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Powerful, surprising, and fascinating personal essays are also “reader-friendly essays” that keep the reader squarely in focus. So how do you go about writing one? In this excerpt from Crafting the Personal Essay, author Dinty W. Moore shares a variety of methods for crafting an essay that keeps the reader’s desires and preferences in mind, resulting in a resonate and truly memorable piece. As Moore says, “Privacy is for your diary. Essays are for readers.”
Writing the Reader-Friendly Essay
Good writing is never merely about following a set of directions. Like all artists of any form, essay writers occasionally find themselves breaking away from tradition or common practice in search of a fresh approach. Rules, as they say, are meant to be broken.
But even groundbreakers learn by observing what has worked before. If you are not already in the habit of reading other writers with an analytical eye, start forming that habit now. When you run across a moment in someone else’s writing that seems somehow electric on the page, stop, go back, reread the section more slowly, and ask yourself, “What did she do here, put into this, or leave out, that makes it so successful?”
Similarly and often just as important, if you are reading a piece of writing and find yourself confused, bored, or frustrated, stop again, back up, squint closely at the writing, and form a theory as to how, when, or where the prose went bad.
Identifying the specific successful moves made by others increases the number of arrows in your quiver, ready for use when you sit down to start your own writing. Likewise, identifying the missteps in other writers’ work makes you better at identifying the missteps in your own.
Remember the Streetcar
Tennessee Williams’ wonderful play, A Streetcar Named Desire, comes from a real streetcar in New Orleans and an actual neighborhood named Desire. In Williams’ day, you could see the streetcar downtown with a lighted sign at the front telling folks where the vehicle was headed. The playwright saw this streetcar regularly—and also saw, of course, the metaphorical possibilities of the name.
Though this streetcar no longer runs, there is still a bus called Desire in New Orleans, and you’ve certainly seen streetcars or buses in other cities with similar, if less evocative, destination indicators: Uptown, Downtown, Shadyside, West End, Prospect Park.
People need to know what streetcar they are getting onto, you see, because they want to know where they will be when the streetcar stops and lets them off.
Excuse the rather basic transportation lesson, but it explains my first suggestion. An essay needs a lighted sign right up front telling the reader where they are going. Otherwise, the reader will be distracted and nervous at each stop along the way, unsure of the destination, not at all able to enjoy the ride.
Now there are dull ways of putting up your lighted sign:
This essay is about the death of my beloved dog.
Let me tell you about what happened to me last week.
And there are more artful ways.
Readers tend to appreciate the more artful ways.
For instance, let us look at how Richard Rodriguez opens his startling essay “Mr. Secrets”:
Shortly after I published my first autobiographical essay seven years ago, my mother wrote me a letter pleading with me never again to write about our family life. “Write about something else in the future. Our family life is private.” And besides: “Why do you need to tell the gringos about how ‘divided’ you feel from the family?” I sit at my desk now, surrounded by versions of paragraphs and pages of this book, considering that question.
Where is the lighted streetcar sign in that paragraph?
Well, consider that Rodriguez has
introduced the key characters who will inhabit his essay: himself and his mother,
informed us that writing is central to his life,
clued us in that this is also a story of immigration and assimilation (gringos), and
provided us with the central question he will be considering throughout the piece: Why does he feel compelled to tell strangers the ins and outs of his conflicted feelings?
These four elements—generational conflict between author and parent, the isolation of a writer, cultural norms and difference, and the question of what is public and what is private—pretty much describe the heart of Rodriguez’s essay.
Or to put it another way, at every stop along the way—each paragraph, each transition—we are on a streetcar passing through these four thematic neighborhoods, and Rodriguez has given us a map so we can follow along.
Find a Healthy Distance
Another important step in making your personal essay public and not private is finding a measure of distance from your experience, learning to stand back, narrow your eyes, and scrutinize your own life with a dose of hale and hearty skepticism.
Why is finding a distance important? Because the private essay hides the author. The personal essay reveals. And to reveal means to let us see what is truly there, warts and all.
The truth about human nature is that we are all imperfect, sometimes messy, usually uneven individuals, and the moment you try to present yourself as a cardboard character—always right, always upstanding (or always wrong, a total mess)—the reader begins to doubt everything you say. Even if the reader cannot articulate his discomfort, he knows on a gut level that your perfect (or perfectly awful) portrait of yourself has to be false.
And then you’ve lost the reader.
Pursue the Deeper Truth
The best writers never settle for the insight they find on the surface of whatever subject they are exploring. They are constantly trying to lift the surface layer, to see what interesting ideas or questions might lie beneath.
To illustrate, let’s look at another exemplary essay, “Silence the Pianos,” by Floyd Skloot.
