Monday, February 28, 2011

Interview with Editor Nick Harrison

I'm delighted to have Mr. Nick Harrison in our blog here today. Mr. Harrison is an editor at Harvest House Publishers and also a published author.

Welcome Mr. Harrison to the Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood!

Q: How you did you get your break in publishing?

A: I’ve always wanted to write. In college I majored in English and minored in Journalism. I eventually went into bookselling and during slow times, wrote articles. When I grew too fast, I lost my bookstores and had to start over. Amazingly, I got my first contract for a book easily. The second followed. Subsequent contracts have been harder to get.

Q: Please tell us about Harvest House Publishers. What are your responsibilities there?

A: I’m one of five senior editors at Harvest House—a mid-sized Christian publisher. I acquire new books and edit those assigned to me. Our website is at

Q: What genres do you acquire?

A: Both fiction and non-fiction. In fiction, historical romance is hot right now. Contemporary fiction is pretty slow for us. We tried fantasy and that didn’t work for us, I’m sorry to say.

Q: Is there anything in particular you are looking for at the moment?

A: I’d like to see some fiction with quilting as a backdrop. Fiction that has warm and fuzzies associated with it.

Q: What are your top three authors of all time?

A: Barbara Pym, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather.

Q: What are your top three books?

A: A Glass of Blessings by Pym, Winesburg, Ohio by Anderson, and probably My Antonia by Cather.

Q: Do you accept unagented writers’ submissions?

A: Yes, but it’s best to meet us at a writer’s conference for that to happen.

Q: What is the average time it takes you to respond to a submission?

A: A month.

Q: What percentage of the submissions that you receive do you end up buying?

A: One percent, perhaps.

Q: What is the most common mistake you find in manuscripts? What kinds of problems are deal-breakers for you?

A: Poor writing and submitting to the wrong publisher are the two biggest mistakes. Authors who perceive as being unteachable would be deal-breakers.

Q: Have you ever acquired a book from someone you met at a conference?

A: Oh yes, several times.

Q: Please tell us what the day in the life of an editor is like.

A: Most of my time is spent editing manuscripts assigned to me. The rest of the time is reviewing manuscripts and book proposals.

Q: Could you take us through the process of acquiring a book? How many people are involved in the final decision?

A: Really only five. These five people are on the publisher’s committee and they make the ultimate decision as whether or not to publish a book. I don’t have a vote. The five are the president of the company, the head of sales, the head of marketing, the head of editorial, and our acquisitions director.

Q: How much weight does the personal taste of an editor have in the decision of acquiring a book?

A: Very little. What matters is if the book will match the personal tastes of our readers.

Q: How much marketing/self promotion does Harvest House expect from a writer aside from internet interviews/blogs?

A: When the book is new (front list), it gets some attention from our marketing department. But the following season, it’s backlist and the burden falls to the author, although we still do what we can in booking radio or TV appearances.

Q: Is it true that it is now harder for new writers to sell fiction? In your experience, do authors more often than not exceed their advances with debut novels?

A: I don’t think that’s necessarily true. If a new writer is a good writer, their fiction should sell to a publisher and then to the public. That’s provided they have the right publisher. Some good fiction doesn’t sell because the publisher isn’t able to reach the readers for that book. Publishers are distinctive in that way. They don’t all have the same readership.

Q: I understand you write a lot of non-fiction. Have you ever written or considered writing fiction? If so, what genre appeals to you?

A: Oh yes. I wrote two historical novels years ago. I may try again. My problem is that I come home from working on other people’s manuscripts and the last I want to do is sit in front a computer working on yet another one….even though it’s mine.

Q: As a writer, it must be handy to also be a professional editor, but how much does your inner critic prevent you from letting your creative side loose?

A: I try not to listen to my inner critic during the first draft. After the thing is down on paper, then I turn him loose.

Q: Finally, what advice do you give new writers on how to get published? Do you think nowadays it is indispensable for a writer to have an agent?

A: It’s not indispensable, but increasingly important. My advice is always have project underway, attend conferences, read the writing magazines, know the market, and persist.

Thank you, Mr. Harrison!

For more information and advice from Nick Harrison, please visit his blog:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Captain of Her Heart.

I own Splash on VHS. I’ve only owned two cell phones and both were gifts— as of this writing, I am not textually active. Place the latest gadget in the palm of my hand and I am worse than all thumbs. In the breakneck currents of ceaseless data streams, I am definitely the small— somewhat turned-around— fish in a big, big pond.

Having said that, working on art has always been a solitary endeavour, and one in which the burden of consummation lies not on the school but squarely on the artist. So because that burden, prior to the signing of contracts, must be shouldered largely by sheer perseverance, it is good to periodically take inventory of that which is helping and that which is hindering the journey.

