Monday, December 27, 2010

Agents Don’t Bite: How to Maximize Your Experience at a Writers Conference

To novice writers, agents are mythical creatures that live in a distant paradise of tall skyscrapers, café lattes and furry boots; a wonderland where dreams come true and books get published: New York City.

Fortunately, we don’t all have to travel to the Big Apple to meet them. Nowadays, they come to our distant locations with regularity, displaying their charm and wisdom on panels filled with top industry professionals. Nothing could be more intimidating, yet exhilarating for the novice writer. (I know a writer who was unable to perform a bodily function just knowing that the agent of her dreams was in the adjacent bathroom stall.*)

Opportunities like this simply don’t come by every day (they’re not cheap, either.) So we’d better make the best of them. But how do we do this? How do we overcome the fear of sounding like stuttering fools with the eloquence of an orangutan? How do we grab their interest and get those five little words that are the object of our obsession and prayers: “Please send me your manuscript”?

After attending six conferences in the last few years, I can tell you that speaking to agents and editors does get easier with time. At first the idea of sitting down and talking to a real-life agent or editor in a one-on-one scenario is as appealing as chewing on a shoe sole. You would rather sit in the back row, as far away from their prying eyes as possible, and listen—memorize—every single word. You take so many notes you could write a book, you analyze every gesture, every scoff and giggle, all along fearing and dreading the moment when you will sit across the desk with this person for your pitch session.

Then, during a lecture you've been halfway listening to, you look at your watch (you did it ten seconds ago) and you realize you must face the two-headed beast (no offense to agents/editors, I know some of them are very cute.) Along the way, you forget everything you were going to say, and the novel that you’ve been slaving over for months (or even years) becomes a blur in your mind.

You introduce yourself to the agent/editor, offer your cold, sweaty hand and remove your notes. Here comes the worst mistake of the novice conference-goer:

You read your notes.

I have to admit that in my first encounter with an editor I did this, but she was so kind and understanding that she listened (and even requested a partial.) However, in my second conference, the agent was not so patient. The minute I removed my index cards, now typed and organized with numbers, the agent started darting questions in my direction. Every time my eyes lowered to read my notes, the agent would assault me with another question. In the end, I set them aside and listened—she had a lot to say. Another partial request followed (out of pity, I think.)

What is the problem with reading? You may ask. Well, I don’t know about you, but when I read, I’m not really thinking about what I’m reading, especially when I’m nervous. The problem is that unless we are trained in reading for say, an audio book or a performance, we read in a very monotone, rapid fashion, with our cheeks burning and sweat building in copious amounts under our armpits.

After these two experiences, I concluded that I shouldn’t be reading. And I came up with a better idea: I was going to memorize my pitch.

As it turns out, when you memorize you don’t think much, either. Even worse, if you lose your train of thought, by say, the agent/editor asking a question (how dare they?!), it becomes extremely difficult to resume your flawless pitch with the fluency you had when you practiced in front of your spouse (or cat, or canary, whichever applies.)

You may have also heard about the X meets Y pitch. Well, I heard about it too. Twenty minutes before my pitch session, when an editor grabbed the microphone during the panel and announced that all she wanted to hear was a clever comparison of your novel with two blockbusters (from the last ten years) in a combination that sounded so appealing and complete that the editor in question could already picture your novel in the book shelf. “And then you shut up and listen,” she concluded.

Needless to say, the next few minutes turned into a nervous explosion of writers trying to come up with appropriates X and Ys to describe their books, and attempting to help each other out without any knowledge whatsoever of each other’s plots.

I didn’t get a request during that conference.

Conclusion? I was going to have to actually talk about my novel.

And this, my friends, was the best idea I ever had. I know it’s nerve-wracking to imagine sitting in front of a stranger who holds the key to your dreams. What if you forget? What if your mind goes blank? Well, I’m living proof that these things won’t happen. After all, you’ve only obsessed with your novel for one, two, five or even ten years, right?

So that is the key, it’s that simple. Talk about your novel as though you were telling your best friend about it. Just keep in mind there are some very important facts you must tell the agent/editor:

  1. Title
  2. Genre
  3. Setting
  4. Word count
  5. Who is the protagonist and what is his/her goal?
  6. What is the main conflict in the story?

Another thing that helps is to mention any recurring themes throughout the novel, if you have any. (For example: the world of wine, music, dance, photography, etc.) Also, if you’re pitching a Women’s Fiction novel, do mention if there is a love interest. I know this was a big hit with the agents I pitched to.

After I implemented this new “pitch philosophy,” I got one partial (from an agent) and two full requests (one from an agent and another from an editor) in ONE single conference.

Mission accomplished!

A few random things to keep in mind (you’ve probably read this just about EVERYWHERE, but I saw it done WITH MY OWN EYES) and this wouldn’t feel like a complete guide if I didn’t mention this very important rule:

  • DO NOT harass/approach an agent with a story idea IN THE BATHROOM.


  • DO approach them during lunch.
  • DO talk to other agents/editors that interest you even if you don’t have a pitch scheduled with them. In my experience, they are very open to listening.
  • Try to sit at the table of an agent that interests you but you don’t have an appointment with (even if it means pushing all the other writers out of the way—forgive me, colleagues.)

One last thing: enjoy yourself. Don’t simply obsess with agents and editors. You may meet wonderful people in the business that may enrich your lives in many other ways. I met a good friend of mine at a conference, the lovely Aurora. So keep your eyes open for other writers.

And now, let’s hear about you—have you had good or bad experience at conferences? Which approach has worked best for you? Does the idea of meeting an agent in person give you nightmares?

*names have been omitted to protect the innocent.

** Correction: the writer with “bathroom stage fright” has recently clarified that said agent was not really “the agent of her dreams.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

Are You Getting Your Money's Worth At That Writers' Conference?

You better save big if
you want to attend
Conference X!
A couple of posts back, I wrote how I have an aversion to writers' conferences. And for good reason. A little over a year ago, I attended my last conference. It was one of those big splashy ones, where they promote the idea of getting on the right track and getting published. I'd qualified as a finalist in the annual contest, so, I thought, now's my big chance! There had to be an agent there who would definitely take me on. Here is a breakdown of my three and a half day journey at what I will refer to as Conference X.