Here is his opening:
A year ago today, my mother stopped eating. She was ninety-six, and so deep in her dementia that she no longer knew where she was, who I was, who she herself was. All but the last few seconds had vanished from the vast scroll of her past.
Essays exploring a loved one’s decline into dementia or the painful loneliness of a parent’s death are among the most commonly seen by editors of magazines and judges of essay contests. There is a good reason for this: These events can truly shake us to our core. But too often, when writing about such a significant loss, the writer focuses on the idea that what has happened is not fair and that the loved one who is no longer around is so deeply missed.
Are these emotions true?
Yes, they are.
Are they interesting for a reader?
Often, they simply are not.
The problem is that there are certain things readers already know, and that would include the idea that the loss of a loved one to death or dementia is a deep wound, that it seems not fair when such heartbreak occurs, and that we oftentimes find ourselves regretting not having spent more time with the lost loved one.
These reactions seem truly significant when they occur in our own lives, and revisiting them in our writing allows us to experience those powerful feelings once again. For this reason it is hard to grasp that the account of our loss might have little or no impact on a reader who did not know this loved one, or does not know you, and who does not have the emotional reaction already in the gut.
In other words, there are certain “private” moments that feel exhilarating to revisit, and “private” sentences that seem stirring to write and to reread as we edit our early drafts, but they are not going to have the same effect in the public arena of publishable prose.
In the last twenty years of teaching writing, the most valuable lesson that I have found myself able to share is the need for us as writers to step outside of our own thoughts, to imagine an audience made up of real people on the other side of the page. This audience does not know us, they are not by default eager to read what we have written, and though thoughtful literate readers are by and large good people with large hearts, they have no intrinsic stake in whatever problems (or joys) we have in our lives.
This is the public, the readers you want to invite into your work.
Self-expression may be the beginning of writing, but it should never be the endpoint. Only by focusing on these anonymous readers, by acknowledging that you are creating something for them, something that has value, something that will enrich their existence and make them glad to have read what you have written, will you find a way to truly reach your audience.
And that—truly reaching your audience and offering them something of value—is perhaps as good a definition of successful writing as I’ve ever heard.
I was reading through some of our older science fiction titles, and I came upon Worlds of Wonder by David Gerrold (published in 2001). As I was flipping through the book, I read an opening line that intrigued me:
“All writing is list-making. Nothing more. The trick is knowing what to put next on the list.”
This seemed a puzzlingly simple notion–that developing the plot of your story was in some way akin to the act of jotting down your grocery list. And yet, as I started to read further, what the author was saying made a lot of sense:
The thing about Lego bricks is that you can build just about anything you can imagine–if you’re patient enough. People have built whole cities out of Lego bricks. The problem is that you have to figure out yourself how to put the things together. While there might be instructions on how to build a specific kind of Lego castle, there are no instructions on how you can build the castle that exists in your own imagination.
Planning your story is the same experience. You have a sense of what you want it to be, how you want the pieces to fit together, but actually getting this brick to fit next to that one…. Pretty soon, you start to wonder how the hell Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven and Frederik Pohl and Richard Matheson and Jack Finney and Anne McCaffrey and C.J. Cherryh and Connie Willis can make it look so easy.
David goes on to suggest this exercise, which I share with you below. (A sidenote: What’s particularly amusing about it is that he is the writer of the episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” from Star Trek: The Original Series, which is, in my opinion, one of the best Star Trek episodes ever.)
Get yourself a stack of index cards. Write a one-line synopsis of each specific scene that you think should be in your story, one scene per card. Don’t worry about writing them down in any specific order. Just write them down as fast as you think of them:
Lt. Uhura brings a tribble aboard the Enterprise.
Lt. Uhura first gets the tribble from a local merchant.
Uhura’s tribble has a litter of little tribbles.
Scotty discovers tribbles in the air vents.
Kirk finds a tribble on his captain’s chair.
Kirk and Spock beam over to the space station. Kirk opens up the storage compartments and lots of tribbles fall down on his head.
But this isn’t enough for a complete story. You need a second plot line too, something to complicate the first one:
The Klingons want shore leave, but what they really want is … to disrupt the plan for Sherman’s Planet.
The Klingons are on the speace station. A barroom brawl breaks out.
Kirk investigates the fight. He bawls out Scotty and restricts him to quarters. Scotty is glad for the chance to read his technical manuals.
The plan for Sherman’s Planet is that Earthwillplant a new grain. If nothing earthlike will grow, the Klingons get the planet.
The Klingons are here to poison the grain.
The tribbles eat the poisoned grain, reproduce like crazy and fall on Kirk’s head, but McCoy discovers that they’re dying.
Now, take all these separate cards and shuffle them together and start laying them out on the kitchen table in the order you think they should go. First organize each plot line in its own thread. Then you can go back and forth between separate threads, picking up the next appropriate scene from each.
