever to talk about how to be a professional. I'm loud and I'm obnoxious and I had to edit about ten cuss words out of this post so I didn't offend Nathan's sensibilities.

Yep. That's me.
But I'm hoping all that will make me easier to listen to, because when people think 'professional,' they a lot of the time think boring, sanitized, safe. And that's not who you have to
be. I'm living proof over here. And I knew from the start that I was taking a big risk, but I hoped that people would find me interesting and remember me.

It's worked pretty well so far. And that, kittens, is the real reason you want to get out there and put on your professional face. So that people will remember you.

Now that I'm done babbling, here are some guidelines. How to be a successful professional writer, by yours truly. And these are not big, life-changing rules. These are just tricks. Tricky little tricks.

--GET ON TWITTER. I don't care what your objections are. I objected too. But it is hands-down the best way to connect with people you would never have the balls to approach any other way. You can follow someone, which causes them no pain or trouble whatsoever, and you can talk to them in a completely neutral, undemanding way.

--READ ABOUT BOOKS. What do Hunger Games, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, The Da Vinci Code, and a hell of a lot of other books have in common? Answer: I haven't read them.

I'm not proud. But I know I don't have nearly enough time to read as much as I should, so I make a point of reading *about* books I wish I had time to read. Know enough about popular books to be able to fake your way through a conversation. I can discuss Twilight with the best of 'em.


54 Comments on Professionalism (It's not what you think it is), last added: 10/17/2010
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585. This Query Sucks (or how to fail and still succeed)

Is there life after a query that strikes out with agents? My awesome client Jim Duncan, whose debut novel DEADWORLD will be published by Kensington next April, shares his experience. Make sure to catch the exciting contest on Jim's blog at the end of the post.

By: Jim Duncan

As you might guess from the title, I am not what one would call a good query writer. Mediocre at best. My wife (romance author Tracy Madison) whole-heartedly agrees with this assessment.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I will admit to not being a very good editor. It's very difficult for me to assess my own writing, and thus, I don't like doing it. Second, when it comes to certain aspects of the publishing process, I have little patience. When my book was done, I wanted to send out queries that moment.

Back in the old days of 2007, when I completed my novel for the first time, I had queries going out the next day. I made about half a dozen attempts, picked the one I liked the best and sent it out. I had done my research, making sure the agents wanted my genre, whether they took email or snail mail, getting their name correct, etc. I followed agent blogs like Nathan's, Miss Snark, Kristin Nelson, and others (there are a lot of good blogs for writers out there), to glean as much knowledge as I could about the process and how to make that query stand out. I failed. I received one of Nathan's polite form rejections.

What feedback I received (off of a roughly 90% rejection rate) did not like the multiple first person p.o.v.'s I used. Was I deterred? Of course not! I decided to rewrite the book in third person, because I felt very strongly about this story. Whether it was written well enough was another matter.

So, I wrote a new query, several versions in fact, and though I was not happy with any of them, I picked what I thought was the best of the lot and sent it out. There's that whole patience thing again. The results were marginally better, but still no real interest.

Knowing I can't write queries for shit, I figured that might be my biggest problem, so I wrote yet another and tried again a few months later. I sent it out to a couple of publishers who are open to submissions, and like all good writers should do, I began to work on my next book (can't stress this enough: keep writing!)

In the meantime, I had become a regular responder on Nathan's blog. I'd sent a couple of emails to him, suggestions for topics and such. Then, one fine day, I came up with a contest suggestion that became my 15 seconds of blog fame. Those of you who were around a year and a half ago may remember the Agent for a Day contest. At the time it generated the most hits ever on Nathan's blog (about 70k, and 15k comments). Through my willingness to participate and make suggestions, good or otherwise, I had cemented my name in Nathan's mind. We didn't become BFF's. It was some fortunate networking that happened out of interest as opposed to direct effort.