  • Day One -- Arrive at airport, find my lost luggage, track down shuttle to hotel, check into said hotel. Slightly disappointed because, considering the price I'm paying for the room, one would imagine some updated technology, such as Wi-Fi and a flat screen TV. Perhaps the inside of said hotel room shouldn't look like a Motel 6? The conference is being held in the same hotel and they pushed the idea of 'discounted' room rates.
  • Day One, 2:00 P.M. -- Conference X begins. I learn how to choose sessions that are right for me, and since I don't write nonfiction, nor do I need to start a writing group, I skip the first session and don't attend one until 4:00 P.M., which involves pitching to agents and editors. Although I learn about the Elevator Pitch, the room is packed to suffocation. There has to be a fire code being broken, here, especially since I'm stuffed into the window sill in the back of the room. I can barely see the bobbing head of the guest speaker.
  • Day One, 5:30 P.M. -- Evening Break. I'm starving, and since there is only a dessert reception at 8:00 P.M., I head back to my room and order in a $20 hamburger and water.
  • Day One, 8:00 P.M. -- The evening's keynote speaker. He talks for about ten minutes and then tells the aspiring writers in the room to go to the bookstore next door where he'll be doing a book signing. Stunned silence falls on the room when he leaves the podium as we all think, "What the heck was that?" What the heck was that?
  • Day Two -- I get my continental breakfast with all the other early-riser writers. I meet a few of them and chat while waiting for the morning session to start. At 8:00 A.M. it's Conference X's annual business meeting and I sit in. But what good is this doing me since I don't even live in the state? So I chat for a while with an aspiring YA writer.
  • Day Two -- Agent dos and don'ts session. They basically knock down the self-published a notch or two and then proceed to regale the crowd with stories about the wildest queries and proposals they've received. Oh, and they let us know who pays for lunch when they get wined and dined by editors. That's about it.
  • Day Two -- Agent and Editor Forums -- There are about thirty agents/editors in all and I learn what each one represents. Only one truly represents what I write, so I'm basically up a creek. Except for one, all editors inform the aspiring writers that they don't take on new writers unless represented by an agent. That's about 99.9% of the group. "Why are the editors here, then?" one guy boldly asks. No one on the panel has an answer to that one. Seriously, no one.
  • Day Two, 2:30-6:00 P.M. -- Afternoon sessions. I pick one on the Romance genre (I don't write Romance, but nothing else looked overly helpful) where I learn every sub-genre of Romance and that Romance is hard to break into. Couldn't I have just Google-searched that one? During my session on screenwriting (which, in a roundabout way, informs all attendees that you have to live in California to even think about screenwriting), I have my agent meeting. I wait with about fifteen other hopefuls in what I call the 'Cattle Call' area. We are called in for our ten minute sessions. I sit in front of my agent who, from reading her bio earlier, has little to no interest in representing my genre. Her glassy eyes, frantic bounce to her knee, and unprovoked lack of interest annoys the heck out of me. After a couple of questions, I get, "Here's my email. Send me twenty pages." I'm ecstatic until I compare notes with other Conference X attendees. Every agent in there asks for twenty pages.
  • Day Two, 7:00 P.M. -- Another keynote speaker. Another shameless plug for the roomful of aspiring writers to buy his book.
  • Day Three -- After another continental breakfast, I head over to a session on effective historical research. Yeah, this is my kind of thing! It was interesting, but I only walked away having learned one new thing while a majority of the time the group spent arguing over the use of proper slang. Hmm . . . My second session deals with writing sex scenes. I could use a little help in that area. During this time I have my editor meeting, which ends up consisting of me and five other individuals all pitching in a roundtable-type format. Every one of us writes a different genre and our editor focuses primarily on Romance. It's a bust all around. Unlike with my agent, the editor never replied to my query.
  • Day Three -- Afternoon sessions. I vaguely remember these because I couldn't stop thinking about those query letters I needed to write when I got back home. I know that one dealt with writing the perfect pitch. That's nice, since I've already met with my agent and editor.
  • Day Three, 6:30 P.M. -- The awards ceremony. I'm pumped! The finalists get to eat first, there's wine at every table, we sit with the other finalists in our categories (although half of our table doesn't show), what could be better? I don't place in the top three. I straggle off to my hotel room and tearfully call my husband. After all, this was the whole reason why I came.
  • Day Four -- I have a plane to catch, but decide to sit in on the winners' readings. Very enlightening. There is some good stuff out there. I'm still sulking a bit, but in all I'm enjoying the stories. By pure luck, I snag a few precious minutes with a departing agent. She quickly tells me to query her and she'll go from there. I catch my plane and fly home.
You might be asking, what exactly did I get out of all of this? Well, for one, I became highly disenchanted by the supposed 'glamour' surrounding the writing world. Let's not fool ourselves. Those who make it outrageously big in the writing world are just a small raindrop in the mighty ocean. I struggled to connect with many of the writers around me, mainly because they seemed clueless when it came to the writing industry. One man sitting next to me even told me he'd lost his job and was only writing a novel to 'make the big bucks.' What? And nobody at the conference seemed about to dispel that myth to attendees. I spent close to $2,000 (flight, hotel, conference, etc.) to attend Conference X, but when I got into the thick of things, it was easy to see that they were in it to make a buck. I would never have spent that kind of money if I hadn't expected to, at least -- at the very least -- walk away with something worth my two grand. I expected the agents and editors to show a glimmer of interest, if not in my work, then at least in someones, but they were too busy dodging conference goers as if we carried the plague. At times, some of them were short with writers, as if how dare we approach them outside the allotted agent one-on-one times. Don't get me wrong. Agents and editors are only doing their jobs, just like anyone else, but if Conference X is any representation of the pool the majority of them come from, then why do they waste their time attending conferences in the first place? Do they receive free lodgings and food that, in the end, I suppose I'm paying for with that $600-$700 conference price tag? I'm not sure, but I don't really see the motivation behind most agents attending conferences, and even less so for editors.

Just out of curiosity, I checked back at the prices for Conference X this year. If you pay day of, at the door for the three and a half days, it's almost $800. Last year, when I attended, it was reported that sixty people paid the premium day-of price. If the same holds true this time around, that's a whopping $48,000 that Conference X is bringing in on just one day. Kind of makes you think, doesn't it? Especially when over 300 aspiring writers attend this specific conference. On top of that, they collect annual membership fees, contest entry fees, class fees, etc. Why, in a world where so many people are scraping together money just to make mortgage payments, and in an industry that considers reading fees to be scams, are these high conference fees allowed?