When you have all the cards laid out in order, go through them as if you’re reading a comic book or a storyboard and see if they re
Show, don’t tell. Most writers have heard this maxim at some point, whether from a teacher, an editor or an agent. But what does this writing advice mean, in practical terms?
While a certain amount of exposition is unavoidable (and even useful) in your writing, it’s easy to “over-share” the minutiae of your story’s background and your characters’ lives. When writing a novel, keep these guidelines in mind to achieve a balance of showing and telling:
Be brief. Make sure that all of your “telling” details are actually necessary to advance the plot, either by developing backstory, establishing the mood/tone, or describing the setting.
Avoid the dreaded “info dump.” Don’t overwhelm your reader with information in your story’s first few pages. Focus on capturing her attention with a compelling character and an interesting situation, then fold in the details as the plot develops.
Steer clear of cliches. Never start a story with a character waking up and starting his day—unless you want to put your reader to sleep.
Author and editor Jeff Gerke offers the following writing advice for balancing showing and telling from his book The First 50 Pages (Writer’s Digest Books):
Showing vs. Telling in Your Writing: The Camera Test
I’ll give you a little tool here that could revolutionize your understanding of showing and telling in fiction. I may not be the first person to talk about it in these terms, but I know I’ve never heard it before I thought it up. So at least I’m its co-inventor.
Maybe you want to rid your fiction of telling but you simply can’t see it—not in other people’s fiction and certainly not in your own. So how can you delete something you can’t even see? There’s a question you can ask of any passage you feel may be telling. You ready? Get the passage in front of you and ask this of it: Can the camera see it?
There are exceptions, but Can the camera see it? is a terrific tool for helping you begin to see the telling in a manuscript. Let’s test it:
Urlandia was a peaceful realm. Peasants and nobles alike lived in harmony despite the occasional bout with famine or invaders from the neighboring kingdom of Dum. There were heroes and cads, pirates and tavern wenches, and in all, their lives were good.
Okay, aside from this being deadly dull, is it showing or telling? Let’s load up the testing gun and fire: Can the camera see it?
Your mind might have conjured up an image of a fantasy countryside with green meadows, vast forests, and castles with pennants flapping in the breeze, but how could you have seen “the occasional bouts with famine”? How could you see that their lives were good? You couldn’t. You weren’t shown any of this—you were simply told. And it probably left you feeling a little sleepy.
It would be quite possible to convert this telling to showing by depicting things before the camera’s lens that suggest each of these elements. But right now it’s unconverted telling. I can’t tell you how many unpublished novels I’ve seen that start like this. And I’ve rejected every single one of them. You don’t want your book rejected, so don’t put telling anywhere in the first fifty pages.
Veronica shifted into park and got out of her VW bug. She shielded her eyes from the afternoon sun and stared at the house. It was smaller than she remembered. And had it always been this run-down, or had it fallen into disrepair only lately? It had once been white, but the siding slats desperately needed a new paint job.<
In the search for story-worthy ideas, most writers are sidelined by occasional bouts of creative myopia. When it sets in—when your field of inspiration narrows—it’s easy to convince yourself that your luck has run out and all the good ideas are taken. But finding exceptional writing ideas isn’t a matter of luck. Waiting passively for creativity to strike won’t put words on the page, either. The secret to cultivating writing inspiration is to go out and hunt it down—in unexpected places.
“Curiosity, attention, a little bravado, and a willingness to break routines lead to great writing ideas,” says writing coach Don Fry. “You lurk, listen, ask questions, and find experts. You can prowl the Internet, but the best writing ideas come from face to face interaction with people.”
He offers these great writing tips and more from his new book Writing Your Way (Writer’s Digest Books):
6 Surprising Ways to Find Writing Ideas
“The best ideas are subjects that other writers haven’t written about, or haven’t noticed. The following writing techniques work because they dynamite you out of your routine ways of thinking and dealing with the world. They make the world ‘strange’ so you can see it fresh.
1. Explain Common Things
Ask experts to explain how ordinary things work, preferably things invisible to the public. For example, how does your town’s water-purification system work? What happens to recycled plastic? How do wine aerators work? What do lifeguards look for? What makes chocolate taste good?
2. Mine Your Emotions
If something bothers or puzzles you, find out why by interviewing people with similar reactions. You’ll discover you’re not alone in never changing your passwords, buying lottery tickets, or your fear of high bridges. I’ve always wondered if my parents are really my parents, which turns out to be a fairly common doubt.
3. Follow Alternative Paths
Take alternate routes to your normal destinations, and try out different types of transportation, especially slower ones that let you see more. Leave your car at home and walk to work, or ride a bike. Climb stairs instead of taking elevators, take the service elevator, or enter through back doors.