Then, I got the call. Kensington Publishing offered me a three book deal for my novel, Deadworld. Super excited? You bet. What struck me though, was the fact that they were buying my story as an urban fantasy. This entire time, I had been submitting it as a suspense/thriller. Head smack! What would have happened had I realized what genre my story was best suited for? Another good point learned well after the fact. Understand the market for your story!

With offer in hand, I really wanted to find an agent. I had no desire to do this on my own. I picked about a dozen agents that I had queried before and asked them if they would be interested in a second look because of the offer I had on the table. In hindsight, I didn't give them enough time, which was five days. I probably lost some potential agents with that. In the end, it came down to two.

Nathan, whom I'd already

42 Comments on This Query Sucks (or how to fail and still succeed), last added: 10/15/2010
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586. Sally Feels Your Pain. Harry Just Points and Laughs.

By: Livia Blackburne

You could say that fiction is about pain. When you boil them down, stories describe characters taking hits and trying to emerge as unscathed as possible. Neighborhood under attack by zombies? Run hard and hope you have some painkillers on hand if they catch you. Or what if it’s actually a friendly, attractive zombie who loves you? In that case, it’s all good -- until you realize that mortals and undead can never be together. Oh the agonies of unfulfilled love!

So stories and torment come hand in hand. As a reader, you’re with the characters, empathizing with their struggles and hoping for a happy ending. How does this work? What is it in our brains that lets us understand other people’s pain? Well I'm glad you asked, because neuroscientists have made some progress on this question.

How do you study empathy and pain? One current technique involves electric shocks and people who love each other.

Neuroscientist Tania Singer came up with a clever experiment. She recruited women with their significant others. Singer put the woman inside an fMRI brain scanner while the significant other sat outside. Both participants were connected to electrodes capable of administering a painful shock. (Now before my fellow neuroscientists accuse me of ruining our reputations, I should emphasize that these participants were paid handsomely and had the option to stop the experiment at any time.)

Throughout the experiment both the woman and her partner received shocks, and a computer screen indicated who was getting the painful treatment. Singer found that a certain network of brain regions in the woman’s brain activated when she was in pain. But what happened when the significant other was shocked instead? The same network lit up when the woman knew that her partner was getting shocked. It turns out that we process other people's pain with the same brain regions that we use to process our own.

This kind of makes sense. Think about the last time you read a passage about a painful experience. Depending on how engaging the writer was, you might have felt like you were suffering alongside the character. But that's not the whole story. Many people suffer in stories, but we’re not always upset about it. What happens if the person in pain is someone we don't like?

Singer and colleagues did another study asking that question. This time, they had participants play a game before the brain scan. Unbeknownst to the participants, some players in the game were actually actors working with the scientists. One actor's job was to play the game fairly, while the other actor’s job was to play in an obviously unfair way. You can guess which actor was more popular.

Then it was off to the scanner again. The real participant went inside the scanner, while the two actors sat outside. Again, shocks were delivered, and the computer screen indicated who was receiving the shock.

This time, the results depended on whether the participant was a man or a woman. Both genders had empathy-related brain activation when the fair player was in pain. However, the men had less empathy- related activation when the unfair player was shocked. What’s more, they had increased activation in reward-related brain areas when the unfair player got shocked. The men actually enjoyed it when the unfair player was in pain (“Bastard had it coming!”). After the experiment, Singer asked the men to rate their desire for revenge toward the unfair player. It turns out that amount of reward-related brain activation in men correlated with their desire for revenge. In guys at least, it seems that the response to someone else's pain depends on whether or not that person deserved it.

Now as with all studies, we should remember that this is only one data set and it needs to be replicated. Also, note this study does not distingui

43 Comments on Sally Feels Your Pain. Harry Just Points and Laughs., last added: 10/14/2010
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587. The Nine Stages of Dating a Novel

By: T.H. Mafi


there you are, just staring at your computer or eating your carnival corndog or spacing out in the middle of a conversation when it hits you. A SHINY NEW IDEA. it’s beautiful and original and nothing like the rest of them and for a perfect moment you can already see your future together. you know you have to have it before someone else does and your next move is going to be critical. luckily, enough people commented on your blog today that you’re feeling confident. extra-attractive. you decide to make it yours.


