A perspective client and I were in the first stages; you know, where you get a feel for one another to be sure of a good fit. It was a great exchange. She was funny and literate and serious and we quickly decided to move forward (I passed muster too!). Before she sent her manuscript she had one last question: What are the five things a writer should bring to the editorial table. Great question!
And I love doing just that.
Like most of you, I’m a voracious reader – voracious and omnivorous. I love every genre but I tend to binge. Right now I’m binging on historicals—adventure, detective, romance and biography. It started with the publication of a client’s historical seagoing adventure. I really love this client—dedicated, talented, determined – and best of all, his 18th century hero is surrounded by characters so real they practically walk off the page.
The cast of characters includes every walk of life one would find in postcolonial America and the wider world. From merchants to millers to a lesbian frontier woman, a free black family, an Ottoman Turk political fixer to a closeted gay Navel officer, not one of these critical players feels forced or token. There is no preachy message, no particular point to be made from this varied cast. They are simply the natural population of this writer’s historical period, as much as all types and flavors are, and always have been, the natural population of the world. Such characters have largely been written out of history by social convention.
In all this bingeing, I’ve come across a few works where the writer loudly and proudly proclaims they are whatever identity they are as opposed to the conventionally accepted population of American novels—mainly Anglo and heterosexual. These voices can feel strident, in your face, surprisingly aggressive. It feels like preaching and I’m not aware of belonging to any particular congregation. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and tends to get in the way of a good story. But beneath all the militant raging I recognize there’s a message that needs to be heard. And I think about the suffragettes.
The right to vote is so smoothly woven a part of my life that I have to make an effort to remember that these woman got strident, got in the face of convention, got extremely aggressive and unpleasant in order to win a basic human right 100 years ago. Those gutsy women were widely vilified, punished and imprisoned, but they got the message across. That’s how it is done.
Writers have always given us more than just great entertainment. Throughout the ages storytellers have had a major impact on society. Kepler’s Somnium (1634), offered radical ideas (the sun is the center of the solar system!) safely disguised as fiction. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Grapes of Wrath, Sophie’s Choice . . . a huge list of books from writers who humanized and taught us about people and worlds we were ignorant of before. Those authors were, writers are, social warriors.
So I say welcome those strident voices. Be they people of a different skin color or people of a different bent, excluding their part in the stories of life—the stories we write and read – is to diminish the rich tapestry all writers wish to capture. Those walrus mustachioed gentlemen in their stiff collars and heavy suits survived the onslaught of the women’s vote – and thrived. So shall society survive and thrive acknowledging and embracing the existence of those voices that are not presently the conventional idea of the norm. Long live the power of the pen, the impact of the well told tale!
Every author faces this last crucial challenge. You’ve already spent untold hours researching, writing and editing your book. Your title hits just the right poetic note. You’ve gone several tense rounds to find the perfect cover. All that remains is the book blurb, the opening salvo in the promotional war. This is the first (and sometimes only) chance to grab a reader and compel them to buy the book. And so, like click bait, you need to lure your reader with an honest but irresistible snap shot.
It’s an art, this writing of a synopsis that isn’t a synopsis, this sell copy that isn’t an ad. And for something that isn’t a science there are strict rules: you have to be honest – no misleading the reader. No spoilers or why bother to read it – which can be tough since the spoiler is often the most exciting part of the story. Keep it at 200 words or less and don’t make it one run-on paragraph. Use the proper keywords for your genre. Reveal something about the antagonist – readers like to know if they can root for the hero. This isn’t the place to relate the entire plot but you have to provide the zeitgeist, the feel of the tale. No easy task.
A lot of the writers I work with find this daunting and ask for help, which I am happy to provide. I think it’s difficult for the writer to step far enough away from their work to pick out the enticing, salient points and present them with the tension and intrigue that make for a successful blurb. To the author, all story points are important. I get that, but as an avid reader I know what works for me in a blurb. It’s not how much is said, but how compellingly it’s said.
I start with a deconstruction approach. It’s possible to distill any story down to bare bones. In his book Hit Lit – Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers James W. Hall provided the most distilled example I’ve ever seen. This is a beloved tale that we all know intimately: “A young girl wakes in a surreal landscape and murders the first woman she sees. She teams with three strangers and does it again.” It’s short, accurate and intriguing but would it sell the book?
I wouldn’t distill it down that far but it makes a great beginning. What if we knew something about the young girl – an orphan, a princess, a refugee? And what about the surreal landscape – gaping desert, oozing swamp, forbidding mountains? Then the three strangers – female, male, older, menacing, kindly? Is all this murdering spurred by necessity, thrills, defense, the three strangers or is it unintended manslaughter? And finally, what is the young girl up to – revenge, enlightenment, finding a way out of the surreal landscape? Flesh out those points, add some genre keywords, reference any kudos and you could turn those original 24 spartan words into a 160 – 200 word blurb that would peak curiosity and entice the shopper to buy.