4. Cultivate Weirdos
Your mother taught you never to talk with strangers. Good advice for children, bad advice for writers. Strike up conversations with people you don’t know, even cultivating weirdos. Introduce yourself to airplane seatmates, to people carrying a sign or wearing a name tag.
5. Lower Your Standards
Accept any piece of paper handed to you on the street. Read junk mail. Watch awful TV shows and ask why they appeal to anyone. Buy TV gadget offers, test them, and try to get your money back.
6. Make Yourself Into Somebody Else
Role-play the lives of people with viewpoints different from yours or your readers’. I once spent half a day in a wheelchair and learned about hazards I never imagined. Bob Graham, the former governor of Florida, did manual labor one day a month to understand the public.
All of these writing techniques jar you out of your normal vision, because that’s where the writing ideas are, invisible in plain sight.”
If you’d like to quickly amass content for a book—without the pressure of actually having to work on one—consider blogging a book. Blogging is a fast and simple way to generate a body of targeted content and build your platform, which are key components of landing a book deal in today’s competitive marketplace.
When writing blog posts with the intention of creating a blogged book, be sure to:
Develop each post as a stand-alone unit with a beginning, middle and end so readers can “pick up” your book at any point;
Create flow from one post to the next by teasing readers to keep “turning pages”;
Link related posts to form a cohesive body of work.
In addition to creating cohesive and relevant content (as noted above), optimizing your blog, and utilizing best SEO practices, it’s important to write with passion in an authentic voice, says author and expert blogger Nina Amir in How to Blog a Book (Writer’s Digest Books, 2012):
“Successful blogs have at their helms bloggers who write with passion and purpose, who feel inspired and who every day show up as nothing less than their true selves with all their colors flying,” says Amir. “Almost every blogger I interviewed (for the book) who landed a book deal attributed his or her success to feeling passionate about the subject of the blog and being authentic while blogging. If you feel the need for inspiration, read their blogs.”
Here are more blogging tips from the book to inspire you:
Top 10 Blogging Tips for Blogging a Book
Read other blogs on your topic—and comment on them.
Get involved in groups and forums on your subject.
Read books on your topic.
Set up Google Alerts on your topic or on additional keywords related to your topic (and be sure to open the alerts and read the pertinent posts).
Ask some experts to write guest blog posts for you so you get a break.
Take a brief blogging vacation (tell your readers you are, in fact, on vacation for two or three days).
Do research on your topic.
Talk to other people who are interested in your topic or who are experts in your subject area.
Explore the possibility of using multimedia on your blog—audio and video.
Interview experts in your subject area and post the information or the interview; you can even post it as an audio clip, podcast, or video.
If you've been following along with The Radleys Blog Tour, celebrating the book's paperback release on 9/20, you know YABC is the last stop on the tour. If not, head on over to the official tour page to find out what's up and how you can win a THE RADLEYS prize pack!
At the end of each tour week, one person who commented on all participating blogs for that week will be selected as a Radleys Blog Tour winner. The winner will be announced on Helen and Rowan’s twitter accounts @Helen_Radley and @rowanradley. (If you aren't following them already, I suggest you do so. Pronto!)
The prize will be a copy of THE RADLEYS in both hardcover and paperback signed by author Matt Haig and some blood-red hot chocolate.
How awesome is that?
And to make things even more awesome-er, we have an exclusive excerpt from The Radleys, just for you! (Tip: if it's too small, click to read in full screen mode.) The Radleys by Matt Haig
To celebrate the release of the fourth book in The Iron Fey series, we've got a giveaway and an exclusive excerpt for you!
A bit about The Iron Knight by Julie Kagawa:
My name—my True Name—is Ashallayn'darkmyr Tallyn. I am the last remaining son of Mab, Queen of the Unseelie Court. And I am dead to her. My fall began, as many stories do, with a girl…
Here's what our staff reviewer had to say:
"The Iron Knight has been a book I have been highly anticipating for ages. I had a bit of a hard time getting into it, I think because I knew this was Ash and Megan’s final tale and I didn’t want the story to end. Once a few chapters had passed, I was completely engrossed and barely put down the book until I finished." Click here to read the full review and submit one of your own!
And now for an exclusive The Iron Knight excerpt:
There were three of us at one time, all princes of Winter, myself and my brothers, Sage and Rowan. I never knew my sire, never cared to know him, nor did my siblings ever speak of him. I wasn’t even positive we shared the same sire, but it didn’t matter. In the Unseelie Court, Mab was the sole ruler, the one and only queen. Handsome fey and even wayward mortals she might take to her bed, but Mab shared her throne with no one.
Don't forget to head over to Novel Novice tomorrow to read the next excerpt!