everything is surreal. you can’t stop thinking about it no matter how hard you try and let’s be honest – you don’t really want to. you’re convinced that this time everything is going to be different. this is The One. the one that’s going to make agents cry over you, editors throw money at you, bestseller lists around the world make room for you at the top. maybe you have a title already? maybe you’ve even written a really excellent first paragraph? you don’t care. none of that matters. the only thing that really matters is Oprah is going off the air. she has no idea how much you were looking forward to that interview.


things are still pretty good. you’ve told Facebook and Twitter and the only five friends you know in the real world that you’re writing a new book and people seem moderately interested which is already better than last time. you haven’t really started writing yet, but you will. in fact, you’ve already got the first chapter written! and the more you read it, the more you’re convinced you’ve never written anything quite as incredible. you can’t wait to dive into the story! SERIOUSLY. you can just feeeeeel how amazing this is going to be. maybe you should buy a new outfit to celebrate.


well! you've written a few chapters! but GOSH you are just so BUSY these days and the kids are so CRAZY and work is just HECTIC and you've discovered all these really awesome websites recently and it's now become a "thing" of yours to refresh your email and update your Twitter and "Like" at least five things on Facebook before you open up that Word Document. but it's not like you're avoiding it or anything! it's just -- you're having a bit of a rough patch! but you'll work through it! you'll figure out this plot twist! well, first you'll figure out a plot but then! then things will work out! you just need to find a way to communicate your needs! relationships are ALL ABOUT DIALOGUE!




you didn't even see it coming! I MEAN GOSH THINGS WERE GOING SO WELL! but there it was. sitting on the outskirts of your imagination the whole time, teasing you with promises of what could be. ANOTHER SHINY IDEA! it was wearing a flippy skirt and red lipstick and it sounded so intelligent you couldn't help but fall for its false proclamations. but you were too dazzled to realize that this new SNI was only a distraction. it was fleeting. unfulfilling. a concept with no tangible form. a cheap thrill with no literary value. you feel cheated. you feel dirty. YOU'RE SO ASHAMED.


you messed up. you never meant t

62 Comments on The Nine Stages of Dating a Novel, last added: 10/14/2010
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588. The All-Important First Chapter

By: Valerie Kemp

Last summer I attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I took a workshop on first chapters called "Frontloading: The Crucial First Chapter" and the thing I learned that stuck with me the most was that the first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they're going to be getting, and what to expect. This is true, even if you don't intend for your first chapter to do that, because it's the way we read. Breaking that promise can frustrate, and disappoint your reader.

That doesn't mean you should give everything away. You don't have to reveal your plot twists, but if your book is a sci-fi thriller, don't let your first chapter read like chick-lit.

By the end of the first chapter, the reader should have some sense of what the main conflict of the book is going to be. They don't need to know all the details, but they should be able to tell the genre, have a good sense of who (what type of person) the main character is, and how their world is changing. Knowing these things sets up anticipation in the reader, it makes them want to read on and see how the events unfold. Not knowing these things makes the reader wonder what the heck this book is about, and if they should even bother to read on and see what happens.

Here's an example of a book with a great first chapter:

The Hunger Games - In the first chapter of The Hunger Games we get to see Katniss' everyday world. We learn about the Hunger Games and the Reaping and the high chance that Gale and Katniss will be picked. We see that Katniss is responsible and protective of her sister, Prim, whose name is in the Reaping for the first time. And in the very last sentence of the chapter there's a shock as Prim's name is called.

This is a GREAT end of a first chapter. As a reader we're left with a sense of dread. We know what Katniss must do, and we know that we're in for an exciting ride because we're going to experience the Hunger Games with Katniss. We're also introduced to the mechanics of Collin's writing - cliffhanger chapters. Both with story and with structure, she has shown us what to expect, and how to read her book. And she delivers.

