Sunday, December 30, 2012

Taking a Break...Oh! And Happy New Year!

As I sit here, sipping a glass of wine, I can't help but think about the year that we are just about to leave behind us. Here at the Sisterhood, we've witnessed some fantastic moments (Sister Lorena signed with an agent this year! Woohoo!), experienced some sad times (Sister Violante/Malena is leaving us for bigger and better things ☹), and we were surprised by how talented we all truly are (We placed first in a statewide press contest! Don't worry, we're going to fight for our first place spot in this upcoming year!). But what we've enjoyed most is sharing our writing journeys with all of you and being able to have a forum where we can speak what's on our hearts.

Having said that, this year has also been a long and arduous one for each Sister. Through much deliberation, we've decided we could all use a break (like I'm sure many of you feel when it comes to writing, as well). So, we'll be taking off the month of January, perhaps a little more depending on how we all feel. But don't worry! We'll be back, refreshed and ready to hit the ground running with a little more balance and perhaps a fresh new voice added to the Sisterhood.

We'll be thinking about all of you, hoping that each and every one of you has a blessed, healthy, happy, and successful coming new year!

To all our devoted followers and occasional looky-loos:


Sunday, December 16, 2012

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedershen, Goodbye:Violante Departs with One Last Word on Blogging

It is with a heavy heart that I bid goodbye to the Sisterhood, this blog and my anonymous audience. After two terrific years, the time has come to leave. Due to circumstances beyond my control, it will be impossible for me to continue contributing monthly posts.  So, I must cease being a blogger, which by no means stops me from being an avid follower, reader and commentator.

Looking back with affection, I realize that belonging to the Writing Sisterhood has been an über experience, one that has taught me plenty and not only about writing and writers. It has taught me about blogging and what to expect from it. I am tired of hearing that the Blog Age is over, that only video blogs have any hope in the age of Tumblr. Hey, I once heard Facebook would die with the advent of Twitter, and that blogs would kill forum life forever. Time has proved wrong all those prophecies.

Undoubtedly, there are more blogs than readers out there, but blogging is still a fairly respectable activity, as long as you abide by certain rules. First rule:  never blog about “everything.” The days of blogs that covered every subject under the sun are passé. A blog must always stick to a particular topic, but don´t make it too general or too specific.

My blog Latinas Del Ayer was meant to cover a myriad of issues concerning how women lived in Latin America in the first half of the Twentieth century.  The amalgam of subjects, ranging from fashion to entertainment, turned out to be too broad.  It confused the readers and I never got faithful devotees.

Around that same time, I began to compose another blog, this time I devoted the place to Fantasy Fiction.  Although the posts covered film, books and television series, I soon recognized that “thronies” and “fangbangers” were my audience. I began to pen weekly recaps of “Game of Thrones” and “True Blood.” Even after the seasons were over, I continued increasing my clientele by devoting 80% of my material to A Song of Ice and Fire matters. Since there are several” Game of Thrones” blogs around, I didn’t want to turn mine into a GOT site. My solution was to alternate the ASOIAF entries with posts on fictional vampires, witches and, that ever lasting favorite, Harry Potter.

As a blogger, your most important concern should always be your audience: who do you write for? What do they need? Thanks to Google search terms you may attract tons of visitors, but what matters is to entice them to become permanent guests. I absolutely agree that in order to gather a large following, the blogger has to visit and participate in similar blogs. It´s how I built a nice set of devotees in my first blog, but for some reason it didn’t work with my Fantasy Blog. Either some bloggers were not aware of the “reciprocal visiting card” rule or were not into creating a community.

There are many misconceptions and Murphy´s laws about how to blog properly, but one point that everyone agrees upon is that a blog is nothing without constant visitors. Apparently, there are three steps to achieve traffic and followers:  post often, post brief and post new.  Hogwash!

Sure, tons of people visit blogs every morning to watch the hottest video. In our audiovisual-oriented, semi-illiterate, attention-deficit afflicted culture, videos are fantastic. They demand less time, less intelligence and less attention to enjoy them. However, if a hundred blogs (plus YouTube) are showing the same video, who could want to visit them to watch the identical thing over and over again? It just doesn’t make sense.

This problem applies to written news as well. With so many places devoted to newscast activity, it´s a waste of time to wander from blog to blog reading similar accounts. Back in the early Twentieth-First Century, blogging revolutionized journalism, because blogs added editorial comments to every scoop. Soon users flocked to blogs just to share or challenge the blogger’s opinions. This is what made blogs so popular and so exceptional. Alas! That art seems to have lost its way in the days of up-to-the-minute, condensed, and frequently blogging.

Joining the race to get the “latest” bit in your blog seems like a futile exercise.  I am not an advocate of the “new” especially if your blog is, like mine, a place in search of “unique.” That is a term used in my last job to refer to regular customers who commented regularly on whatever you posted. Those people are rare, precious and difficult to fish. From experience and observation, I can assure you, they don’t care for “the latest.” They crave inventive opinions, a good blogging voice, and shared tastes rather than flashy and bizarre posts. They don´t mind reading a page or more when the content and writing are of quality.

When it comes to length, I have to declare myself guilty. I do tend to get carried away, but I also like to read meaty and comprehensive posts. Although I´m trying to condense my articles, I have come to the conclusion that half-a page posts, regardless of its subject matter, are useless.  An effective piece should take you a page and a half to express it, but unless the topic merits a longer exposition, keep it under the four-page limit.

Regular posts are also an issue. Although, the consensus among the Sisters is that we are extremely proud of our blog and its achievements, I think that if time had let us, we could have posted more often. However, work, family obligations, and the fact that some of us are joggling personal blogs as well as this one, prevented us from bringing more frequent contributions.

Nevertheless, beware of the word “frequent." Three juicy weekly posts are more than enough. Daily long entries will exhaust your creativity and drown readers with too much data, thus diminishing your chances of getting useful sensible comments and encouraging the desired debate.

My last advice has to do with “unique voice,” a rather abstract concept that keeps coming to my mind when I ran into a blog so welcoming that makes me want to tarry. I believe that each of this Divine Blog’s founding Sisters owns a personal voice (opinion, writing style, etc), and that is our greatest asset. But if you are running a one wo/man blog then you’ll have to find your own way of making it an outstanding place. 

Talented bloggers may enhance their place with their own visuals whether is artwork, personal photographs or home-made videos, and then there are those that are constantly coming up with contests and games.
What happens if you are not artistically gifted or lack the imagination to create contests?  Then you have to rely on subtler ways of making your blog unique. Look around at similar blogs.  What are they lacking? What it’s missing from them that could attract customers? What demographic group they are not targeting? Fliling a gap can make your blog stand out among others that address analogous subjects.