As any children’s picture book author will attest, writing for children is not easier than writing for adults. In fact, it’s probably more difficult, and here’s why: The story must appeal to … Read more
Putting ideas out in the world takes courage, so playing it safe with your writing can be an appealing strategy. Faced with limited writing time and abundant competition, you figure out what … Read more
Think “action scene,” and you probably think of the Hollywood version: A character is thrust into high-stakes, physical drama (a gunfight, a daring rescue, a desperate escape) that changes her in some … Read more
A strong narrative voice gives your fiction a distinctive flavor and makes it stand out in a slush pile. But many beginning novelists struggle with finding their narrative voice, and some opt … Read more
Prewriting. Freewriting. Mind Mapping. Clustering. If you’ve taken a creative writing or English composition class, you’ve likely encountered these terms. They represent an important step in the writing process and, in my … Read more
March seems like a good checkpoint for New Year’s writing goals: Two months into the New Year, you probably have a sense of whether a resolution made in January will become a reality by December.
If “start a book” was on your January to-do list, how’s it coming? If you hit the ground running and are well into your first draft, congratulations! But if you feel overwhelmed by the scope of the project, and are questioning why you thought you could write a book in the first place, consider this: The problem may be as simple as setting vague (and therefore unreachable) goals.
As with any long-term project, a book project becomes achievable when you break it into segments. These writing tips can help you start a book:
Think in terms of weeks and chapters, versus months and final word counts.
Reduce each chapter into components, and each week into days.
Turn these mileposts into mini-deadlines, and reward yourself every time you meet one.
1. Set Reasonable, Measurable Goals. Even if you’re not writing to someone else’s external deadline, give yourself your own deadline and treat it seriously. Because you understand the power of the written word, write down a specific goal, with a due date: “Finish chapter by [whatever date].” Some people even establish a punishment and/or reward if they meet or don’t meet their self-imposed deadlines: “If I complete chapter five by Friday, I can go to see a movie; if I don’t finish on time, I will force myself to scrub toilets as penance.” Well, you don’t have to clean the toilets, but a little self-flagellation is probably good for you.
2. Divide and Conquer. View your writing project not as an overwhelming monolith, but a compilation of many smaller items. The reason hard jobs get bypassed is that they often seem too daunting if they’re written as one entry on your list of goals. For example, “Write a book in the next year” can be overwhelming. The scope of the project is so big, and the deadline so far away, that achieving the goal seems impossible. Instead, focus on smaller tasks to do today, tomorrow, this week, and this month to help you reach that goal.
3. Create a Plan of Ordered Tasks. Writing down tasks in the order in which they should be done keeps you focused, as well as frees your mind to concentrate on the important things—rather than wasting mental energy trying to remember all the details that must be done each day. Break the task down into manageable steps.
4. Select Dates and Stick to Them. “Someday I’m going to write a book.” How many times have we all thought this? Turn your lofty dream into an actual accomplishment by adopting a workable schedule. For example, choose a date on your calendar for beginning your writing project. Make it today. You’ll be surprised by how much more quickly you’ll work with deadlines, especially if they come with positive and negative consequences. For example, if you miss your deadline at a major magazine, you may never be hired again and may in fact not see your piece in print, which are both negative consequences. But if you make your deadline, determine that you will give yourself a real day off, a massage, chocolate cake, or what have you.
Before I get to some book reviews and interviews that have been on the back burner, It's "catch up" time for some tagging. In March I was tagged by two cool bloggers, Rachna Chhabria and Linda Jackson with The Lucky 7 Meme tag. Here's how tagging works (although some of you already know this):
1. Go to page 77 of your current MS, WIP. 2.Go to line 7. 3.Copy down the next 7 lines, sentences or paragraphs and post them as they are written. 4.Tag 7 authors. 5.Let them know.
Soooooo, here are my 7 sentences: (The car in question is a Model-T)
This series is called "Successful
Queries" and I'm posting actual query letters
that succeeded in getting writers signed with agents. In addition to posting the actual
query letter, we will also get to hear thoughts from the agent as to why the letter
The 43rd installment in this series is with agent Janet
Reid (FinePrint Literary Management)
and her author, Sean Ferrell, for his novel, Numb,
which was released in August 2010 from Harper Perennial. Kirkus Reviews called Numb an
"eye-catching debut ... Artfully barbed entertainment.”
Dear Ms. Reid:
I am seeking representation for my literary novel, Numb. I found your submission
guidelines online and have included below a one-page synopsis.
I live and work in New York City, I have had short stories published in Uber, WORDS and Bossa
Nova Ink, and one of my recent short stories was a finalist in the Italo Calvino
writing competition at the University of Louisville. I received my MFA in creative
writing from Emerson College.
Numb is approximately sixty-thousand words in length.
In summary: Numb is a man who cannot feel physical pain.