If you can step away from the totality of your story and deconstruct the plot to the primary elements, then present those elements in a provocative way you can create an effective selling tool with your book blurb. BTW, that book Hall described? The Wizard of Oz.
I’m a fan of whodunnits and crime procedurals with a special lust for a good series. It’s critical the mystery of the murder be compelling in some way—no anonymous muggings—and clues woven in with the chance to solve it, but I love that surprised frisson I get from a solution I hadn’t seen coming. It’s the characters though, that keep me coming back for more (or waiting for the next book which takes patience as a writer should be allowed some time).
It’s been said that good series characters become dear old friends; these are people you’d like to spend time with. I agree, sort of. I love Beckham’s Skelgill—what an odd and intriguing man—but I’m not sure I’d want him over for the holidays. I wouldn’t know what to say to Miss Marple. I would however, be thrilled to spend a weekend at the beach with Forster’s Finn O’Brien and Cori Anderson—they’d be a blast. Regardless, I love all my favorites simply because they are beautifully drawn characters who’s worlds are well worth sharing.
I’ve worked with several clients as they develop a series character and build a complex crime plot. It’s the NYT crossword of plot building. It’s hard work, which (as usual) means rewrite and after rewrite. It’s easy to play at though. That’s what I do when I’m waiting for the doctor or dentist—plot the murder of a fellow patient by another, build up motive and means and then the nurse calls my name. It passes the time more artfully than an ancient issue of People though I’ve been caught staring—awkward, so I’m good at a passive shrug and an innocent smile. But this morning—at 5 am to be precise—we had a real murder in the house.
A baffling, ferocious racket wakes us. My eyes fly open to meet Tom’s, one look enough to know we both know whatever it is, is in the house. Tom shoots up. I follow more cautiously into the living room to see my solid, sturdy couch rocking and pulsing like a thing possessed. A scruffy bit of fur whips frantically from beneath only to be pulled back in. A thumping commences and then a deathly silence, finally broken by the sickening crunch of breaking bone.
Hesitantly we upend the couch and Max, our maniacal Siamese, turns up triumphant blue eye and finishes the last bit of gopher, bones fur and all. In my house. In the structure of my couch. Is this murder? If you’re a gopher, yes. If you’re me, no. We have a horrible gopher problem and it’s Max’s job to sort it. But in the house? Sheesh. I contemplate killing Max.
So it’s not technically a murder. It isn’t even as good as an anonymous mugging. There is a series character though, only he’s the (serial) perp, not the detective and I like him so much he lives in my house. But there is a mystery: who didn’t lock Max’s cat door after sundown? Tom thinks it’s me but you and I dear reader, know otherwise.
Jenny Jensen is deep into a manuscript and unable to come up for air. We’re helping her out by posting one of her articles from our archives. Hope you enjoy it.
I love quotes. I collect them, especially quotes about writing from writers I particularly respect. Since I work with writers of all levels from beginners to veterans, I find that sometimes the perfect quote from an established writer is exactly what I need to reinforce a point – so I use my collection well.
I just took on a new client who sent an outline for her first novel. The outline included a précis of the plot, quick character sketches, a few narrative bits on action scenes and several options for an ending. Buried in these concepts were the seeds of a very fresh new voice. I’m excited; it’s the kind of challenge I relish. It’s the perfect opportunity to ask the right questions, provide possibilities and help guide the story to a solid structure – all of which greases the writer’s creative wheels – the give and take nudging them to the path they want for their story.
The problem was the writer didn’t want to write a draft; she wanted to work with me to get the story full blown in her head then sit down at the keyboard and spit out a finished novel. Oh dear. I imagine there are writers who can do that but they’re as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker. As Anne Lamott put it in her essay, Shitty First Drafts: “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.”
All first drafts suck. It’s a universal law. But it’s where you have to start. “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” (TY Terry Pratchett.) So give yourself permission to just spill it, write the most vapid dialog ever if that’s what comes out. It’s OK – it’s a draft. Just get the story out. If you find yourself using more adjectives than Danielle Steele and Judith Krantz combined then this is the place to do it. It’s a draft -no one will ever see it (except me but that’s all right ‘cuz I’ll never tell). Stewart Stafford hit the bull’s eye, “It’s okay to write a cliché in a first draft; it sets a marker that you can get far, far away from in the rewrites.”
That’s what a draft is for – the rewrites. Here’s where the painful process of filling the blank page becomes fun. You see the flaws and get to slash and revise, hear the perfect dialog over the noise of what you drafted, maybe see a new direction in the wreckage. I’ve encouraged my client to write a first draft. I’ll happily work with her from that, but I bet she goes over it first – who could resist? Draft one or draft two, I don’t care. I can’t wait to see it.
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