One last word before leaving this fabulous spot.  If I learned something from the company of my Sisters, it’s the importance of courtesy and hospitability in running a blog. I was terribly moved when a dear friend and former boss described the Sisterhood as “a cozy, warm place where ladies could drop for tea.” So I strongly advise those who read me to continue enjoying the welcoming atmosphere of this blog and to recreate it when building a space of your own. G-d bless you all!

Do you blog? Share your experience and tips on how to make a blog a special place.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Interpreting Those Query Rejections

Now, I know the topic I'm planning on discussing today is not exactly everyone's favorite. I mean, who likes rejection?

*crickets chirp while a roomful of aspiring authors glare at me*

That's right! Nobody.

But here's the thing -- if you're serious about ever getting published one day, and not just simply through DIY e-publishing, then you need to know how to expect, handle, and accept rejection. Believe me, there's a learning curve AND it takes a tough skin along with a dash of perseverance to see this thing through.

Some writers don't even like the term "rejection." They choose to call it something else, most referring to it as "a pass" on the work that was submitted. But deep down, a pass is going to hurt just as much as a rejection, no matter what you decide to call it. Simply put, if an agent or editor outright says no, then it stings!

Okay, what I wanted to do was break down some of what agents request according to their websites, how they respond to the queries, and just how, as the writer, you're supposed to interpret what those agents are saying. Are you the only one being told what's in that email? Are others like you receiving the same "form"? Were these agents worth your time in querying? Things of this nature.

I'm going to discuss the one thing most of us don't like to discuss -- my personal rejection letters. It's become that enormous elephant in the room. Yes, we all get them. For some reason, we're not supposed to mention them, but how can we help others avoid our pitfalls and mistakes if we don't share that very first step?

I'll start by pulling off the most painful band-aid of all:


*Gulp!* I think this is one of the hardest things for aspiring authors to swallow, smile, and then press forward after receiving. We've heard so many times that if an agent requests a full then that means he/she really connected to our story in the query. Well, let me be the one to dash those hopes. Yes, the agent connected to something, perhaps the time period, the fact that the story is written from a certain protagonist's POV, the unique concept, or even your writing style. But this foot in the door is not a guarantee. I have swallowed the bitter pill of full rejections, and let me tell you, it's hard to chase down with only water. Sometimes it helps to have a glass of wine on hand.

On the other hand, the beauty of a full rejection is that the agent usually points out why he/she passed on representation. Sometimes their explanations make sense, at other times, not so much. Here is a sampling of mine*:
"I'm afraid we still felt the pacing of this novel is too slow for our tastes. We're going to pass again, but we thank you for giving us a chance." (With this rejection, I had previously submitted another novel, but the agent passed on that one as well. What both rejections boiled down to was pacing. Other than that, I received very little feedback.)
"I'm afraid this particular project isn't quite right for me but I'd be happy to consider more of your work in the future." (Of course I sent this agent my next novel! I have yet to hear back on that one. Again, very little feedback on this one, which only led me to believe it was a matter of taste.)
"If you haven't placed your novel by the end of the year, I would be happy to consider your other novel." (This was a very encouraging rejection. Although this agent pointed out an issue with the main POV character in my manuscript, I received very little feedback. But, uh yeah, I'm going to query this one again!)
"I loved the premise for this novel, and period detail is quite wonderful. But I'm sorry to say that I just wasn't as drawn to the main character as I had hoped, and ultimately this prevented me from falling in love with the story." (Understandable. At this point with this novel, I knew I needed to do a little work on my MC.)
"While I found the premise compelling and think your writing is absolutely lovely, I am sorry to say that I did not feel much connection to the main character. Her unfortunate circumstances are certainly sympathy inducing; however, I felt that she was a little too cold and it takes quite a while for her to start to warm up and become a character that the reader truly invested in/cares about." (Lovely agent. Back to the drawing board on this book!)
"This sounds more like a YA novel." (This was my first ever rejection on a full. I bawled my eyes out over this one! This is the only feedback I received from this particular agent. Other than the fact that it was a rejection, I had a moment of "Am I even a writer?" because my novel wasn't even remotely written for the YA market. I learned two things from this simple, somewhat harsh comment. First, my manuscript wasn't ready. And second, I needed to work on my ability to weave nice words into a good story. This rejection keeps me humble, knowing that there is always work to be done when it comes to sculpting a better story in the future.)
In my honest opinion, this would be the only category where I would encourage a writer to seriously consider the agent's feedback. If you receive more than one critique about a certain element, i.e. for me it was pacing and connecting to my MC, then look at what's being said and consider making some changes accordingly.


These rejection letters are the ones any aspiring author needs to take with a grain of salt. All you did was send in a query and before you knew it the agent shot back a rejection. These are usually placed in the dreaded "Form Rejections" file, because they seem to be sent en-masse to everyone the agent, assistant, or mail-room kid decided to lump together that day. Here are some of mine (and you may even recognize a form or two that you've received):

"We have given careful consideration to your work and regret that we cannot take it on. We wish you all the best as a writer." (Standard. On a side note: This was a snail mail rejection. I have never had a request for a full or a partial through any of my snail mail queries. A sign of the times, or just an easier brush-off? You be the judge.)
"Not for us, thanks." (I think many of you out there have received this one. Oddly enough, not the shortest rejection I've ever received. I received a "No thanks", but I couldn't track that one down.)
"Dear Writer:
Thank you for your inquiry. We are sorry that we cannot invite you to submit your work or offer to represent you. Moreover, we apologize that we cannot respond in a more personal manner. We wish you the best of luck elsewhere."
(This is the worst of the "Form Rejections" because it begins with "Dear Writer." This says one thing to the author -- "No, I really didn't look at your query.")
"I have read your material, but I did not feel it would be right for my list and therefore I am unable to offer you representation." (Again, very generic and that nagging question of whether this agent actually did read the query.)


This group is a step down from the form rejections. As soon as you press "Send" on your email, a responding email pops right back to you. As with snail mailed queries, I have never received a request for anything from an auto-responding email. In defense of the auto responders though, I will say that it's nice to receive something instead of nothing at all. I personally like to know if my query was received, whether the agent requests anything or not.

Here is one of mine:
"Due to volume, we are no longer replying to each individual query submitted for our review. We will be in touch only if we are interested in reading your work. If you haven't heard from us within 4-6 weeks, it is safe to say that we have passed on the opportunity and wish you the best of luck elsewhere." (Needless to say, this agency never responded.)
And one more for good measure:
"If you received this email in error, don't worry. I regularly check for emails that my automated service mislabels, so I will respond to your non-query email shortly." (I was never sure on this one whether the agent thought I'd sent a query or not. Again, not a peep after the auto response.)