When he wanders into a dying circus, he doesn’t know who he is or how he got there.
Despite feeling like an outcast the circus adopts him. When it is clear that his “talent”
(if you can call being shot with nail guns and staplers a talent) will make him the
star freak of the show, he becomes the circus’ best chance for survival. After nearly
sacrificing himself for the circus’ sake, he decides to run away from the circus and
make his way to New York City to discover himself and his past.
Accompanied by his fire-eating best friend, Mal, Numb discovers a world outside the
circus that is all too ready to reward and punish him for his self-destructive talents;
and it’s a world that forces all his relationships to shatter. Numb finds women to
comfort him, yet he won’t allow himself to trust them. He looks for love but won’t
accept it, and he looks for safety in self-destruction. After undermining or losing
friends and lovers, Numb is forced to figure out how to find a place for himself instead
of just taking up space.
This novel is in the spirit of Fight Club or Battle Royale; it is an
antiheroic tale of finding a way to survive in a world so filled with noise that simple
conversation and compassion are often drowned out.
Editor's note: I am declaring November 2010 to be
"Agent Guest Column Month," and therefore, every weekday, I will be posting a guest
column by a literary agent. Day 2: Today's guest agent is Dan Lazar of Writers House.
The surefire way of tempting a literary agent into reading your work is by sending
them a fabulous query letter. A great query letter trumps all, every time. But how,
you’re wondering, can you possibly encapsulate your amazing manuscript, your sweat
and tears, your next Great American (if you’re Canadian, then your next Great North
American novel) … into one letter? Because remember, at the end of the day, it all
comes down to the writing. If you’re a great writer, who’s written a great novel,
you can write a great query letter. Period. Here are some tips of mistakes to avoid.
Guest column by Dan Lazar, an
House in New York.
1. Be specific, but don’t vomit information. Saying “my novel is about a mom
going through some life challenges” is vague, and remember: Vague = boring. However,
be careful not to stuff your letter with so many details of your plot that it’s confusing
to decipher what’s going on. Reading your pitch letter out loud can often help you
identify these flaws.
2. Avoid the “duh” trap. Don’t bog down your writing by overstating the obvious.
For example, “I'm writing this letter to tell you about my fictional novel, which
I'd like to send you, and it is called TITLE.” That’s an awkward sentence. A simple
“I'd love to send you my novel, TITLE” is short and sweet. If this is confusing, read
both out loud. Seriously. Try it. Reading your own words out loud can sometimes reveal
the awkward or run-on sentences.
Another “duh” trap would be: “My novel will make you laugh”
or “My writing is lush and literary”—you’re
begging the agent to disagree. Many writers say “my novel will be a bestseller," or
"my book could easily be made into film," in an effort to excite an agent. But truthfully,
this is borderline offensive to most agents—it’s
presumptuous and naïve to assume your work can easily bypass all the guardians and
hard work it takes to make book into a bestseller or a movie.
3. Don’t call your manuscript a “fiction novel.” There’s no other kind. If
you can’t tell the difference, that’s a problem.
4. Don't say other readers loved the book, unless those other readers are published
authors of note. If you’re writing a children’s book, saying your class loved
the book is equally unhelpful.
5. Make sure the agent accepts e-queries before you send one. Just because
his/her e-mail is listed somewhere, doesn't mean they do. Most agents now have websites;
check their submission guidelines. If you're not sure, send your query by snail mail.
6. E-queries must also look neat. Colorful border, graphics or emoticons are
not only unprofessional, but they’re often caught by spam blockers. And if the agent
requests your work by e-mail, e-mail it in one or two attachments. Not twenty.
A thousand other questions may be running through your head now – but these are the
basics. For all else, use your common sense. Courier New versus Times New Roman? 1
inch margin versus 1.25? Doesn’t matter, trust me. Just write
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Editor's note: I am declaring November 2010 to be
"Agent Guest Column Month," and therefore, every weekday, I will be posting a guest
column by a literary agent. Day 13: Today's guest agent is Scott Hoffman of
Folio Literary Literary.
Agents generally respond to submissions
with three types of rejections. Cracking the code when it comes to a typical
agent’s rejection protocol can help you determine whether or not the project you’re
working on has publishing potential.
The most common (and least valuable) type, a form rejection tells you only that someone—not
necessarily even the agent herself—glanced over your manuscript and didn’t think it
could be sold at a high enough price to justify signing you as a client. By itself,
one form rejection tells you nothing. Twenty in a row, however, may serve as a pretty
convincing sign that your book, or at least the beginning of it, isn’t ready to hit
the shelves quite yet.