Now imagine if The Hunger Games started differently. What if the first chapter was an ordinary day at school for Katniss, followed by time at home with her family, and hanging out with Gale. Suzanne Collins could've started there and gone into greater detail about Katniss' troubled relationship with her mom, given us more history on the District, how life in The Seam works, etc. She could've had the Reaping happen in chapter 3. By then we might be expecting the book to be a family drama or something else completely unrelated to a reality show about teens fighting to the death. If Collins had started her book this way, she probably would've lost a lot of readers. I know I would've been flipping back to the cover over and over again, wondering when these supposedly awesome Hunger Games were going to start. I probably would've put the book down before the action started and picked up something else.

The first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.
- Richard Peck

Richard Peck says that when he finishes his first draft, he always throws out the first chapter without reading it and writes a new one.

I thought about why it is that the first chapter is usually the one that needs the most work and I think I figured out at least part of why this is true for me.

Usually, at the beginning of a story I am bursting with ideas and information. I know my main character is this

46 Comments on The All-Important First Chapter, last added: 10/13/2010
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589. When You Discover Your Agent's Not That Into You

By Brodi Ashton

In 2008, with my first finished manuscript in hand, I was ready to query. To find that special someone who would take my story to the top. You know, to find THE ONE.

My sister-in-law (also a writer) devised a contest: first person to reach 100 rejections wins. We crafted our queries, did our research, and by the end of four months I won the race. I’d received 100 rejections. But I also won an agent. Everything’s downhill from there, right?

The agent submitted my book and after three months, we had 2 positive rejections (you know, the kind where they’re all, “I like it, but how would I sell it?”) and about 7 no-responses. Not the reaction we had expected.

Meanwhile, I wasn’t going to be one of those writers who put all of her flowers in one bouquet. I decided to write another book, so that when we had exhausted all possible avenues for book #1, I’d have something ready to go. My 13-year old niece read Book #2 in 24 hours; that had to be a good sign, right? (side note: warranted use of semi-colon, check.)

With your first book, you’re guaranteed the agent loves it, because he/she offered representation on it. But with your second, you never know. I gave my agent book #2 in January 2010. Three and a half months later, he was “still reading.”

Just like a clueless girlfriend, I made excuses for him. So what if my niece had taken 24 hours to read it? She’s really fast. So what if this second book was 20,000 words shorter than my first? I probably used bigger words. The story makes the reader want to savor it, not finish it. He probably doesn’t want it to end. (Agreed, that was the stupidest excuse.)

Determined to be proactive, I sent him a list of editors who had mentioned on blogs that they were looking for my type of book.

He responded with a resounding, “Um, let’s talk on the phone.”

That did not sound good. I’m sure you all know how frakkin’ hard it is to get an agent in the first place. My family and friends knew. Their advice before the dreaded phone call was, “Say what you have to say to keep him.”

But here’s what only a phone call could show: the passion was gone. He liked book #2 okay, but he didn’t love it. It was polished, but it wouldn’t make a splash. It didn’t need that much work as far as revisions went, but he probably couldn’t get to it for a few months. Maybe after the holidays. (That would’ve been 9 months later).

So, he wasn’t going to dump me. I could’ve kept him. But one thing was perfectly clear: there was no way he would be able to muster the passion necessary to make a sale, especially a debut sale, especially in today’s tight market. It wasn’t his fault. This business is subjective.

I knew we couldn’t go on like that. But was I really ready to dive into the query pool again? Could I face a hundred new rejections? Would I really be stupid enough to leave an agent? LEAVE an agent?

But the passion was gone. There was no way around it. He just wasn’t that into me anymore. As our phone conversation started wrapping up, I blurted out that this wasn’t going to work. He didn’t put up a fight, and we parted ways amicably.

I started querying the next day. (Yeah, I had a query written. I’m sort of a cup-half-empty type person.) Within a month, I had nine offers from wonderful agents who were passionate about book #2. And three weeks ago, I sold my debut trilogy to Balzer and Bray, Harper Collins in a pre-empt, after 48 hours on submission. All of this happened five months before my first agent would’ve even submitted it.