This is kind of an odd group. There are many agents who request sample pages along with the query, and I'll include them in this category. I like the idea of automatically sending a sample, but it takes a little bit of the thrill out of getting a partial or full request. If they don't like those first 3-10 pages, then that's the last you'll hear from them.

Here's an example of one of those:
"Thanks very much for your query and your interest in our agency. You seem terrific and your project is compelling in many ways, so this was tempting, and yet I'm sorry to report that while I like these pages, I'm just not fully in love with them (which is so necessary when it comes to fiction). I realize that's the most frustrating sort of answer to get, but I hope you understand, and please know that I'm confident that you'll find a passionate agent." (Feels very form, but nice and to the point.)
There are online form rejections:
"I am sorry not to be writing with better news, but I hope this response will not discourage you. I wish you all the best with your writing." (Surprisingly enough, they do check those online forms you fill out!)
The random ones that feel like the agent read someone else's work but sent you the rejection:
"Thank you so much for submitting. At this time, I will not be requesting representation of your work. I found the storyline to be all over the place and made it hard for me to stay engaged." (I was only invited to submit a short synopsis to this agent. This was odd for me because my synopsis has helped me win contests and has been read and rewritten so many times that it is literally down to the nuts and bolts of the storyline. I've sent out many of these synopses and this is the first complaint I've ever received, which makes me wonder...)
Ones sent from the assistant:
"My name is ________ and I work with ________. We regret the delay in response, but _______ has been tied up personally and professionally and is just now able to return to reviewing queries. Thank you for sharing your manuscript with us. Unfortunately, we do not think _______ is the right agent for it. We wish you the best with this project, and hope that you find a committed advocate. (At least she was sweet about it. She later sent me an email apologizing for forgetting the title of my manuscript in the rejection letter.)
And those that get passed on to other agents:
"While your project certainly has merit, I'm going to pass. As I'm sure you know, it's important that your agent be totally excited by/committed to/passionate about your project, and I'm afraid that just didn't happen here. I'm sure you'll find others who feel differently. I hope so!" (Again, nice, but I felt like I wasted my time tracking down this other agent and sending a query only to receive what felt like a form rejection.)
Let's not forget shameless plugs. There are a few agents, not many, but a few who feel the need to take advantage of the free postage on your SASE and stuff the envelope with brochures promoting works written by the agent or flyers stumping for the next writer's conference in their area. If an agent expects the writer to show professionalism, then that simple common courtesy should be returned.


In case you don't know, NR stands for "No Response." These are the query letters writers feel get lost in the cyber-abyss. According to most of these agents' websites, no response means they aren't interested. Whether these agents understand it or not, these are the worst responses an aspiring author can receive. That writer has no idea if her painstakingly-written query letter, with perhaps sample chapters included, was ever received. She has no idea if an agent or his/her assistant ever read the darn thing. Simply put, that poor writer is left hanging. There's no closure, only a gaping hole of "what if" replaces that agent's name in the query file.

Here's one of many complaints you'll find filed in the comments on

E-Queried: Early September
E-Reply: December 5. Via assistant 
Form reply "Sorry for Delay. Thanks for submitting. Not right."
I am happy for this. Why? Because I am surprised, nowadays, to get any response at all. It somehow became perfectly acceptable for agents to hit delete button rather than reply button.  
To the "no response" agents out there: A quick "thanks, but no thanks" would take 5 seconds longer. 5 seconds means difference between "get lost" and "have a nice day."  After the valuable time I spend on my personal query, why not show some mutual, professional respect?

This writer has a point. I completely understand that agents are a busy lot. But here's the thing. They expect diligent research about the genres that agency represents, clean query letters, perfect sample chapters, and sometimes more. The writer takes the time to follow all instructions on an agent's website, and then nothing? This should be a give and take profession, but unfortunately it doesn't feel that way at times.

The only advice I can offer when it comes to an NR is don't give up. There are more agents out there in that great publishing ocean! And those who are courteous are much easier to communicate with. To those who have been interested enough to take the time and read my work, I truly thank you! And to those writers out there struggling with rejection, just remember, you're not alone. Many of us receive the same letters.

Strangely enough, this has been a very cathartic post for me. I've never had the chance to share my querying process because, frankly, it's too depressing. Who wants to hear about every door that's been slammed in my face? Especially at this time of year! But I'm glad I was able to share it, because it helps put all my rejections thus far in the past and move one more step forward. I encourage you to do the same!

* Names have been omitted to protect the innocent.

Do you have any querying stories or tips you'd like to share?


To all of our lovely followers out there, I want to wish you a very Merry Christmas and I look forward to seeing all of you in the New Year!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Interview with my Agent Rachael Dugas

So thrilled to present this interview with my wonderful agent Rachael Dugas of Talcott Notch Literary Services. Rachael has been an agent for about a year and a half and has already made three deals (yay, Rachael!) I sat her down for a virtual cup of coffee (wish it could have been real) and picked her brain with questions about the publishing industry and what she looks for in a novel. Enjoy!

Rachael, welcome to the Diving Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood!

Q: What genres do you love the most? What genres/themes you do NOT represent?

A: My pet genres are definitely YA, middle grade, and women’s fiction. These are some of my favorite genres as a reader, so I’m not really surprised they seem to be where I’ve gravitated as an agent. The next level down (genres I also love, but not with QUITE the same fervor) would be romance, historical fiction, and commercial adult fiction that has something really unique to make it stand out. In terms of non-fiction, I have a serious interest in cookbooks and performing arts-related material.

I do try to keep an open mind and consider everything that passes through my inbox, but I am really not terribly interested in sci-fi, fantasy, horror, crime, inspirational fiction, or non-fiction books in the business, health, financial arenas. We also do not work with picture books at our agency. Fortunately, between fellow Talcott Notch agents Gina Panettieri, Paula Munier, and Sara D’Emic and myself, we represent just about everything else!

Q: What type of Women’s Fiction (or any of its subgenres) appeals to you the most?

A: I absolutely adore any sort of quirky women’s fiction. I love a WF novel with a flawed, yet loveable, protagonist with a proclivity for getting herself into zany situations with very little effort. I like books centered around strong women with big personalities and opinions. That being said, they do need to be relatively believable characters that manage to be fresh and interesting, but still realistic. I do also love a sensitive, charming, and attractive love interest that compliments the heroine and brings out the best in her. I have also noticed I gravitate towards slightly sarcastic narrators/tones, though this is not necessarily a requirement. I have always loved reading Meg Cabot’s women’s fiction and have developed a recent love for Jill Mansell and her amazingly fun and quirky characters, so that should definitely give you a feel for the kinds of women’s fiction I adore.