2. THE PERSONALIZED REJECTION
This can be either a form letter with a personal note added or a letter obviously
written directly to you. If you receive one of these, it means your manuscript is
head and shoulders above the majority of submissions an agent has read. I’d guess
that most agents add a personal and encouraging touch to no more than 5 percent of
the queries they read. I’d also wager that most published authors have received at
least one personalized rejection in the course of their careers. By itself, a personalized
rejection is actually a good thing: It means you’ve got the writing chops or some
other compelling factor on your side that will likely lead to you eventually becoming
a published author. You’ve convinced a publishing professional to pay attention to
you—and that should be a tremendously energizing event.
3. REAL-TIME INTERACTION
This is the rarest (and most valuable) rejection, and it comes in the form of either
a phone call or, rarer still, an in-person meeting. If this happens to you, don’t
be shy—be sure to ask the agent exactly what he thinks your book is lacking. In the
case of a writer I've since signed, I thought the book she sent me wasn’t the right
project to launch her literary career. Despite her raw talent, my experience with
the publishing process led me to believe that if her book were to find a home at a
publisher, it wouldn’t break out in a way that would lead to long-term success.
Take notes when an agent responds this way, because—and I may get in trouble with
some of my colleagues for saying this—if an agent is going to take the time to call
you or meet with you, he almost certainly will represent you at some point in your
career. It may just be a matter of finding the right book, or making changes to the
on you’re working on now.
Another hot topic on our Spring 2011 list is the ongoing debate about the current state of economic affairs and the sustainability of capitalism. One of the most notable Marxist critics, Terry Eagleton, tackles the perception that Marxism is dead in his newest book, Why Marx Was Right.
Christopher Benson, who writes for The Weekly Standard, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, among others, has posted an excerpt to his "Bensonian" blog, where already discussions have started about who Marx was and what Marxism is and how we can grapple with its importance in the 21st century. Check out his blog, see where you stand, and dig into the intensified debate that is sure to come when the book is published in April.
The events of January and February 2011 have shaken not only the Middle East and North Africa but the whole world.
Starting in Tunisia in December 2010, unrest has spiraled through the Arab world, with extraordinary results: following mass uprisings, the Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben-Ali has fled the country, while his counterpart Hosni Mubarak of Egypt decided to stand down with immediate effect. Meanwhile, Algeria – also ruled by a military dictatorship – has seen major riots, with several protestors killed, while similar demonstrations in Yemen have led President Saleh to announce that he will not seek another term in office.
Click the 3D book display to download Crisis in the Arab World, a free sampler of Yale books that discuss these three febrile regions.
In Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak(2011), Tarek Osman looks at the situation of his fellow young Egyptians – tech-savvy and full of passion, but deeply frustrated by the corrupt, economically stagnant Egyptian state.
In Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed (2008, updated 2011), Martin Evans and John Phillips ask how long Algerians will put up with their repressive military regime, whose only opposition consists of intermittent al-Qaeda attacks.
In Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes (2010), Victoria Clark analyses the prospects for a country with 40% unemployment, near-exhausted water supplies, and a long-running rebellion in the southern provinces.
Have you ever heard an editor or critic refer to a character
as passive? Maybe, like me, you've found yourself frustrated by this term. What exactly
does it mean, and what's so bad about creating a passive character? Isn't this a trait
we often find in real people, especially certain teenagers, who can be prone to spending
long hours watching TV or playing video games?
Since passive people do exist in life, it took me a long time to understand why a
passive character so seldom works in the context of a novel. It wasn't until I tried
unsuccessfully to write a novel featuring a passive character that I learned what
makes this trait so difficult to portray. Hopefully, this column will save you lots
of misspent time and effort.
This guest column excerpted by K.L.
Going's book, Writing
& Selling the YA Novel. Going is the author of several YA novels and is a Michael L. Printz Honor Book winner.
If you're considering writing about a passive character, or if you're told by others
that your existing characters seem too passive, consider this: Passive people might
be described as submissive, or failing to take initiative. They are acted upon more
than they act. When you look at this description side by side with the statement above
about characters being revealed by what they do and say, the picture should begin
to come into focus. How do we know who a character is if he doesn't act? How will
you breathe life into him if he doesn't make any choices?
While it's true that we all know people in real life who seem to drift along on the
tide, never taking much initiative to affect their circumstances, we
don't necessarily want to read about them. We're all familiar with the stereotype
of the antisocial teen who hides out in her bedroom, but would you want to read a
book about that person? Not only is it hard for the audience to figure out who she
is, it's tough to invest in her journey because there's nothing she's looking to learn
or accomplish or overcome.
Active characters, on the other hand, are endlessly fascinating because we're always
wondering what they'll do next. It's easy to feel as if we know them well, and when
a reader feels like they know a character in the same way they know a real person,
they'll invest in loving him, hating him, rooting for him, or laughing with him. Active
characters shape the plot through the choices they make, and their desires create
mirrored desires in the audience.