Here's my advice:

  • If you want to attend a conference, first, do your research. If your work is ready to pitch, and I mean really ready to pitch, then find an agent who will really work for you. If you get stuck with an agent/editor who doesn't even represent your genre (and soooo many conferences do this) then either back out of the conference or insist on who you have in mind. Anymore, I honestly believe the only thing I'm paying for when it comes to a conference is that meeting with an agent or editor. I've heard enough keynote spiels to last me a lifetime. So, you should ask yourself, "Do I really want to pay to meet that agent?"After all, what is the point of one-on-ones since most agents don't take you seriously until they see how you write your query? Some agents will actually say that to you straight up.
  • If your state/community has a good writing organization, join it. The local conferences where I live feature the exact same speakers that speak on a monthly basis at my local writing meetings. There is no reason to pay an almost $200 price tag to listen to someone I've either heard speak or has nothing new to add to what I write. I pay my $60 membership fee and I'm good for the whole year. It's the gift that keeps on giving all year long!
  • Many of these local writing groups offer specialized classes. They can be hit or miss depending on the class, but if you're really struggling with a roadblock in your writing, keep an eye out for one that would be helpful. I did, and it turned out great for the struggles in which I'd found myself.
  • Be careful when it comes to joining a national writing group or one located in a different state. Although enticing, what good will it do you if you can never attend a meeting? If there is a local branch, like with RWA or SCWBI, then by all means, join. But please attend the meetings. Otherwise it's kind of like getting a membership to a big box store. After a while you stop shopping there because who needs twenty pounds of spaghetti? If they don't have what you need, then don't join. If you do, put your membership to good use.
  • Have an active critique group to add to that writing group. I don't think I can stress this one more. No, I don't mean your sister, mother, husband, or attentive dog. You need to have writers, others like you actively writing and querying in the writing world. People who aren't so close to you that all they say is, "Nice story. I like it." Your group should be comfortable with what you write, open to suggestions, and easy to relate to. If you find yourself pulling teeth just to get your work read or to get a point across, then find another one.
  • Know your genre inside and out. Only you know what kind of agent you're looking for. Don't be caught flapping in the breeze when it comes to a one-on-one with an agent or editor.
Here's my question to all of you, dear readers:  Are conferences really worth your time and money? Why or why not?

Mary Mary

P.S. If you're interested in a different view concerning conferences, then be sure to read Sister Lorena's post next week!

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Dreaded and despised: the uses of backstory

The renowned literary agent, Donald Maass, advises to push backstory to the 100th page of a novel. Most writing manuals agree that that no backstory should find its way into a first chapter, otherwise the story would slow down and the reader will be bored. I have to disagree. As a voracious reader, I seldom throw away a novel even if the first chapter is dull, and backstory in an introductory chapter never puts me off my reading. I must be odd, but I need to know a little about the past and family history of the main characters.

Backstory means to interrupt a narrative in the present in order to go into the past. Whether via flashback, recollection or dialogue, backstory explains why a character is in such a place at a particular moment. Some people don´t know how to do it, others like the late Jacqueline Susann were masters in its usage. However, contemporary consensus says that opening chapters should be grounded strictly in the present.

This rule tends to confuse novice writers who bend over backwards in order to avoid the dreaded pitfall. What they don´t understand is that unless you are beginning with the protagonist’s birth (a la David Copperfield) a little backstory will always creep into those first pages. Even a plot-driven novel will require some characterization, and you have to give characters a little background in order to make them appealing.

By the time I finished Twilight’s first chapter, I didn´t know about the vampires, good and evil, about to cross Bella’s path, but I knew I liked her, and that was due to the backstory that explained her relationship with her parents and why she was on her way to Forks.

Stephanie Meyer found the perfect way to artfully interweave the past into present events. As artfully as Margaret Mitchell introduces her heroine to the reader while subtly letting backstory infiltrate into that first paragraph.

"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father”.

We are instantly interested in Scarlett, but we also care to know about these parents. Coming from such diverse backgrounds, what would bring them together? Does that misalliance affect Scarlett´s nature as well as her physical appearance?

In Jo Graham´s Black Ships, Gull does not start her story with her birth, but with her mother´s circumstances, who she was before and after Troy fell. The same happens in Jacqueline Carey´s Kushiel´s Dart, where Phedre goes to great lengths to tell us all about her pedigree, and her family´s lineage. In both cases, the heroines need the reader to understand their past and how it influences their personalities and lives.

Backstory could serve as a mood enhancer, and so even thrillers and adventure authors use it. Take for example Joseph Kanon´s The Good German that opens with the hero, Jake Geismar, in a flight to post-war Berlin. In that first chapter Jake, recalls his experiences during the war, then goes back further in time, reminiscing the days he spent in that city, covering the 1936 Olympics. That small dosage of backstory helps create a perfect setting and atmosphere for the somber tragedy that is about to unfold.

Of course we know better than to spill the beans in page one. Of course, we are conscious of the importance of withholding juicy tidbits till later, but there are ways in which backstory judiciously employed, could intensify the plot. For example, launching a tale with the past and letting it lead you to the present moment. In Across the Nightingale Floor, the first book in Lian Hearn’s series, Tales of the Otori, Takeo describes, in the first two pages, his relationship with his mother and their life in the mountain village of Mino. On page three, he returns from the forest and finds his village destroyed and his family murdered. The previous introduction adds pathos to this scene and helps us bond with Takeo.

It could be done the other way around. Begin with the present and move into the past. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer winning novel, opens with a common lie that Sam Clay uses to explain the existence of his comic-book character, “The Escapist”. Then the story takes us to 1939 to discover The Escapist’s real genesis. It is a powerful strategic device that lures the reader into the story.

Reading fiction is an emotional experience. I agree that plenty of action keeps your adrenaline pumping and too much exposition makes you doze, but caring about characters from page one, wanting to know more about them, and learning about the circumstances that shaped them is a wonderful way to hook a reader, and backstory could just help you do that.
Is backstory an effective device, even before the 100th page? Do you remember examples where it improved the plot?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Interview with Rights Manager Elizabeth Fisher

Have you ever wondered what happens behind closed doors at a Literary Agency? The lovely Elizabeth Fisher from Levine Greenberg Literary Agency has been gracious enough to answer this and other questions for us.

Elizabeth, welcome to the Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood!

Q: How did you start your career in publishing? Is it hard for agents to break in?

A: I came into publishing later than most. After trying my hand at various other things: bookseller, barista, waitress, nomad (to name just a few), I noticed that a lot of my friends were heading to grad school and coming to me to take a look at their entrance essays. It made me wonder if maybe I shouldn’t look into editing—which was the only job in publishing I knew existed at the time. I took an Intro to Publishing course at NYU with an instructor I immediately connected with. She was able to refer me to a literary agency looking for an intern to read unsolicited manuscripts. I couldn’t believe that someone would pay me (well, a stipend at least) for reading! That’s how I first learned about what an agent does and how a literary agency works. From there, I also first encountered subsidiary rights and all the various things that could happen to a book in its lifetime. My first full-time job was in the Subsidiary Rights department of a major publisher. But after a while, I missed the direct contact with authors that I had experienced at the agency and decided to go back to that side of things. I started at Levine Greenberg about six and a half years ago.

Is it hard for agents to break in? Yes and no. The beauty of being an agent is that anyone who has a head for what works and what doesn’t in the marketplace can fairly easily start a list. But building a strong list of clients is easier said than done. It’s hard to find new writers that have the talent and commercial viability to sell into the market. Mining through all the unsolicited manuscripts is a ton of work and very overwhelming. Once you have a few strong clients under your belt, you may start getting recommendations from clients and contacts in the industry or writers may approach you who write in the same vein, for instance. But before you sell a book, it’s hard to get your name out there and to get quality work in.