Q: I recently read that Women’s Fiction is becoming harder to sell. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

A: That’s really interesting. As an agent just entering the field with in the last two years, the areas I’ve had the most success with so far are YA and romance, and I think that says a lot about what people, women especially, are reading right now. Romance sales have soared as e-readers have become ubiquitous, since readers no longer need to feel embarrassed about toting around the typically salacious covers. (Though what girl doesn’t enjoy seeing a good shirtless cowboy or highlander every now and then?) Though women’s fiction covers tend to be a lot tamer, if women are buying romance frequently, recommendations generated by sites like Amazon and proximity to romance titles on bookstore shelves should certainly point avid romance readers in the women’s fiction direction. Plus, there’s certainly a lot of crossover between the women’s fiction and romance—and if the readers are buying it, the publishers will continue to provide it. I also recently heard that the emerging genre “new adult” has been dubbed the new “chick lit”, so I think there’s a lot of speculation and potential misinformation floating around as people try to figure out the future of publishing and the “next big thing”. Whether or not it will come to fruition remains to be seen.

Q: Why do you think YA fiction has become so popular in the last few years? Do you think this trend will continue for much longer?

A: I think YA really started doing so amazingly well once grown-ups realized it was ok for them to read books for teens! With the mega-success of series like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, I think that reading teen literature well into your adult years is no longer taboo. This has also been compounded by the fact that you don’t have to walk into the teen paranormal romance section of Barnes & Noble if you are self-conscious, but can order YA novels online or download them to your e-reader. The audience has really become much broader.

That’s not to say we can dismiss the intended audience as a factor for the success of the genre, of course! Teens, unlike younger children, have the means to buy books for themselves and experience much less parental intervention in regards to their reading material. Teens who love read devour books, seek them out themselves, and are willing to pay for them in a way that adults aren’t always. Also, teens eat, sleep, and breathe social media. If they like a book, they will tell their friends about it, whether it’s through tweets, Facebook, Goodreads, or old-fashioned word-of-mouth—and, as everybody knows, that’s not only the cheapest kind of publicity a book can get, but also the best!

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

A: Oh, gosh, you know there’s no way in heck I could ever answer this, right? That’s like asking me to pick which of my pets I love best! I will say that there are certain books that have always stayed with me in a meaningful way, even as my tastes have changed over time, and the top three on that list are The Bell Jar, Little Women, and the Harry Potter series. These are books I can (and have) read a million times over and find something new to appreciate in their dog-eared pages each time.

Q: What do you think is the ideal number of clients for an agent?

A: I think that’s really too personal a preference to make a blanket generalization about. (Though it’s an excellent question!) A list that is too vast will become unmanageable, but a tiny one isn’t great either. Some agents may set a literal number, but I know all of us here at Talcott Notch keep it pretty flexible. When you find an amazing book and you just know that you need to have it, you’re not going to pass it by because you don’t have room for it. Conversely, you wouldn’t take a mediocre book just to meet a magic quota. It’s definitely a quality game versus a quantity one.

Q: Please tell us about your editorial internship at Sourcebooks, Inc. What did you do there and how do you think this experience prepared you to become a literary agent? 

A: My editorial internship with Sourcebooks was wonderful. I worked in one of their smaller offices, where I assisted with their romance, women’s fiction, and Jane Austen-related titles, so I had a really hands-on and personal experience. I had the opportunity to write cover copy, to work with the systems they used to prepare manuscripts for production, and to research the market and competitive titles, just to name some of my more typical tasks. I really learned a lot about both the specific market and the industry in general. For a brand-new graduate with a love of books, an English degree, and almost no clue about what the publishing industry was like, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.

I found all the skills I acquired translated really well to agenting. Publishing is really a hands-on business. You can prepare your knowledge and your base skills (talking about books, market awareness, etc.) in school, but it’s that actual field experience that really counts. I would advise any college students who think they may want to go into publishing to start looking for internships now. It’s what will really make a difference when you get out in the real world and start applying for jobs.

Q: What are the most common problems you see in the manuscripts you receive?

A: If there’s one general problem with the manuscripts I read, it’s simply that I am not 100% convinced that they will have the ability to stand out in a severely crowded marketplace. If you get as far as a request for a full from an agent, you have probably written something that a) demonstrates a fairly accomplished level of writing prowess and b) is rooted in a concept that seems interesting, unique, and marketable. The problem is that many—if not most—manuscripts fail to marry the two, and that the combination is really the magic formula that makes me snatch up the phone and make an offer. It’s the most heartbreaking thing, as an agent, to pick up a manuscript that had an amazing start and find that it just doesn’t deliver in the remaining pages, but it happens more often than not. Also, sometimes a writer might achieve this elusive ideal, and I can see it from an objective standpoint, but I just don’t have that ardent desire to work with the particular novel—it’s just missing something for me. As we discuss all the time around here, a rejection doesn’t necessarily mean your novel isn’t well-executed or saleable—it just might mean that we don’t see it working for us or for our agency.

Q: Writers are often times frustrated with how difficult it is to get the attention of industry professionals. What do you think is the most effective method for a writer to get noticed: conferences, blogs, query letters, contests?

A: Unfortunately, I think so much of getting noticed is really just luck of the draw. I would say any chance to meet an editor/agent face-to-face will improve your odds slightly over more impersonal querying, but it’s certainly not a guarantee. If you only knew how many people we meet at conferences, pitch events, etc., you’d understand! I can tell you a surefire way to improve your chances when querying, though: know your market and always be specific. You’d be surprised how many queries I receive with a subject line of “Query”… and that’s it. While we strive to read every e-mail that comes through our inboxes, the sheer volume works against us and sometimes we have to pick and choose which e-mails to open and which to wait on. When I have several hundred e-mails in my inbox and I am picking through to find interesting-looking submissions, an e-mail titled “query” is not going to draw my attention. If you list your title, genre, and word count in the subject line, however, I can get a pretty good snap idea of what I’m about to read. It really helps! My other biggest piece of advice is to be honest and don’t try to paint yourself or your novel as something they’re not. Lies always come out in the end.

Q: How important do you think blogs are for fiction writers?

A: I think they are great! Readers love a place to connect with authors and to go beyond the pages of the books they love, teens especially. I think all fiction writers should create that space where their fans can get to know them, and I think it never hurts to start building it as early as possible.

Q: A lot of writers are nervous about the impending merger between Random House and Penguin. Do you think that if this happens, books will become harder to sell?