I recently read a bit of advice for aspiring authors: if you’re going to blog, you are well-advised to commit to updating at least twice a week. If all you can give is a single post in a month’s time, it’s better not to do it, at all. This counsel— from a respected, well-read source— caused me to shake in my Danskos for a day or two. You see, in order for me personally to post something about which I can feel good leaving ‘out there,’ a bit of a time lapse has to go into effect. Call me old-fashioned— and you wouldn’t be the first— but it seems to me that if one is going to borrow the attention and imagination of a reader, it might not be a bad idea to let one’s words sit for a bit before offering them. But before I go a word further in this post, I’d like to steal a moment to express my gratitude, dear reader, for the time and attention with which you have graced my ramblings in this forum, as it has been my honor and pleasure to write alongside three talented and respected authors these last six months.

Still, it must be said that sometimes a little voice inside may be angling for a period of withdrawal from the ‘manyness’ of available opportunities. Everyone knows too many cooks spoil the brew, it’s sometimes hard to hear your part in a chorus and that vessels must be allowed to dock after a particularly debilitating voyage. Sometimes, a season of going-inside is what is called for in order to guard the spring from which your stories issue.

Which brings me to the question: How does an author know when her work is ready for submission? As our society— in privileged and developed nations, at any rate— grows increasingly out of touch with hard-and-fast realities rooted in ordinary time, how does the novelist— at one time the leader in escapism— adapt to a culture in which her scribblings are now arguably more fantail than bow? A novel takes time to sit and read. It is not like a television program which can be consumed in twenty-two minutes. A novel takes time to process. How is it, then, that some novelists feel inadequate when allowing themselves to take time to ensure they’ve got it right?

S. E. Hinton reportedly experienced writer’s block for three years after completing The Outsiders. It is rumored that Tolkien took twenty years to execute his masterpiece. Twenty years. One has to imagine that the man who began the journey is not the one who completed it. How different are you from the writer you were twenty years ago? Three years ago? I bring this up not because it is in any way prudent to suggest that most novelists can indulge the luxury of that kind of time but rather to bring attention to the fact that, in penning a novel, there are always two narratives— that of the protagonist and that of the author. As writers are humans, it is a fact that while their characters inhabit an abstract space, they themselves move about on a more absolute plane. Hence, they age— methodically and without reprieve. Many feel a bit knock-kneed about this reality— maybe in part because the manifest effects include hearts that have grown a little weary.

But isn’t that, in itself, a stimulating thought? Yes, a heart that has been pumping for decades means increased fatigue but it also means that it has had time to develop second sight. It has memories that act as modifiers— exerting their perspective on faulty, unusable paradigms. It has pliability and compassion. It has substance— and such which cannot be attained by any other way save through the passing of time. Perhaps what is true of the human heart is also true of the words which proceed from it?

As for myself, I’m currently bumbling about a bit in my efforts to navigate by fixed point. And my wish for each of you is that— if you’re searching for it— you find your true north and, more importantly, the steadiness with which to steer by it.

Keep it real, fellow skippers.

Ever your,
-Aurora Falsestart.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Great Prologue Debate

There are two schools of thought circulating in the writing world concerning prologues. Why, you may ask? Because for some reason, someone out there thought a heated debate should arise about whether this element is worthwhile when it comes to an author's novel. That reasoning is entirely up to you, the writer.

To start out, I ventured into the deep, dark world of 'Prologue vs. No Prologue' and I took a look around the Internet world to see what people are saying concerning the use of a prologue.

Wikipedia gives a good description of a prologue:
A prologue . . . is an opening to a story that establishes the setting and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one, and other miscellaneous information. The Greek prologos included the modern meaning of prologue, but was of wider significance, embracing any kind of preface, like the Latin praefatio. In a book, the prologue is a part of the front matter which is in the voice of one of the book's characters rather than in that of the author.
Okay. Nice and to the point.

On Yahoo! Answers I found the following advice:
  • If it's over three pages, then people won't bother reading it.
  • It's okay if it's short -- anywhere from one paragraph to five pages.
  • Prologues aren't necessary; they should be included as backstory in the first chapter.
  • There's no point if it's too short.
  • Have a little "exposition" moment in the story instead.
  • Have a flashback instead.
As you can see, the information and advice is rather varied, so let's try somewhere else.

According to, a prologue can be like "playing with guns," meaning you have to be very careful about how you approach yours. If you start it off all wrong, then you'll end up sending your readers down the wrong path.

And one last site. According to Writing Forums, here's some answers pertaining to prologues:

  • It is a prologue if it is distinct from the rest of the story.
  • It either has different characters, is set in a different time, or both.
  • You can name your prologue.
  • A book is best explained without some massive backstory at the very beginning.
  • A prologue is a crutch, especially for first time authors.
  • "Experts" say prologues detract from the story.
  • Do what is best for your book.
What to do?
Are you confused, yet? Probably, but that's okay. Personally, I'd go with that final answer. Do what is best for your book. Sure, a prologue can be a tricky element to work with, but when you use it correctly, the whole object is for it to enhance the storyline in some way, shape or form.

If you want to add a prologue to your novel, here's a few things to keep in mind: 1) It should take place during a period far removed from the time your full novel is taking place. For instance, perhaps an important scene takes place in your MC's childhood that will spark a chain of events later on in your MC's life. 2) Write it in a different voice than what the reader will find in the majority of your novel, i.e. first person POV if the rest of your novel is in third person, a character whose voice never appears anywhere else in the novel, or an omniscient POV. 3) Agents will not crucify you and send you off to the writing trenches just because you've written a prologue at the beginning of your novel. The whole 'agents-hate-prologues' myth has received more attention than it deserves. If you've written a clean manuscript with a good plot and story, then an agent isn't going to care too much about that prologue by the time he/she gets to the end of your story. They might actually appreciate your work more for adding it.