I don’t blame agent #1 for not loving my book, just as I don’t blame my high school boyfriend, who fell in love with someone else right before the Christmas Dance. (I totally blame the other girl, though, but I digress).

Point is, even though it hurts, you can’t help

79 Comments on When You Discover Your Agent's Not That Into You, last added: 10/11/2010
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590. This Week in Publishing 10/8/10

Tento týden v publikování...

First off, thank you so much to everyone who entered the Guest Blog Contest Festival Event! There were actually so many spectacular entries that I decided to expand the number of contest winning slots. That's right folks, this blog is going seven days a week. Well. At least until I get back. So! Please come back tomorrow for the first guest blog post! I have notified the winners, but shant reveal them so as to preserve the surprise.

Also, there will be no Page Critique Friday this week or next as I'm out of the office. I'll be back on the 19th, enjoy the guest posts in the meanwhile.

Now then. Publishing news!

The biggest literary prize of them all, which you may know better as the Nobel Prize in Literature, was awarded to Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa for "his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt and defeat." He is the first South American to win the award since Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1982. The US of A remains shut out since Toni Morrison's win in 1993.

In possibly just as big news, Jonathan Franzen had a tough week in the United Kingdom. First he discovered during a reading that the books that were printed were from an earlier draft and contained errors (HarperUK issued an apology). Then his glasses were stolen from his face. No. Really. Not joking. The perp was later caught, and Franzen didn't press charges. Don't miss Patrick Neylan's great roundup from the Guest Blog Contest.

The New York Post caught up with the owner of two of the most famous hands in the world: the hand model from the TWILIGHT COVER. (via GalleyCat)

In publishing economics news, the Wall Street Journal took a look at some of the factors behind declining advances in the publishing industry and their effect on literary fiction in particular. And a used book salesman who travels around scanning barcodes and trying to find profitable books talked about his profession and the unease and detachment he feels about his line of work.

And Malcolm Gladwell made some waves last week when he argued that social media is not an effective tool for social change. Writing for the New York Book Bench, Rollo Romig used Gladwell's article as a jumping off point to consider what social media and social change do have in common: narratives. And writing for Change O

9 Comments on This Week in Publishing 10/8/10, last added: 10/9/2010
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591. Are There Really That Many People Out There Writing Books?

I've been getting this question quite a bit lately. I guess it's a bit boggling to the mind to think about the queries agents receive and to contemplate the authors behind them, and the sheer number of people out there working on books.

Are there really 15,000+ people a year querying agents? Are there really that many novels and memoirs and self-help books and alien encounters of the dubious kind? There are really that many people writing books? Really?

There's only one way to answer this question: yes, there are. There really are.

But there's a Part II to the answer, which is, as Kristin Nelson recently wrote: don't worry about those other books out there.

It's so tempting to feel as if your books is in competition with all of those other books on submission, not to mention the ones coming out by already-popular authors, and to be bogged down by the sheer impossible odds of it all. It's temping to want someone else's success story to be yours and to measure whatever success you've achieved against someone who has "made it."

Don't do it. The only person you're in competition with is yourself. You can't control how many people are out there, how many queries agents are getting, how many celebrities are writing books, etc. etc.

All you can control is your own work. Focus on that. The odds are just numbers. Don't let them get you down.

52 Comments on Are There Really That Many People Out There Writing Books?, last added: 10/8/2010
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592. You Tell Me: Would You Consider Self-Publishing?

There's a whole lot of chatter out there on the Internet these days about self-publishing. Some people still think self-publishing is a secondary option to traditional publication, some fear a deluge of poorly edited books, some are heralding self-publishing as not only the way of the future, but are fast proclaiming anyone who foresees a future with traditional publishers a hopeless dinosaur.

(Speaking personally, I think there's room for all models in the new era, we can all get along, and I'm a bit confused about why these debates have taken on such an ideological/religious tenor in some circles. But I suppose that's not the stuff great blog posts are made of.)

Back to the question at hand: would you consider self-publishing? Under what circumstances?

Poll below! (you'll need to click through if you're reading on an RSS reader or via e-mail).