A: Books are already hard to sell. I don’t necessarily think a merger like this will make them any harder. It seems like the ramifications of this union will most strongly impact the upper corporate workings of these companies. Though, in an industry where much of the power is already centralized, it is totally understandable that writers, agents, and independent publishers are a little nervous.

Q: Do you think e-books present a threat to traditional books or they can happily co-exist?

A: I think people who love books—that is, the literal, physical act of holding a book in your hand, smelling the binding, and turning the pages—will always buy books. I am one of these strange, obsessive creatures myself and I refuse to switch over to an e-reader, both on principle and because, after crashing so many computers over the years, I have a slight distrust of technology’s ability to retain my most beloved data. Until we find ourselves in some dystopian-esc world where we’ve killed too many trees and paper is an uber-precious commodity, I feel reasonably certain that book people will continue to feed their hunger for the printed word by buying printed books.

Additionally, I don’t so much view them as two separate commodities as two different ways to format the same content. In a world where self-publishing is so accessible, e-books can get a bit of a bad rap, but many, many e-books are the electronic version of existent, printed books. They still went through the acquisition, development, and editorial process that their paper counterparts experienced. To me, it’s just like buying an mp3 versus a CD—it’s just a format choice.

Thank you, Rachael, for these informative answers!

Side note to all my fellow NiNoWriMos: Congratulations to all winners and non-winners! This was my second time participating, but my first time reaching the goal (50,029 words!) and I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed the sense of camaraderie and support provided by the writing community. Best luck to all of you with your new projects and keep on writing!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Does Bad Writing Exist?

Two-buck Chuck: You get what you pay for

Her gaunt six-foot frame resembled an Erector Set  construction of joints and limbs. Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes. ~ Deception Point by Dan Brown

Until recently, it seemed so obvious to me that writing came in a variety of qualities that I assumed everyone agreed. Some novels are written well, and some are not. Pulitzers and Bookers are handed out for “good writing,” and just as that exists, so does “bad writing.” It’s like wine: you’ve got your two-buck Chuck on the one end, your Domaine Drouhin on the other. People have their individual tastes, but the rankings are generally accepted, as is the notion that some wines are objectively better than others.

I’ve discovered a populist line of thinking that pushes back against this, and insists that unlike wine, writing cannot be judged in any objective way. Instead, novels are like cilantro. One person loves it, another hates it, it’s only a matter of personal taste. Nobody can say cilantro is “bad.” It is merely “liked” or “disliked.” It’s subjective, and there’s no debate to be had.

While I was first wrestling around with this idea, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded to exactly nobody. That’s right: the Pulitzer board announced that none of the finalists (who were David Foster Wallace, Denis Johnson, and Karen Russell) would receive the award. Novelist Michael Cunningham was one of the jurors, who were responsible for selecting the finalists. He was not on the board, he merely helped winnow the field. After the no-prize announcement — which shocked the jurors as much as anyone else — Cunningham wrote an op-ed piece for the New York times, describing the winnowing process and mulling over the vagaries of ranking something as subjective as art. “First, and probably most obvious, the members of any jury are possessed of particular tastes and opinions, and, however they may strive for it, absolute objectivity is impossible,” he writes. Their Pulitzer jury may simply have picked books that board hated, he explains; it could have gone another way with a different jury. Cunningham goes on to say this:

Utter objectivity, however, is not only impossible when judging literature, it’s not exactly desirable. Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. If novels or short-story collections could be weighed strictly in terms of their components (fully developed characters, check; original voice, check; solidly crafted structure, check; serious theme, check) they might satisfy, but they would fail to enchant. A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.

So utter objectivity is impossible, but is any objectivity possible? I can’t shake the conviction that writing runs along some observable continuum of quality. We may quibble over the details, but some novels are clearly better written than others, aren’t they? If there’s no such thing as quality, I could set your proverbial hundred monkeys typing, and the result would be no better or worse than Proust or Poe. It’s all in the same sea of subjectivity. I don’t think too many people would agree with that.

Hipster Kitty
First, let me get one thing out of the way. While I do think some writing can be judged as “bad,” I don’t base that judgment on the novel’s sales. I say this because I’ve been accused of simply hating things that are popular, like I’m some sort of literary hipster. I like George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, both mega-bestsellers. Both writers are, while not literary, certainly capable. They know their craft; they avoid the pitfalls of bad writing. I do find it puzzling that some books with actively terrible writing are popular. Two-buck Chuck is popular, too, but at least you can get drunk off it. The popularity of cheap alcohol is less mysterious to me than the popularity of crappy writing. What do people get out of bad books? Is it elitist of me merely to ask that question?

Second, I wonder if those who believe bad writing does not exist feel the same way about other arts: dance, theater, sculpture, painting. I am clueless about classical music. I accept the judgment, from those who have studied it, that some compositions are clearly excellent, and others less so. This doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy a “bad” piece, but I allow that it may be derivative, or flawed in some other way. Just as it takes training to be a good artist, it takes training to appreciate art. You have to know what to look for.

Training is key. Art is not like peewee soccer: you shouldn’t get a trophy just for showing up. Some people are better at their crafts than others, almost always because they’ve worked their asses off. Effort should be recognized and rewarded. Just as you can see the painstaking labor Picasso put into mastering his craft, you can see the labor Michael Chabon puts into his. You can see Barbara Kingsolver’s craft improve dramatically from 1988’s The Bean Trees to 1998’s The Poisonwood Bible. The woman was working.

It’s easier, more pleasant, and less controversial to point out excellent writing. But if good writing exists, it makes sense that bad writing also exists. Many novels are written with little effort and no attempt to master the craft. We can call it “bad writing” because that’s what it is. We shouldn’t be called elitist for acknowledging this truth. Much is chalked up to talent, but what really matters is effort. Good writers have poured blood, sweat, and tears into their work. Conversely, most bad writing is the result of laziness: the writer hasn’t bothered to master the craft. Bad writers who are successful often are producing the literary version two-buck Chuck: they crank out content because there’s a market for it, not because they take any joy in craftsmanship. I suspect some writers do put effort into it but have a tin ear for language, which is more unfortunate. You hate to see hard work fall flat, but some people just don’t have the chops: true for so many areas of life. Most success comes from tens of thousands of hours of practice, but there is something to be said for natural abilities.

I've hesitated to come up with examples of “bad writing,” since people get passionately defensive about the writers they like, but I'm going to refer back to my opening quote: Dan Brown is the Charles Shaw of the literary world. Look at that quote. Does the man even know what “precarious” means? Of the many ways writing can go wrong, flouting your lack of vocabulary has got to be in the top ten. We all make mistakes, but Brown is consistently bad. Not only does English seem a foreign tongue to him, but he has this awkward habit of overdescribing in the most laughable way. From The Lost Symbol: He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.” From The Da Vinci Code: Yanking his Manurhin MR-93 revolver from his shoulder holster, the captain dashed out of the office.” Yes. Pawing through my 1979 copy of Strunk & White, Third Edition,  McMillan Publishing Company, 866 Third Avenue, New York, New York, I found something about not overwhelming the reader with pointless trivia. Brown seems unfamiliar with the concept. Bad. Writing.