Q: Please tell us about Levine Greenberg. Is it an editorial agency? Do agents communicate with each other about their writers/query letters?

A: The great thing about LGLA is its collaborative spirit. We’re a mid-size agency now with several young agents in the process of building lists, but we were half the size when I started here. The agency works very hard to guide writers through the entire publishing process—from developing a strong proposal or manuscript for submission to publishers through publication, marketing, publicity and everything that makes up a book’s life. Our agents talk to each other all the time—we have a weekly editorial meeting where we hash out what we call “situations” and offer advice to help each other solve problems that we encounter along the way. We absolutely refer queries and writers to each other since everyone here, while able to work on whatever projects speak to us, also have a personal focus to our lists that reflect individual interests.

Q: What are your responsibilities as a Rights Manager? Are you still dealing directly with writers?

A: As the Rights Manager here, I am responsible for selling any subsidiary rights we might hold for a book: translation, audio, first serial, etc. Film would also fall under subsidiary rights, although agents typically handle film rights themselves or partner with a film agent. I often deal directly with writers to negotiate these deals or to help them coordinate international press, conferences, tours, etc.

Q: Do you also handle Foreign Rights?

A: Yes, most of my responsibilities involve translation rights for titles that we don’t sell those rights to the U.S. publisher. I work in conjunction with a network of agents around the world to help sell our titles into the international market. It’s a lot of coordination- I have to get the information about our books to our co-agents, who then submit to an appropriate list of publishers in their respective territories. We negotiate deals per territory and then help see the book through to publication. I also attend two international book fairs a year (London and Frankfurt) to meet with foreign publishers and agents. I also keep track of when books are published and when foreign licenses expire.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about the process of selling American books to international publishers? What percentage of your writers end up selling their books to other markets? How about Film/TV rights?

A: One of the most interesting things about my job is learning about foreign markets- what works well where and what doesn’t work in some places. For instance, in my experience it’s incredibly difficult to sell American non-fiction into the French market. But I work hard to place our titles internationally and I would say that at least 80% of the books we have rights on sell at least one translation. A handful of titles have sold in over 30 territories!

Selling film rights is a bit trickier and MUCH more rare. I can only think of one title of ours that ever actually made it to the big screen and a handful that were developed into TV shows, specials or documentaries. Often, books can be optioned by studios or production companies and authors can make a little money from the interest, even if the film never gets made. Options can be renewed or studios can opt to purchase the rights down the line. If an author is very, very lucky, there could be a film at the end of it.

Elizabeth Fisher

Q: Have you kept your client list or have you passed it on to another agent?

A: I never had a large client list, but I have passed many of my former clients along to colleagues here or referred them to other agents who I thought might be a good fit for them.

Q: Back when you were an agent, what did you look for in query letters?

A: If an author could write a short, succinct summary of what the book was about and why they think they were the right person to write the book (especially for non-fiction), that’s what would catch my eye. Anything that touched a personal interest is a plus of course. Queries that seemed to indicate that an author did his homework and that he/she was approaching me for a reason would also be a good way to get my attention.

Q: Any tips for writers on how to make their query letters stand out from the crowd?

A: Again, do your homework! Don’t just blanket the industry with your query. Research who would be the best agents for your particular project and work from there. A query from an author that obviously knew who I was, what books I worked on, what my personal interests were, etc. always were a much better fit than a generic letter with dozens of agents in the heading.

Q: As an agent, would you take on a client based on their potential even if you didn’t think their manuscript was ready for publication?

A: Absolutely. Manuscript and proposal development are part of a good agent’s job and authors should want to work with an agent who has a clear vision of how to shape the book.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about the process from reading the query letter to signing a writer, and what the agent/client relationship is like in your agency? Do you meet your writers in person?

A: It’s not always necessary to meet authors in person, although if it’s convenient, it certainly doesn’t hurt. For fiction, it’s really about what’s on the page, what sings to a particular agent, and who they think (editorially) it will appeal to at a publishing house. Non-fiction can be a bit trickier. You need to ask: why is this the best person to write this book? What does the author bring to the table in terms of media? It is, more and more, about the dreaded “p” word: platform. Meeting an author who is going to promote a book can be a big factor and sometimes it’s even in the author’s interest to set up meetings with potential publishers to see how they click as well. It’s important along every step to work with people who have that clear vision for your book.

Q: Please help dispel some myths about agents. Is it true elderly and novice writers have a harder time getting an agent?

A: Neither one was true in my case. Even on my small client list, I had both.

Q: Is it true agents favor clients with platforms and who would be able to do their own marketing and handle their PR?

A: As I touched on above, it certainly makes a non-fiction proposal more appealing to publishers (and therefore agents) if an author has a strong platform with some kind of media hook to help promote the book. More and more, authors are expected to do the bulk of the publicity and marketing of their books and it’s always in the author’s best interest to be willing and able to advocate their work. It can really make a difference in the success of the book.

Q: What is the “in” genre right? What is the industry looking for?

Anything can be appealing if it jumps off the page and takes you somewhere. I used to say I was looking for something that will transport me to another place, another time, or another life when I must stay put.

Thank you, Elizabeth!

For more information about Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, please visit their website:

Sunday, November 28, 2010

250 words.

‘I know it’s not easy to rid yourself of the notion that you need something important to commit to ... but the trick of life is to stop worrying about finding the perfect thing to commit to and commit to something, anything at all.’
--Merle Shain, author and broadcaster, 1935-1989.

Sometimes it’s the willingness to make a small commitment— when a big commitment just isn’t possible— that saves us. The longer you spend getting to know yourself as you wrangle with the empty page, the more you will see that some years are better than others. There are seasons in your life as an artist that are explosive, and the words rush onto the screen from your fingertips in a kind of furious bliss. But those seasons, for most, are the exception and not the rule.

There are other seasons— and sometimes they seem to stretch out in a rather unseasonable fashion— when the fits and starts of a once-reliable engine sputter out before taking hold. Momentum is like a dream from a more innocent time, one in which all you had to contend against was the cadence of dialogue— is it authentic?— or the color of your protagonist’s hair— can you genuinely relate to a redhead or does she have a short, brunette bob with the tips slightly longer toward the front, instead?

After you’ve penned your first novel, you feel you’ve scaled Everest and believe the industry is ready to toast your stamina. Hell, it’s finished. Surely it’s as good as the thousands upon thousands of stories which have already managed to make it into print. After the first revision comes the first submission. You’re shocked when the pass— even a provisional one— comes. So, you revise, again, and resubmit. And another pass comes and perhaps you start to wonder if you should shelve the project for a while. Or maybe you overhaul it.