123 Comments on You Tell Me: Would You Consider Self-Publishing?, last added: 10/9/2010
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593. A Hard Day's Year

I rewatched the classic Beatles movie "A Hard Day's Night" over the weekend, and aside from making me crave nearly every coat and suit worn in the movie and somehow making me love the Beatles even more than I already did, this third time around I was struck by something the movie left out. Basically: that whole "Hard Day's Night" part.

The Beatles have been endlessly analyzed and discussed and written about, and even today the Lennon/McCartney partnership is one we are still pondering. But the element of their greatness that Malcolm Gladwell touches on in OUTLIERS, and the one that I'm most interested in, is the extent to which the Beatles were, well, also fanatical workaholics.

Early in their career they played over 1,200 times in four years in Hamburg, Germany, all the while writing songs and practicing. Their greatness didn't just spring forth: they worked and worked and worked and worked some more. The sheer body of work they produced is staggering, particularly when you consider they broke up before John Lennon had even turned 30.

And yet you never see a hint of the incredible and tedious hard work behind the music and fun in "A Hard Day's Night," nor, really, any work about creative geniuses (save perhaps for the great "Barton Fink," that great ode to writer's block, and a few other exceptions). The songs and novels and plays always seem to spring out from the great artist fully formed. Maybe we see that classic Eurkea moment, but then the artist scurries off to craft their work in a quick montage, or we cut straight to the book coming out.

What's funny about this is that artists themselves participate in the illusion of effortlessness, probably because artists and storytellers recognize that the truth is boring: working very very hard and practicing a very very long time is not the stuff that great stories are made of.

In the case of "A Hard Day's Night," the truth is that the title song was mainly written in a single night by John Lennon, which is amazing enough on its own. But to watch the movie it seems the Beatles spend all of their time having adventures, flirting with girls, and spontaneously playing their fully-formed music. I can't help but think of the time they spent off the screen to make the illusion possible.

And with these stories and movies in our heads, when we read the magic on the page in a book and it flows so smoothly and effortlessly, it's easy to forget the hard day's year that went into it.

58 Comments on A Hard Day's Year, last added: 10/7/2010
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594. This Week in Publishing 9/24/10

THIS week IN publishing

First up, get your Query Critique Friday on in the Forums! UPDATE: my critique (and more about avoiding perspective shifts in queries if at all possible) posted here.

One of the larger ongoing news items in the publishing world is the board spat between CEO Len Riggio and investor Ron Burkle. Confused about what's going on there? The NY Times has a very helpful breakdown of the who what when where why how of the whole thing.

In an interview, author Danielle Steel denied that she is a romance writer, which for some reason set the blogosphere a-sneerin'. For the record, I think the distinction she was making was between category/traditional romance and the novels she writes, which, sure, often have romantic plotlines, but which fall more in the women's fiction realm. Not sure why this one became news, but hey...

Flavorwire had a pretty priceless collection of cliches in author photos, and, as he was wont to do, Oscar Wilde stole the show. And over at AbeBooks, a pretty cool gallery of authors and pen names.

The world's first Wonka candy store is opening in the Times Square Toys R Us, and.... searching..... searching..... nope. No golden ticket necessary. Whew!

In writing advice news, Laini Taylor discusses the importance of writers having a cheerleader (preferably more than one), Moses Siregar writes about the difference between one, two, three, and four word adjective descriptions, agent Jennifer Laughrin writes about the pros and cons of multi-book deals, and agent Kristin Nelson talks about how the best way to approach daunting query odds is by covering your ears and saying "La la la!"

And finally, coinciding with the upcoming Banned Books Week, YA author Laurie Halse Anderson posted about an editorial that called her novel SPEAK "soft pornography" because it deals with two rape scenes. Say what? The writing blogosphere rose up with a collective UM NO I DON'T THINK SO EDITORIAL and The Rejectionist, Janet Reid, Pimp My Novel, Matthew Rush, Laini Taylor, 35 Comments on This Week in Publishing 9/24/10, last added: 9/27/2010

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595. Can I Get a Ruling: How Do You Feel About Chapter Titles?