I hope I’ve made the case that good writing does objectively exist, and is achievable not through magic or the wave of a critic’s wand but primarily through effort. The “frisson” that Cunningham talks about may be impossible to pinpoint, but quality writing does contain certain elements that can be enumerated. Bad writing does, too. I intend to expand on what these are next time, but for now I want to turn it over to you, dear readers: Does bad writing exist? Does good? What do you think the elements are that define either one?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Let Freedom Ring...I Think

The other night my telephone rang. I glanced up at the clock and saw it was after ten o'clock. This told me two things: It wasn't a telemarketer, because they finish up by nine o'clock according to federal law, and that meant it was something important relating to a family or a friend. I looked at the caller id, and sure enough, it was my best friend from back home. I snatched up the phone, a thousand different scenarios playing through my head. Was her son in a car accident? Was her marriage in jeopardy? Did her daughter get sick and was now in the hospital?

None of the above.

Her brother had called her asking her opinion about what she thought if he signed the online petition for Texas seceding from The United States. Obviously expecting something completely different, I was speechless for a moment.

I don't know if any of you have ever hopped on over to We the People to check out what's going on in the American petitioning arena, but if you haven't recently been by, it might be worth your time to stop in and check out all the states demanding secession from The United States Union. (Oh, and there's a couple petitions in there wanting to preserve The United States and others asking for the legalization of  marijuana, to allow 4x4 vehicles on recreational lands, and the Twinkie initiative — which is linked to this story, in case you're interested.)

A couple of months ago, Sister Stephanie attacked the issue of free speech in the U.S. Now, I know many outside of the U.S. are aware of our freedom of speech over here, but how many even know what the freedom of petitioning is all about or why it's even an important issue in the first place? Hang onto your seats. I'm going to give you a short history lesson in petitioning.

According to the United States Courts, this is how they sum up an American's Right to Petition:
"The First Amendment includes a provision that says that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the right of the people . . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Although there do not appear to be any Supreme Court cases that precisely define the contours of this provision of the First Amendment, it reminds individuals that, in a democracy, it is the Government's job to redress the legitimate grievances of its citizens.
The judiciary redresses grievances whenever it determines that constitutional or other legal rights have been infringed upon, and then attempts to remedy the situation. The Congress redresses grievances when it changes bad laws. The Executive Branch redresses grievances when its administrative agencies change inefficient regulations. When the President pardons someone who has been justly convicted, but for whom extenuating circumstances exist, he also may be redressing grievances. Thus, although there is no definitive interpretation of this clause of the First Amendment, it seems that each branch of government has specific means available to it to redress the grievances of the citizenry."
This might not seem like much to some people, after all it almost sounds like it gives U.S. citizens the legal right to whine when we aren't getting our way. But, think about it for a minute. The U.S. wouldn't be The United States if we didn't have the right for our voices to be heard. Before we broke free from Great Britain in the 1700s, we were a very oppressed nation. We weren't allowed to speak out against a king who ruled us from clear across the ocean — our pleas for change went unheeded. We weren't allowed to levy our own taxes, but instead we had to put up with what King George wanted in order to fill his own coffers, without so much as a careless glance at those struggling to survive on a continent he really knew nothing about. It's no wonder that the founding fathers of this United States wrote into the First Amendment of the Constitution the right for us to send our list of grievances to the government. The people wanted to be heard, plain and simple.

Perhaps you're wondering how this petition thing works. According to NPR in a recent article, "People From 20 States Ask to Secede on White House Website," twenty different states (as of this writing, more than twenty states have added petitions) are asking for the right to "peacefully" withdraw from the United States of America in order to form their own individual countries (or in some cases, join forces with other secession states or create entirely new states, like the city of Austin seceding from Texas or the State of Jefferson created from carved out portions of northern California and Oregon). In order to even have a chance at the President looking at such petitions, they must garner at least 25,000 signatures. Texas is leading the pack with over 113,000 signatures and growing. And the list of states runs the gamut, from Maine to Missouri and from Virginia to Colorado. Most of the secession demands are pretty general and clearly written.

For example, here is what Illinois states:

As the founding fathers of the United States of America made clear in the Declaration of Independence in 1776: 
"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." 
"...Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and institute new Government..."
But there are few petitions also circulating demanding that certain states remain part of the United States.

Here is North Carolina's pledge:
We ask the President to affirm that the quiet strength of this great nation lies in a patient and powerful unity that transcends and transforms our differences and does not waiver in the face of impetuous and petulant indifference to the rule of law.
We pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. We do not support secession.
We the people of North Carolina will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We ask the President to recognize our commitment to the endurance of our extraordinary union.
I don't know about you, but I find all of this fascinating! Current events are what shape and mold the world in which we live. I'm aware that most of the signatures on the secession petitions are from those highly disgruntled over the presidential election results. I'm also aware of the fact that all of these petitions are a crapshoot. I mean, really, will they actually secede? Considering what happened back in the 1860s, my hope is that we all learned a lesson or two then and that secession is not only a daunting task, but a very expensive one at that, both in money and lives. But here's my question: Since some of these petitions are well over the 25,000 signature mark, will the President of The United States even consider looking at them? I don't know, but that's the whole idea behind the Right to Petition as put forth by the U.S. Constitution, a wonderful legal document that the founding fathers had drawn up for this very reason. 

Seceded Southern states, 1861

But why is any of this even important? Sometimes, as writers, we struggle with shaping a story. One thing I used to love about the Law and Order television franchise is that the shows always claimed that the storylines were "ripped from today's headlines." Stuff like modern states threatening to secede is fodder for a writer's mill. I absolutely love American history and it's the one staple found in all of my novels. With this twist of events, think of the possibilities! Those of you who love alternate realities, well, here you go. Those of you who love history, well, here you go. Those of you who love contemporary literature, well, here you go. Whether you agree or disagree with any of these petitions is completely up to you. But, personally, I love seeing what's on other people's minds, ridiculous or not! I mean, hey, who isn't going to miss yummy Twinkies, so why not start a petition?