Whatever the case, you are now in the thick of it— living the dark side of the dream. It’s the side that is often romanticized as being drenched in absinthe and smelling of cigarettes though the truth is far less sexy. Trying to break into the elite circle of publication is hard work, and if you’re really committed to seeing this thing through, you might even begin to hammer out your next manuscript while pitching the first.

And herein lies the rub.

Now you have industry feedback. Now you understand that you have to bear in mind truisms such as writing to where your passion meets the market— God help us. Now, you have tears. True confession: I cry when I query agents. I read essays on crafting the perfect pitch and the salt squeezes out of the corners of my eyes because the last time I wanted something so badly it was driving a hand-me-down Oldsmobile 88 and looking mighty tasty in broken-in jeans. At any rate, tapping out that next yarn after submission, for some, may not flow as easily. Mostly because whatever childlike enthusiasm you brought to the former project has been flattened a bit by its head-on collision with target demographics and branding and acceptable word count. The last panel of agents and editors at the conference claimed all you have to do is write the best novel of which you’re capable and let them handle the packaging. But the truth— you have learned— is that even before you’re signed you have to be both author and marketer, artist and salesman. And what can foster greater distaste for our tribe than to have to think commercial?

Scissoring to the proverbial chase, if you’ve arrived at the place where you’re all starts with no big finish— heck, no happy middle— then the key to mastering the maze, I hazard, is to make a commitment. It doesn’t really matter how you got a bit turned around, the vow to yourself’s the thing. And, ultimately, the promises you make to yourself are the ones on which you build a foundation. Then, a first level, next a spot where the windows go and, eventually, the drapes.

Think of this as my love letter to those of you who, at times, feel a bit small in the face of managing your careers in a seeming void. Being your own boss is both a wing and an albatross. So I say to you, today, do what you can— but do it every day. Whittle away at the slope one spoonful at a time, if a spoon is all you have for the moment. Perhaps, in the long run, it’s not about the glamour of having accomplished something big but the quiet dignity of having never given in— even when all you were capable of was 250 words a day. Until next time, dear reader.


Monday, November 22, 2010

You Can Open Your Eyes, Now: Writing Those Difficult Scenes Outside Your Comfort Zone

Too scared to write that scene?
When I joined my first critique group, I was definitely nervous about having my work read For. The. First. Time. Ever. by anyone outside my family. I had written scenes that were not only uncomfortable for me to write, but ones that made me squirm in my seat thinking that other writers were reading them. What if those scenes made them laugh, when in all actuality they were supposed to be serious? What if I sat down to a table full of weird looks? Or even worse, what if they flat out told me I didn't know what I was doing?

Well, to my utter relief, one of the very first comments I received concerning my writing was that I really knew what I was doing when it came to writing violence. What? Me? How did that happen? Surprisingly enough, quite easily.

I've written a mixture of interesting scenes over the course of my writing. Some of it is quite obvious that it took some courage to soldier on through the tough parts, but others not as much. I'll give you a short list of the harder ones I've written (perhaps you're struggling with a similar one):

  • Violations against women -- This includes anything from rape to spousal abuse and everything else in between. This one is tough, considering I've never been through anything quite this difficult myself, so how could I possibly know what to put on the page? As a woman, I believe, in the very core of who we are, these are some of our deepest fears. Just the thought alone of being abused or raped sends a chill down my spine. If you're looking for a visual, then the film The Accused, starring Jodi Foster, contains a very vivid and heartbreaking scene about a woman being raped. (Caution: This is not for the faint of heart!) Or perhaps more recently with Private Practice's portrayal of the rape of Dr. Charlotte King. I think a good visual helps the writer break down what needs to happen in the scene (and often times see how the victim deals with it), even if it might be hard to watch. If you're going to write it, then you need to make it believable.
  • Race-related violence -- A theme that tends to thread through my novels is violence related, in some part, to race. Since my first novel takes place during slavery, I did intense research concerning slaves and plantation life, particularly whippings/beatings and with what sorts of devices (a very dark road of research to travel, my friends). My second novel deals with the 1920s KKK, so again, I did intense research concerning how the Klan tormented/tortured their victims. Depending on what part of the country they were located, the KKK targeted all different types of races, foreigners, religions, etc. Many people don't realize how active the Klan was throughout the lower forty-eight, but interestingly enough, one of the strongest divisions was the Indiana Klan. A good film for this category would be Rosewood. Very tragic and horrific what went on there. (Caution: Again, not for the faint of heart!)
  • Murder -- Again, something with which I have no experience. These scenes get tough to write and I always do a step-by-step visualization (kind of a murder Paint-by-Numbers). When finished writing one, always ask yourself -- "Does it seem believable?", "Does it make sense to the reader?", "Is everyone where they need to be in the scene?" and "Does it flow well?" If if feels herky-jerky, like you glossed parts of it over or just mish-mashed it together, then take a step back and go through the scene in your mind. For a visual, I would suggest just about any movie or tv show that allows the viewer to see how the crime was played out. The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie, reveals the children's murders through how the young accomplice viewed them.
  • Sex/Love Scenes -- The bane of any non-Romance writer's existence! These, for me anyway, tend to be the toughest of all. I always want some amount of romance, but making it feel real can often times make it feel cheesy to the reader. Unless you're writing a Romance novel, try to avoid as much flowery vocabulary as possible. One thing I try to avoid until it absolutely has to be written into the story is, "I love you". It's so clichéd sounding when it gets used repeatedly in a novel. Every scene is different because every two sets of characters are different. Two teenagers are not going to experience their love the same way as a hardened cop and her murder suspect would. Search out visual representations of your characters together and watch how the actors' scene plays out. Then go from there.
One thing I don't touch upon here (except in making reference to The Changeling) is horrific crimes involving children. I've never had a reason to write one, and quite honestly, I believe that's where I'd draw the line. Although I haven't read it, I've heard that Alice Sebold's, The Lovely Bones, involves rather descriptive scenes of her main protagonist. I haven't been able to bring myself to read it but, well, there you go.

I'm a lot like many of you when it comes to writing my characters into incredibly difficult scenes. I want to do it with one eye closed. In truth, I know I have to face it head-on if this is what I need to put my characters through. Just keep in mind that you can do it and when you've accomplished it, it will be that much easier to write the next one.

Hang in there and you'll
make it through!
How about you? How do you deal with writing those difficult scenes? Is there a process you go through to make it believable and work really well on the page? Or do you avoid them, perhaps gloss them over? Or maybe you just don't write that kind of fiction to begin with?

Mary Mary
♥   ♥   ♥
Feel free to pop over and check out my book reviews at The Random Book Review.

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Everyone have a great Thanksgiving! Treat yourself to some holiday cheer and laughter and go watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the best Thanksgiving movie ever!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Weekday Whisper

An Awesome Rating at The Written Connection!