Oh, to title a chapter or just go ahead and call it Chapter 72. One of the perennial questions facing any writer.

Do you notice chapter titles when you're reading? Do you like them? Dislike them? Not even realize they're there?

Where do you stand?

If you're reading in an RSS reader or via e-mail, please click through for the poll:

132 Comments on Can I Get a Ruling: How Do You Feel About Chapter Titles?, last added: 9/30/2010
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596. Banned Books Week in the Internet Age

I was going to post about/celebrate Banned Books Week yesterday, but I needed another day to think this through. Certainly, I'm sure we all can agree that censorship, in all its forms, is retrograde, oppressive, contrary to democratic ideals, and rightly associated with totalitarianism and all sorts of other bad "isms." Free exchange of ideas serves the greater good. Censorship = horrible. And we should fight it when it happens.

At the same time, I want to kind of acknowledge that the fight against censorship and banned books is changing somewhat in the Internet era, no? And ultimately, I think, for the better.

Three cheers for the fact that it's less viable for someone to try and ban a book than it ever has been. Up until the Internet era, if someone successfully banned a book in a library or in bookstores in a region, that was it. Good luck finding that book! You'd have to drive to another region to find it, if you heard about it at all.

With the Internet though, good luck stopping someone from finding that book. Chances are they can buy it very easily online.

Now, obviously there is uneven access to money and computers and the Internet and this does not mean everything is peachy and that we should stop being vigilant. The youth of America will always be the most vulnerable to censorship as libraries are more central to their reading lives, so there are still choke points that can stop a worthy book from reaching a child who needs it.

And I also wonder if there's a new danger created by the Internet, which is that any yahoo with a crazy agenda can easily hijack our attention by doing offensive stunts. This has obviously always been a part of life, but it seems like it's now easier and more common than ever. You see this everywhere on the Internet and the media: someone wants to get some attention so they say the most horrible things they can think of, then they sit back and watch the show, feasting on their newfound attention. On every scale, from the smallest website to the national media, the Internet is greasing the crazyperson skids.

Lately I've been wondering if these people deserve our scorn or if they deserve our restraint. Is there a way to fight these people without playing right into their hands and giving them the attention they're craving? Is there a risk in elevating a crazyperson's agenda by treating them so seriously? What's the balance?

If there's actual censorship going on then yes, definitely, fight it like there's no tomorrow, because if censorship takes hold there may as well not be a tomorrow. I don't think there's much ambiguity about that.

But what about when people are staging book-related stunts and saying ridiculous things on the Internet? Is the best tactic to treat them seriously and fight back or to deprive them of the attention they're aiming for?

That's an honest question, I really don't know the answer.

On the one hand, truth and decency and free expression are absolutely worth fighting for, and even if it's a mosquito biting you, you swat it.

On the other hand, I can't help but feel that as we learn to navigate the Internet era, if there's a virtual dog pile every time someone says something vile, are we increasing the likelihood of people provoking us in the future? Does it become more appealing for people to try and pull similar stunts for attention? Do we make ourselves a target by being easily provoked?

I'm not leaving off this post with any answers, only questions, because I

59 Comments on Banned Books Week in the Internet Age, last added: 9/30/2010
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597. You Tell Me: Which Book Would Prompt You to Talk to a Stranger?

Writer Kia Abdullah had the idea for this post, which is something we may lose in the e-book era: seeing what strangers are reading and possibly striking up a conversation.

Kia writes:

...So I saw a person reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides on the train and I just had to talk to them about the book (something I've never done before). If you haven't done something like this already, it might make a good You Tell Me (i.e. what book would make you talk to a stranger). I don't think it's always necessarily your favourite book, but one that you may have read recently or that is largely unread by your circle of friends and acquaintances.

Is there a book you're so passionate about that you'd strike up a conversation with someone you saw reading it?

161 Comments on You Tell Me: Which Book Would Prompt You to Talk to a Stranger?, last added: 10/1/2010
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