What are your thoughts concerning these petitions? Do you think any of them have a snowball's chance in you-know-where of ever gracing the desk of the President? Do you ever use current events to shape your own storytelling? Are you going to miss Twinkies and Ding Dongs?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Storytelling vs. Fiction Writing

After a lifelong affair with storytelling, becoming a professional storyteller was one of the highlights of my librarian career. At the time, I naively thought that being good at my craft (as I was told I was) meant I could put my stories on paper and instantly become a novelist. Think again! There is a huge difference between writing and storytelling. As the cliché goes, writers are made, storytellers are born. But like Yours Truly, you may be a fantastic tale-spinner and yet lack all the skills that makes a good novelist.

Family lore asserts that I was involved in storytelling way before I learn how to read. I used to memorize fairytales and then create my own version which I would retell to family, servants, pets and whatever captive audience I could get hold off. It was a form of oral fanfiction. As I grew old, my storytelling experiences went underground, until I found myself in Library School.

There I learned that storytelling was a crucial skill for good Children’s Librarians.  There I heard about the great Augusta Braxton Baker and other pioneer storytellers/librarians. I also got to meet and watch real storytellers performing their magic.  One of the landmarks of those wonderful years was a chance to do library programs in which I polished my old art and went through marvelous experiences that plied me with anecdotes to dine on for decades.

Augusta Braxton Baker

Technique vs. Drama
Encouraged by my storytelling success, I decided that I had the skills to become a true novelist. This crass mistake derived from my confusion between the terms “storytelling” and “story writing.” The first is all about voice, words, atmosphere, vigorous action, drama and wonder. The second is all about method, prose, rules and in-depth characterization. 

Popular commercial writers like to think of themselves as “storytellers,” consequently they rely more on dynamic action and dramatic mood than on literary technique. Their lack of fine writing skills is what their foes will bring up when attacking their work. On the other hand, think of Henry James’s novels, very little happens in them, but you can’t deny his masterful prose or his powerful characters.

The majority of fairy tales were originally found within storytellers repertoires. But when early folklorists shuffled those narratives from the oral realm to a written page, the tales underwent drastic modifications. Early versions of well known tales contained disturbing elements such as Sleeping Beauty being raped by the prince or Rapunzel having twins out of wedlock (something they forgot in the Disneysque version called “Tangled”.) Language had to be cleaned up and the whole text had to undergo a refining process. Each story found that transcription to paper meant to be bound by literary technique and conventions.

No twins for this Rapunzel!

Rules vs. Spontaneity
Storytelling is linked to an old traditional activity known as oral narrative. It goes back to cavemen telling tales around the camp fire. Most cultures will have some form of traditional storyteller, from the Irish “seancaid” to the Jewish “maggid.” In the past, storytellers have been seen as shamans, healers, keepers of tradition, even as intermediaries between the sacred and the profane. Such is the strength that comes from spinning a tale.

Telling a story, even to an adult audience, is a dynamic-spontaneous activity. You can’t go back to polish a draft or edit mistakes. What comes from your mouth is what your audience gets. It’s like acting in a play, if you goof you get booed. If you forget your character name, or skip a major moment, your audience will know and will let you know. And worse than being pelted with tomatoes, like actors of old did, is to lose your listeners’ attention. It is the equivalent of losing their respect.

You have to prepare in advance for predictable disasters. So you said “Princess Alice” instead of “Princess Alexandra”? Then you quickly explain that Alice is Alexandra’s evil twin who, in fact, is working wit Dark Forces to take over her sister’s throne. I know it sounds far-fetched, but believe me, it does work. I have tried it. Did I say the storyteller is an actor? A stand up comedian might be a better description.

Is your audience yawning and staring at the clock? Wake them up with some unexpected plot twist. In Romana, the Jewish-Italian version of Snow White, the heroine does not find shelter with benevolent dwarves; she ends up at the lair of seven ruthless thieves! I often imagine this twist must have come about as a desperate storyteller attempted to get his audience’s attention back with a “Hey, guess what? Romana has just been caught by the most dangerous gang in the entire Italian peninsula. Yes, seven hardened criminals, and there she is, hanging from a tree branch, wondering if she should climb down and take her chances with these strapping lusty outlaws.”

Darth Vader and Son

You may think this only works in front of a live audience, but surprise twists are useful in all forms of storytelling, especially in book or film series that have dragged too long and are reaching the point where the reader’s patience is wearing thin. Who would have imagined that Darth Vader would turn out to be Luke Skywalker’s father? It was the most unforeseen moment of the Star War Saga and left us waiting breathlessly for “The Return of the Jedi.”  Stephanie Meyer was aware that half her fandom wouldn’t be happier with Bella choosing to be Vampire Bride instead of the Wolf Man’s Wife. Her solution was to turn Jacob into Bella’s future son-in-law and leave her readers pondering about the possible incoming “Reneesme’s Adventures in Lycanthropy.”

Followers of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire were a bit confused after Clash of Kings, the second book of the series. Not only was it more slow-paced than the previous  Game of Thrones, but Martin’s surprising killing of the apparent protagonist had left his devotees treading on thin ice. The only thing they were certain was that the one great villain of the story was Ser Jaime Lannister. How else could one describe a man who had backstabbed his king, impregnated his much-married Queen (who also was his twin sister), ambushed good Ned Stark in the street, and threw children off ramparts?

Well, in Storm of Swords, the third book in the saga, Martin did the unthinkable: he presented Jaime as a victim. By turning him into a POV character, the author granted him a chance to tell his side of past events, baffling those who thought him a monster. That changed the viewer’s perception of the character forever, transformed the Kingslayer into a sort of heroic figure, and made Storm of Swords the most read, discussed and loved book of the entire saga.

Ser Jaime Lannister from Kingslayer to tragic hero

Archetypes vs. Well-Developed Characters
But storytelling is not totally devoid of pitfalls, one of them is lack of time and space to develop multifaceted characters. Thus, storytelling has to rely on archetypes: The Charming Prince, Cinderella, talking animals, and others that just by mentioning their name have the spectators imagining looks and personalities. When telling a tale in front of a live audience you don’t have the time to give a complete biography or a full physical description therefore you to have to simplify. One of my tales started like this, “Miguelito was a very poor mouse. So poor was he that his pants lacked pockets because he lacked loose change.” Obviously, if I was writing the tale I would submit to the “show not tell” clause, and never mention the word “poor.” In storytelling you just have to.

When Isabel Allende published The House of the Spirits, critics pounced on her accusing my countrywoman of creating a bad copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Indeed, her book owed plenty to Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, but Allende imbued enough political ideology and her own family lore into the novel to establish a distance. Moreover, she had one advantage over the Colombian author, she had well-developed characters.

This may sound like anathema. Don Gabo is a literary giant, nobody surpasses him in telling stories, describing imaginary worlds, and creating a family tree spotted with intrigue and domestic drama, but his larger-than-life characters are iconic images, never flesh and blood personages. Look at his fictional women. We know that his many Renatas, Remedios and Amarantas fall in and out of love, get pregnant by the wrong man and die in childbirth, but do we know what they think? What they like to do in their spare time?