 An extra helping of love was bestowed upon the Divine Sisterhood this week. Check out our awesome blog rating at Thanks a bunch for the fantastic 10/10 rating! 

We love all of our fans!!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

No novice writer needs to apply: the myths surrounding that first novel

More myths have been created around the publishing of a first novel than about JFK’s murder. The “experts” agree that publishing houses prefer to stay clear off first literary attempts and even if a novice writer gets the longed-for breakthrough, he or she must never expect instant fame, invitations to Oprah or even a decent amount of cash in exchange for the untried manuscript. Is that ominous scenery even close to truth?

Go back in time and remember that first time you went looking for a job. Remember how your eyes scanned the ads and kept meeting those ominous words “experience required”? It seemed like nobody wanted you and yet you did get a job. The same goes for novice writers. Somewhere, somehow, unless their MS are written in Pidgin English, every writer gets his day. Hundreds of new writers emerge every year. And wait! Some make it to that iconic honor roll, The New York Times Bestseller list.

A couple of years ago, I went cross-eyed, reading article after article declaring that first novels, even if published, were just rehearsals into the Real McCoy. And then I heard of Jo Graham. Today, Miss Graham is a well recognized writer who merits her own Wikipedia entry, but back in 2008 she was a newcomer to the business. However, her first novel Black Ships, a retelling of the Aeneid, could be found among Amazon´s bestselling historical fantasies.

I had never seen a picture of Jo Graham, but she became my idol, the person I wanted to be when I grew up. Here was a novice writer who, at the noble age of forty, had published a historical fantasy, and yet was not hiding in some dingy bookstore, boring housewives to death. She was in Amazon‘s list off successful books, and would eventually go to win the Locus Award for First Novel. Jo Graham was a success story incarnated. She had proven all the prophets of doom wrong. Moreover, she had broken a tremendous taboo. She had published excerpts of her novel in the World Wide Web for all her friends to read!

Was it sheer luck or are there more Jo Grahams in the making? Well, the fact that Locus, a well known magazine devoted to Science Fiction and Fantasy grants a yearly award to the best First Novel is a telling sign. If you examine the list of winners you´ll find two of my favorite historical fantasies: Naomi Novick’s Temeraire, and Susannah Clark´s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Temeraire was the first volume of a very successful series, and Ms Clark´s first novel has been sold to Hollywood. Not bad!

There are plenty of literary awards for a first book so not everyone in the industry is unwilling to touch newcomers. And even novels that get no critical accolades can make it big. Let's see, what about an improbable plot that has a shy teenager, living in a tiny village in the Northwest, and falling in love with the most enigmatic boy in school who also happens to be a one hundred yea- old vampire? Yes, Stephanie Mayer was a newbie in the writing craft and yet she scored a home run with Twilight.

The love story of Bella and Edward was not only a first novel but (and it was clear by its open ending) part of a series as well. Don´t they say that first novels that are part of a series are not welcome by agents and publishers? Those who believed in that clause were the twenty publishers (some say they were sixty!) that turned down Susan K. Rowling’s manuscript. They are still kicking themselves for missing the chance to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher´s Stone!

I left the juiciest tidbit for dessert. The Historian was a first novel that came out with such buzz that a couple of publishing houses bid for it believing the novel to be the next Da Vinci Code. Little Brown eventually paid 2 million dollars to the author, Elisabeth Kostova, who even won an award when The Historian was still in progress.

So novice writers have plenty of reason to dream, won´t you agree? And the best example is Rosslyn Elliot, whose interview, may be read in this same blog. Her first novel landed her a three book contract, despite the fact that she delves into a complex and uncommon genre.

Do you know any other first novels that went on to become bestsellers? Do you still think a first novel has fewer chances if it is part of a series or if the author post chapters on the Internet?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Weekday Whisper

The Querying Funk
Like a few of you out there, I tend to get what I call The Querying Funk. Every one of us has a system to the way we query, and I'm not any different. I look at agent websites, peruse the most recent Writer's Market or Jeff Herman's Guide, and hop over to querytracker from time to time. I keep a personal list of all the agents I have queried and a separate one of those I plan on querying (I keep a list of the latter on my computer, so as not to confuse myself). 

After I've queried about four or five agents, I sit back and wait to see what they have to say. My most consistent feedback is that my work is "something special" or "highly marketable", but alas, we have no room for a new author. At this point, I go through my "funk".

We are told to grow a thick skin as budding authors, but that doesn't mean we still don't take a beating. Your self-esteem gets knocked around a bit with all the rejections, and besides, what can you do when they love your work but don't have time or space to take you on? Nothing, I suppose, except to move on to the next agent on your list.

My "funk" lasts about a month and then I start in again. In the meantime, I'm always working on my next project, occasionally entering a contest, and keeping in mind that when the time is right, that door will open. As we speak, I'm emerging from a time of hibernation and setting foot in the querying world once more. I want to get a few sent out before the end of this month because, as one agent told me, agencies tend to get bombarded by queries in December and January for a mixture of reasons (primarily because NaNoWriMo is in November and because people finally have time to get to querying at the end of the year. Go figure!).

How about you? Do you find yourself in The Querying Funk from time to time, or perhaps you just push on through? What kind of process do you go through to keep yourself motivated?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Interview with an Author: Rosslyn Elliott

Have you ever wondered what it's like to have an agent or to be signed by a major publisher? We have author Rosslyn Elliott here today to answer these and other questions!

Rosslyn has recently signed a three-book deal with Thomas Nelson and her first book, Fairer than Morning, will be published in April 2011.

Rosslyn, welcome to the Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood!

1. Could you tell our readers what your novel is about?

Fairer than Morning tells the story of a saddler’s daughter who dreams of marriage to her poetic, educated suitor—until a runaway apprentice shows her that a truly noble man will risk his life to free the oppressed.

My novel is an adventurous, inspirational love story based on the Hanby family who lived in Ohio and worked to free slaves before the Civil War.

2. I know that you recently visited the site where your novel takes place and even the house where one of your characters lived. Could you tell us what that experience was like?

I was really moved by my visit to Westerville, Ohio this September. I lived in Westerville from 2002 to 2006, and my initial visit to the Hanby House museum in 2006 inspired me to write this trilogy.

Before this visit, I had not returned to Westerville in the four years since my family’s relocation to the southwest, and so going back at last was a momentous occasion for me.

Two things really hit home. The first was the gratitude I feel to all those who have preserved the Hanby legacy over the years. Our local history in America stays alive primarily because of the efforts of thousands of volunteers across the country. Were it not for historical societies, many of our historic homes would be long gone. Pam Allen is the director of the Hanby House now, and I’m sure she knows more about the Hanby family than anyone else alive. Bill and Harriet Merriman run the Westerville Historical Society. These leaders and their volunteers are saving our past from oblivion, and I see my mission as a joint effort with theirs. Amateur historians save our physical artifacts and historical records, while novelists breathe life into the stories of our ancestors.