As a writer, you have two very powerful tools for creating active characters: actions
and dialogue. Active characters use plenty of both. They make choices, doing and saying
things that lead to new choices and new actions, advancing the plot. Use these tools
to your advantage. Give your characters plenty to say and do. Make them leap; make
In the midst of recent events in the Middle East, YUP is offering a special look at the books that cover religion, politics, and culture of the region, and our authors who are active in contributing to these discussions.
Last month, Marwan Muasher gave a talk at Yale as part of the Jackson Senior Fellows Lecture Series, titled “The Arab World in Crisis: Redefining Arab Moderation.” As a top-ranked diplomat, Muasher has held many high-level positions within the government of Jordan, including Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Ambassador to the United States, and first Jordanian Ambassador to Israel. He is the author of The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation, written prior his appointment as a fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. His recent talk readdresses the issues he presents in his book—the promise and perils of taking the “middle road” toward peace in the Middle East and what must be done to encourage the development of moderate, pragmatic Arab voices—and on YouTube, there is a full lecture from a similar talk he gave that was sponsored by the International Development Research Centre.
For Women’s History Month, we have a forthcoming study of the political and cultural history of the veil over the past half century: A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, written by Leila Ahmed, the first professor of Women's Studies in Religion at Harvard University and currently the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity at Harvard’s Divinity School. Ahmed was raised by a generation of women who never dressed in the veils and headscarves their mothers and grandmothers had worn. To them, these coverings seemed irrelevant to both modern life and Islamic piety. Today, however, the majority of Muslim women throughout the Islamic world again wear the veil. Why, she asks, did this change take root so swiftly, and what does this shift mean for women, Islam, and the West? When she began her study, Ahmed assumed that the veil's return indicated a backward step for Muslim women worldwide. What she discovered, however, in the stories of British colonial officials, young Muslim feminists, Arab nationalists, pious Islamic daughters, American Muslim immigrants, violent jihadists, and peaceful Islamic activists, confounded her expectations, reaching surprising conclusions about contemporary Islam's place in the West today.
And in looking back on Egypt, where so much action at the start of this year has sparked movement
Today's "Why Marx Was Right" blog discussion features an essay by Jake Meador on Chapter 5 of Terry Eagleton's Why Marx Was Right, addressing the claim: "Marxism reduces everything to economics."
One of the most common dismissals of Marx accuses him of historical reductionism. “Marx creates a caricature of history in which every event is determined purely by class struggle or economic factors,” goes the critique. Eagleton addresses the refutation by clarifying what Marx actually said about historical causality and then explaining how his claims are not as simplistic or materialistic as some critics have suggested. Going beyond mere refutation, Eagleton then develops a Marxist theory of work that is far more holistic in nature than many of Marx’s critics might expect. In his response, Meador compares Marx’s theory of work and history to two other less conventional economic thinkers, British dramatist Dorothy Sayers and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry. Through comparing these three authors we can avoid the more typical Marxist vs. Capitalist debate while also seeing both the overlap and the conflict between Marxist thought and the small-scale localism of Berry and Sayers. Read and discuss more on Bensonian...
When I noted previously that I’m a fan of British Hispanists, I left out Hugh Thomas’s narratives of Spanish history, and he has published many. Notably from YUP, The Beaumarchais in Seville tells the story of the French Revolutionary Pierre Beaumarchais and his travels to Madrid, 1764-65 (he never actually went to Seville). He’s best known for the Figaro plays that inspired operas by composers like Mozart and Rossini, and Thomas sets out to explore 18th-century Spain and the inspirations behind Beaumarchais’s work. On his travels, Beaumarchais encountered a wide cast of characters—royalty, military officers, clergy, journalists, actors, and their wives—and Thomas has brought these stories together from the letters and commentary that survive, translating them into English for the first time.
Nearly a century later another Frenchman, Théophile Gautier was similarly captivated by the land across the Pyrenees, and like Beaumarchais, he wrote one of his greatest poetic works, España, upon his return. New from our Margellos World Republic of Letters series, Norman R. Shapiro has beautifully translated Gautier’s poetry in a new volume, Selected Lyrics. The book includes the entirety of Émaux et Camées (Enamels and Cameos), which Gautier wrote while later traveling the Middle East, and is considered to be the crowning achievement of his poetic career. But because I can and it's a country I love, I’m posting a poem from what Shapiro calls “the vigorously exotic España, a blend of both Romantic local color and Parnassian visuality” to bring to us the vision of Seville that Beaumarchais never saw.
Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press.
Leaving behind Seville’s fair company,
One gazes back over the Guadalquivir
In wistful wise, and he sees looming there
Belfries’ and domes’ forest-like panoply.
With each wheel’s turning, new peaks rise. First, he