Garcia Marquez is a terrific storyteller and as such he relies on characters that are a combination of mythical figures and anecdotes. He could stand in front of a crowded theater and verbally convey his novel because it belongs to an oral storytelling tradition. Unlike him, Isabel Allende’s characters are too complex and experience too much interior drama to be put into five words. There is no way to explain briefly about mystical Clara, forced by fate to marry a man that belonged to her dead sister. And how would you verbally express the horror, pain, and humiliation of Alba as she goes through physical torture?

Meryl Streep as Clara in "The House of the Spirits"

If I had to take one book with me to a desert island, I would pick The Holy Bible. Aside from its spiritual content, it’s the best storytelling I have ever laid eyes upon. Within its covers you find everything: political trickery, supernatural events, domestic squabbles, war epics, romance and lust. We love biblical stories and their protagonists have become household names, but do we see them as real-life characters? Do we get to know their point of view? We know King David liked women and played the harp, but what was his favorite food? We know Sarah hated her husband’s concubine Hagar, but do we know if Hagar hated her back? Do we know if Hagar was happy with Abraham?

Every March, Orthodox Jews are subject to one great story hour. The reading of Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther) is the highlight of the Purim Holiday. The synagogue becomes a big storytelling room. All gather to hear the rag-to-riches story of Esther, a nice Jewish girl who is taken away from her home, and after winning a harem beauty contest, becomes Queen of Persia. I love to hear how even after marrying the most powerful man in the land, Esther is still subject to palace intrigues, has to hide her Jewish identity, and strives to save her people from evil Haman.

The story ends in a colossal triumph after Esther manages to save Persia, the Jews and herself through cunning and courage. It’s Cinderella meets Joan of Arc, but do we know Esther? Do we know how she felt about her king-husband?  Is she home-sick? Where did she learn to play bedroom politics and how she went about it? Knowing the answer to all those questions would make The Book of Esther a terrific novel, but it would probably take two days to read it in the temple. Even the most pious audience would be snoring before the reading was over.

Continuity vs.  "The End" word
Whenever we think of the term “storyteller,” the name “Sherezade” comes to mind. Wrapped in her veils, the protagonist-narrator of the Arabian Nights is the teller of stories par excellence. She alone performed the prowess of spending a hundred-thousand-and one nights weaving stories to charm a king out of his psychotic misogyny. What is so compelling about her feat is the impression that Sherezade spends every hour of her existence at her craft, that her entire life is linked to the continuous act of fable-spinning. It’s only by the end of the book, after it’s disclosed that she has delivered two sons for the Sultan, that we realize that a lot more went on  in that bedchamber than just telling tales.

María Montez as Sherezade

Sherezade exemplifies one of the greatest joys of storytelling, its continuity. Unlike novel writing that is bound to arrive to the word “The End,” a tale could go on forever. A storyteller could call it a day just to retake the narrative thread the following day, or night like Sherezade did. A novelist can give up on his craft, never write another book, a great novel may never have a sequel, but storytelling is endless. You have cycles of tales connected to one single protagonist like Anansi, the Spider or Stupid Jack. That is what written series and storytelling have in common, the infinite possibilities.

Agnes Newton Keith was an American bestselling writer that wound up experiencing stranger than fiction events. In 1942, she and her small son were taken into captivity by the Japanese. For the next three years, she lived in a civilian prisoner camp, away from her husband and enduring privations, malnutrition, slave work, plus physical torture and a rape attempt. Throughout her captivity, her utmost preoccupation was the survival and well-being of George, her little boy. One way she found to keep up George’s morale was an evening storytelling session that centered on the exploits of a super hero known as Big Game Hunter “Keith of Borneo” (later joined by “Jack, the Giant-Killer”.)

Birthday card , Agnes Newton Keith sent to her husband while still in captivity

One night she realized that other children in her compound had gathered around her mosquito net to hear her story. At first, Mrs. Keith wanted to yell that this was only for George, but finally she gave in. Her daily story session became a source of pleasure and comfort for the youngsters in captivity and a way to maintain her narrative skills. She stretched Keith’s adventures as far as credibility could allow, sent him on trips around the world, personalized the stories and in every way proved the power of storytelling and the capacity for a tale to continue ad infinitum.

The Interactive Storyteller vs. The Writer in the Ivory Tower
Mrs. Keith’s anecdote illustrates another advantage that storytelling has over story writing: you get to know your audience. When we write our first bit of fiction, we write it mostly for ourselves. We are the target audience and we grow attached to that piece because we like it. Then we expose it to the criticism of family and friends. We start modifying our text to suit the audience’s needs, a process that expands as we move from acquaintances to agents and publishers. We are always running into new more demanding readers, while in the horizon looms the threat of the “real public,” a terrifying but foreign group.

In storytelling you have no such problems. Even if you may be awed at the prospect of meeting listeners for the first time, you’d have plenty of data on them. You will know their sexes, occupations and ages. Novelists have three abstract age groups to choose their target audience from: children, young adult or adults. In storytelling, age groups tend to be more specific.

My first story session brochures explicitly said “toddlers and pre-schoolers” and my audience were Latinos. My second storyteller job was with elementary school children and it was done in English. Even when dealing with adults, knowing in advance that you will be addressing senior citizens, middle-aged housewives, or teenage boarding school students helps you prepare tales, props and mood.

When your book hits the market you don’t know who will be buying or reading it. Whether it comes from New York Times reviewers or by readers complaining on the Amazon boards, reactions to or interpretations of a novel may shock its author. The storyteller gets to face the reaction immediately and has a chance to discuss the interpretation or even change it, because storytelling is always an interactive activity. So interactive that in some cultures the listeners actually interrupt the session with questions and even offer suggestions to improve the storytelling.

There is tremendous power in storytelling for narrator and public alike. When my mother saw the snapshots of my first story hour she was more impressed by the children’s expressions than by her daughter’s antics. “Look at their little gaping mouths!” she said. I know what it’s like to captivate an audience as well as I know what it feels to be enthralled by a fine storytelling session, or by a book that fulfills my emotional needs or by a television show that grips my attention while bringing comfort to my exhausted mind.

Modern authors tend to forget and forsake the pleasure of interacting. They cherish (sometimes with good reason) the distance that separates them from audience. A true storyteller would never sacrifice his chance to know the feedback of listeners/readers and would find a way to recognize and meet their needs.

Can you think of a novelist, or scriptwriter who combines the quality of fine fiction writing with strong storytelling skills?