The other major event of my visit was seeing the graves of the real people who appear in my novels. Most of the Hanby family is buried in the Otterbein College cemetery. I’ve lived with this family for four years now, thinking about them and getting inside their heads in order to portray them. My visit to their graves was almost like seeing the resting places of old friends or great-grandparents.

3. How did you find your agent and how long did it take you to find her?

A national writer’s organization (ACFW) sent out word on its email loop that Rachelle Gardner was seeking quality historical romance. I had just finished my first novel, and I sent a query letter to her. She was exactly the kind of agent I thought would be a good match for me. She was able to see past the very rough edges of that novel and detect long-term potential, so she signed me as her client. That first novel garnered some interest, but in the end, it wasn’t contracted. As it made the rounds (a process which takes months in the publishing industry), I was writing my second novel, which would eventually be titled Fairer than Morning. I knew it was much better than my first, and that if I had a chance to be published, this was probably it. This was the best I could do. So I was immensely relieved and delighted when Thomas Nelson offered me a three-book deal beginning with Fairer than Morning.

4. What can writers expect from an agent/writer relationship? How often do you communicate with her?

My communications with Rachelle vary widely depending on what’s going on in the publishing cycle. Right now, for example, my edits are finished and we are waiting for the first book to be typeset. There’s really no reason to communicate with my agent—I just need to keep working on my second novel for the series, which is due in January. The last time we emailed and spoke by phone was about my novel’s cover. When the design came out from the publisher’s art staff, I consulted her to see what she thought. Fortunately, we both thought it was a lovely design that would attract readers.

Different agents have different strengths. Rachelle and her agency, Wordserve Literary, are known to be strong editorially. Rachelle was formerly a top-level freelance fiction editor, so she really knows what she’s doing with narrative. Other agents may have legal backgrounds, or marketing backgrounds. Of course, an agent should be competent in all areas, as Rachelle is, but I think several of her clients would give her credit for helping them get contracts as a result of her excellent editorial advice. In my case, she didn’t give a lot of editorial feedback because the story of my novel naturally lent itself to a strong plot and theme. But I certainly will consider her editorial opinion should she offer one in the future!

5. Once you sign a contract with the publisher, what is expected of you? How often do you communicate with your editor? Is it necessary to meet in person?

Communication with my editor is also on an as-needed basis. This usually means I will exchange emails with my editor an average of once a month. But when we do contact one another, it often is a four-or-five-email conversation, as novels are complex and discussion takes time. We’ve also spoken by phone a few times. I met her in person at a conference recently. I highly, highly recommend that an author meet her editor in person as soon as possible after signing a contract. My dinner with my editor and the Thomas Nelson publishing family was a valuable time to get to know one another and establish fellowship and trust. My editor is wonderful, and I’m not at all surprised that she was the ACFW 2009 Editor of the Year.

6. Writers often wonder what will happen to the title of their novels once a publisher buys them. Can you share with us your experience with your book title?

My debut novel’s working title was The Saddler’s Daughter when it was contracted by Thomas Nelson. I wasn’t wild about that title, but it was the most obvious choice for a novel in this genre. My editor asked me to come up with some new titles for the books in the series. She suggested that they sound like scriptural poetry, given that my writing has lyrical tendencies. I was really excited by this suggestion, and I invented six sets of titles by looking in old hymnbooks for ideas. My editor and my agent each picked the set that included Fairer than Morning, so I had confidence we had found the right titles.

7. Do you have any input on what the book cover will look like?

I gave them a one-page description of several of the main characters, plus some important objects and scenes (sidesaddles, pistols, etc). Other than that, I left it up to them. However, I know other authors who have suggested very specific scenes for their titles and had their suggestions accepted. That can depend on the publisher and their way of operating. But most authors have only a little input on their covers.

8. How has your life changed since you were signed? Or has it not?

Not too much. I suppose I receive a little more understanding from casual friends, now that I have a contract. They realize that a published writer needs to spend time writing, and so I don’t get funny looks if I say I can’t do something because I’m on deadline. But I had to take myself seriously as a writer before I had a contract in order to work hard enough to get that contract. So I encourage all pre-published writers out there not to be discouraged by those who don’t take your writing seriously. You have to treat it as a real job if you want it to become a real job. :)

9. Are there any tips you can give other writers on how to become published?

First, study the craft and write good fiction. I was signed by an agent in mid-2008, but I didn’t get a contract until eighteen months later, after I had written the best novel I was capable of writing.

I also recommend looking for agents who are just entering the business, as long as they are well-qualified. One good move is signing with a new agent at an established agency. They will be hungry for good work and not overloaded with clients.

10. Do you think Inspirational Fiction is a promising market (more so than the secular market)?

I think inspirational fiction is flourishing, but I also have a friend who just signed a contract for middle-grade fiction in the secular market. So it all depends on the quality and marketability of an individual writer’s work. The inspirational market is smaller, which means it’s easier for a new author to make connections, but also that there are fewer ‘slots’ for debut authors. Also, my genre is hot right now in the inspirational market. For those trying to publish inspirational sci-fi or fantasy, the going is much tougher. Even contemporary romance is less popular than historical romance in the inspirational market. But as any publishing insider will tell you, these genres cycle in and out, and what’s hot today may be out tomorrow, whether you’re in the inspirational or the secular market.

11. Have you ever considered writing for the secular market?

Not yet. Because I love historicals, and because I’ve been Christian for ten years (though I spent my young adulthood as an agnostic), the inspirational market was a natural fit for me. I knew that clean, thoughtful historical romance would be an easier sell in the inspirational marketplace. I don’t preach to readers, but my historical characters were sincere Christians and that informs the way I characterize them in my novel. That worldview plus the fact that I do not have any interest in writing explicit sex scenes would make my work uninteresting to some types of secular publishers. The fact is, inspirational publishing exists not because Christian authors want to segregate their books onto a different shelf, but because so many mainstream publishers won’t publish novels featuring a positive Christian protagonist who thinks about faith in her everyday life.

Someday, I might like to write some crossover historical novels for a wider audience, but right now I have my hands full with a looming deadline and parenting! :) Thanks so much for having me on your blog.

Thank you, Rosslyn, and best of luck with your new book!

Rosslyn Elliott

For more information about Rosslyn, please visit her website:

(Don't forget to stop by her popular blog:

Sunday, October 31, 2010


[sim-buh-liz-uh m]
1. the practice of representing things by symbols, or of investing things with a symbolic meaning or character.
2. a set or system of symbols.
3. symbolic meaning or character.
4. the principles and practice of symbolists in art or literature.