I did find some good pointers by Marg McAlister on Foremost

Before you make a final decision about whether to write a prologue for you book, do this.
Spend some time at the library (or at your bookshelves at home, if they are extensive). Pluck books from the shelves, looking for prologues. Read through at least a dozen. More if you can. The time will be well spent.
Which prologues worked well? Which pulled you into the story? Which cleverly outlined the backstory, getting it out of the way before the story started?
Which dragged? Which didn't need to be there at all? Which were weighed down by the load of the information they had to carry, and bored you? How could they be fixed?
Analysis of published work is an excellent way of deciding what works and what doesn't.

Whatever you decide, if you do choose to use a prologue, use that prologue wisely!

Perhaps you've found yourself struggling with the great prologue debate. Do you avoid the use of prologues at all costs, or do you have a fondness for them, so much so, that one always winds up at the beginning of your current WIP?

Mary Mary

Join me next month for my interview with writer/translator Tiina Nunnally!

Stop by The Random Book Review and see what book I'm discussing this week!

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Happy Valentine's Day!

Go have yourself some chocolate!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Write What You Know, Know What You Write: Does It Apply to Settings?

“Write what you know” sounds redundant. Obviously, people will write about their experiences, their world and what is familiar to them. Otherwise, the writer is expected to do some serious research. It is assumed that, unless an author is setting his novel in his hometown, he/she will travel to the cities described in his/her book. But is that so necessary in fictional works?

Certain genres seldom benefit from autobiographical experience, and require more research than others (i.e. historical novels). In Fantasy and Science Fiction imagination is much more important than empirical knowledge. There is no way that J.K. Rowling ever visited Hogwarts or that Tolkien travelled to the Middle Earth.

Visiting Pompey might give you a feeling of what the natural setting was back then, but it won´t tell you how Ancient Romans lived and thought in the days before Vesuvius erupted. Visiting modern New Orleans won´t tell you how it was in the Antebellum. When I returned to my hometown, of Viña del Mar, twenty-three years after I had left for the States, I found most buildings and familiar places gone or changed. Discussing the feeling with my father, he told me that the town that I had known was twice as different from Viña in his childhood. Therefore, when I began writing a novel about Viña in the Forties, I relied much more in old books and my Dad’s memories than on the landscape I could glimpse from my window.

Everybody knows that Margaret Mitchell was a proud daughter of the South. Born and raised In Georgia, she grew up hearing family stories about the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. She did ample historical research as well, and yet historians are baffled, because Clayton County where she places Tara, the O’Hara’s home, used to be a farmhouse area. In the mid XIX century it was inhabited by small planters, and what they called “plantations” were rural backwoods homes. No Neoclassical palaces or landed aristocracy around. However, Peggy pits the scenery with large buildings standing on Greek columns, surrounded by vast cotton fields. This is a case of literary geographical license that none of us, GWTW lovers, mind.

Dan Brown’s critics have found many geographical mistakes in The Da Vinci Code. Is it another case of geographical license or Brown just forgot tiny details of Parisian streets? To be quite honest, I feel that nowadays, you don’t need to travel to a place in order to create a location. Thanks to YouTube videos, and tourist albums all over the Internet, you can get a feeling of topography place that sometimes a trip won´t give you. Moreover, if you are dealing with historical geography, a trip to the modern equivalent of your location could actually hinder you.

In my last novel, my alter ego Violante travels from Andalusia to Portugal. The natural barrier, in that region, is the Guadiana River. Nowadays, a bridge lets you do the crossing, but since my novel takes place in the early 30’s, I had to do a bit of study. It turned out that previous to the bridge’s construction, there was a ferry service. Excellent! Not so fast. Further exploration told me that ferrying people across the Guadiana was a post Spanish Civil War phenomenon. In the early Thirties, travelers had to rely on local boats and rafts to get to the other side.

And that brings us to one of my favorite writers, Jules Verne, better known as the “Father of Science Fiction.” This XIX century Frenchman managed, in pre computer days, to draft a novel per year, ending up with a list that included worldwide bestsellers and beloved classics such as Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.

Verne combined adventure stories with scientific elements, some uncannily prophetic. But the most remarkable touch of Verne´s fiction was that although he set his novels in exotic countries, from the Amazonian jungle to China, he never traveled outside Europe. He did research through magazines, newspapers and his well-provided library. So far, nobody has disputed his geographical accuracy.

Recently we had a similar case with the award-winning The Tenderness of Wolves. Stef Penney sets her debut novel, a historical thriller, in the XIX century Canadian wilderness. The odd part was that Ms. Penney, an agoraphobia sufferer, had never been to Canada.

In this day of reality shows, we are obsessed with a sort of “realism” that implies, when it comes to writing, to rely strictly on personal experience. That is fine but does it leave room for imagination? What do you think?