The use of symbols in fiction is closely related to the development of theme in a narrative. When a writer sets out to pen the story of all sorts of interesting people pitted against escalatating conflict— and if you’ve read any manuals on how to grab a reader by the shirt collar and not let go, you know it’s of some importance to give your characters a fair amount of hell— she is keenly aware of two things. One, the story has got to be good. It’s gotta have meat. It’s gotta make readers cry, feel, laugh, deem the experience worthy of turning the page to see how it all pans out in the end. But, lo, there is two.

What does the story mean?

In life, and therefore in art, the human mind craves meaning. At the very least, it does when forking over hard-earned cash for upmarket commerical art. Readers pay to come away from completely voluntary participation in something which is not vital— and the appreciation of any art form, including literature, is not as vital to survival as say, food, oxygen, affection and coffee— with some sense that the experience was worth the trip, that it promoted fresh insight. Sometimes it’s as powerful as a full-on paradigm shift. Other times, it’s a lingering sense that something subtle, but nevertheless real, has changed within as a result of having engaged the text with not only the mind but the heart. One of the ways in which a writer accomplishes this strange magic is through the use of symbols— but herein lies the rub.

The introduction of a persistent symbology in any text must be subtle. I would be unhappy to stand corrected on this as I like to believe that readers don’t enjoy having theme crammed down their throats. Much as in the art of seduction, there must be a sort of waltz with the reader which can be spoiled— sometimes sadly beyond redemption— with coming on too strong. All of the masters have grappled with this. So we apprentices must, too. Having said that, it has been my experience that something ineffable happens through the process of simply putting the pen to page.

Have you ever broken ground on a story only to realize a hundred pages in that you have begun to cultivate theme through the use of a particular set of symbols without even realizing it? The bane comes when you recognize what is happening and then proceed to crush the fragile life out of the thing by deliberately trying to develop it. You go back and think to yourself, ‘hey, this part here is a perfect place for me to expound on this concept which has already insinuated itself so seamlessly later in the text.’

Might I make a suggestion?

Don’t do it. Don’t go back, once you recognize motif emerging organically in part by the use of symbols, and try to pepper the text with more. For the love of Wollstonecraft, Hawthorne and Fitzgerald— please— resist the urge to try. Just. Write. Write your story, from the most genuine place within you, and see if meaning doesn’t alight like a skittish elf owl on the cactus of your imagination.

In asking which came first, the execution or the idea, I propose the inquiry is not ‘one for the ages’ but rather a matter of watching something take shape beneath your nimble fingertips as you tap into the night, convinced that your own existence will be imbued with meaning if only you can flesh out that minor masterpiece and, hence, secure representation.

It’ll happen, scribe. Just dance. Until next time, dear reader.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Don't Get Bogged Down: Keeping on Course When It Comes to Historical Research

Too much research?
I've always had this fascination with history. I kid you not when I tell you this, but when I was in junior high school I was adamant about naming my firstborn child Cholera (only pronounced differently, which gave it a musical lyricism) because of the copious amounts of Oregon Trail I played on the computer (there are a couple of you out there who know what I'm talking about ☺). Of course, now, I never would name my child such a thing, but from an early age I was hopelessly stuck in an alternate past filled with Southern belles, gorgeous plantation homes, and handsome army men with their shiny brass buttons. It didn't help matters much that I became obsessed with John Jakes' North and South mini-series that came out in the late eighties and early nineties. I guess it came as no surprise that, when many years later, I started writing Historical Fiction.

It's interesting the reaction you get from other writers when you tell them what genre you write. So many times, their faces light up and they always say something along the lines of, "How fascinating!" or "I've always wanted to do that, but I just don't think I'd be any good at it. There's too much work involved." The simple truth is that anybody can take up writing Historical Fiction, you just have to be patient and take it one step at a time.

Some writers say that you should research as you write, so you're not wasting needless hours pouring over other manuscripts when you should be writing your own. I agree, but I also think that history is a little bit trickier than that. To even begin writing in a time period from long ago, you need to do some groundwork first. Just throwing a story on the page and being ignorant of the history behind it makes for a long road of revisions in the months/years to follow. When it comes to jumping into the world of researching history there are a few things you need to keep in mind:

1) Have a definite time period. Don't say to yourself, "I want to write a story about the American Civil War." Do you realize how involved the history of the American Civil War really is? That's way too much area to cover, unless you have a magnificent idea in mind and you are a genius writer (aren't we all?). You must be specific about where your characters will be and when. Otherwise, you'll find yourself researching needless information, frustrating you to tears, thus causing you to stop before you've even started. Ex: In my three novels, the first takes place between the years 1850-1851. I chose these years because the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted in the States in 1850. In my second novel, I chose the years 1929-1930, because of the Stock Market Crash. My third takes place at Los Alamos during the last two years they were building the first nuclear bomb. The key here is to not extend your research beyond what you'll actually need or use.

2) Choose a real incident or events around which to center your story. Ex: Book #1 -- the Fugitive Slave Law and the Christiana Incident. Book #2 -- the Stock Market Crash and the Ku Klux Klan movement. Book #3 -- the building of the atomic bomb.

3) Don't litter your story with too many historical events. This creates non-fiction with little storyline   worth following. Put your characters into the events, but don't make history the centerpiece of your novel. Your main protagonists must shine no matter what time period you dump them in.

4) Check and double check the historical information you've written into your story. Of course, it's fiction, but that doesn't mean that some music buff out there isn't going to notice that you used a jazz song that wasn't written until after 1929. You want to make sure you have all your facts straight.

5) Visit your setting, if you can. This one's optional, and the reason I say this is because early nineteenth century Virginia looks nothing like it does today. With some places, it's virtually impossible to recreate the historical setting in your mind, especially if it's nothing but congested interstates and sprawling cities. But, if your story takes place in a place where things haven't evolved much beyond what they looked like at the time (Ex: The Trinity Site in New Mexico where they detonated the bomb. Visitors are allowed only twice a year and they've kept the site as well-preserved as they possibly can. Very fascinating to see! On the flip side, almost none of the original buildings from the 1940s remain in Los Alamos today.) then by all means go check it out and get a feel for your character's movements in everyday life. If it's impossible to visit the original then look for something similar. It's just a good idea to be able to visualize where your story will take place.

6) And last but not least, read in your genre. This is the best way to see what's out there and to see who's publishing works similar to your own. If a time period (American Civil War, anyone?) seems completely flooded with novels, it might be best to look at another period and set your characters there. Just food for thought!
Thin it out a little!

As long as you keep writing while you're researching then you should come out all right. Just don't let your story wander away from you, or your characters for that matter. Keep plugging away at it!

Just a quick shout out the the following blog -- Rach Writes. Click on the link and read about the Writers' Platform-Building Crusade she's launched. Hey to all you Crusaders out there!!

Feel free to check out my book reviews at