Friday, March 28, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: The Girl Who Played with Fire

"Salander heard a sound and saw a movement out of the corner of her eye just as she was putting the key in the door of the Honda. He was approaching at an angle behind her, and she spun around two seconds before he reached her." (The Girl Who Played with Fire, Page 193)
Welcome everyone to this month's round of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse. Make sure to make the rounds and see what everyone has been reading over the past month.

A couple of weeks ago I finished up the second book in Stieg Larsson's Millennium series, The Girl Who Played with Fire. I was going to review the third book in the series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, over at The Random Book Review, but I haven't quite finished it. It's kind of been a busy week for me but, hey, I'm still reading!

This is the part where I make the assumption that everyone under the sun has heard of Stieg Larsson and his Swedish Millennium series, but considering that not everyone enjoys the same genres, I won't make that assumption. When reading Larsson's background, it's really not surprising he chose topics such as misogyny, sex trafficking, and corrupt political systems to use in his books. Here's a little bit about Larsson's background according to this website:
Stieg Larsson (1954-2004) was a Swedish writer and journalist. Prior to his sudden death of a heart attack in November 2004 he finished three detective novels in his trilogy "The Millennium-series" which were published posthumously...Altogether his trilogy has sold more than 20 million copies in 41 countries, and he was the second bestselling author in the world in 2008. Before his career as a writer, Stieg Larsson was mostly known for his struggle against racism and right-wing extremism.
He liked extreme storylines, to say the least. There is supposedly a fourth book hidden inside Larsson's computer, but much controversy surrounds who should own the rights to Larsson's estate: his father and brother or his life partner Eva Gabrielsson. Feel free to visit the website I listed if you're interested in checking out the controversy.

Stieg Larsson

About the book:

Mikael Blomkvist, crusading publisher of the magazine Millennium, has decided to run a story that will expose an extensive sex trafficking operation. On the eve of its publication, two people are brutally murdered, and the fingerprints found on the murder weapon belong to his friend, the troubled genius hacker Lisbeth Salander. Blomkvist, convinced of Salander's innocence, plunges into an investigation. Meanwhile, Slander herself is drawn into a murderous game of cat and mouse, which forces her to face her dark past.

If you've read the first book in the trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, then you know that The Girl Who Played with Fire picks up roughly a year or so after the first novel. After Salander and Blomkvist's harrowing ordeal in the previous book, Salander has skipped the country with her loot and has spent time abroad. We find her in Grenada at the beginning of the story, doing what she does best: saving a young woman from certain death at the hands of her husband. This element is important because as the story unfolds we see that Salander's past, which is riddled with abuse, will come back and rear its ugly head.

Where in The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo Salander and Blomkvist spend a large portion of the book together, in the sequel, they only come in close contact with one another at the end of the book. I struggled with that a little bit, because I was expecting more one on one work between the two of them. The third book is shaping up to be much of the same, but I've yet to finish it (I have about a third of the book left), so I don't know if there will be any resolution to their relationship. I'm hoping so (but please don't tell me how it ends)!

Overall, I enjoy the hacking capabilities of Salander. I'm very fascinated with every nuance of the hacking world Larsson creates. I have no idea if what he's saying is true about how hacking works, but at least it makes for an interesting read. I do struggle with Larsson's portrayal of women in his books. None of them seem like the type of woman a man would want to settle down with and raise a family. Berger, Blomkvist's longtime love interest, is tough as nails in the publishing world. She knows what she wants, goes and gets it, and stops for a little hanky-panky if the need arises. Which seems to be quite a bit with her and it usually borders on kinky. For whatever reason, Larsson feels the need to divulge all the ends and outs of the female characters' sex lives, but he doesn't go too much into the mens' unless they're the ones doing the sex trafficking. Salander is a very damaged individual and more of who she is comes out in the second novel. When Blomkvist learns the truth about her rape, I feel it's disappointing how he rationalizes his physical relationship with Salander. She had come to him not long after her rape, so that meant it was okay. Sorry, but that's just sad. What the girl really needs is someone willing to listen to her, but Larsson builds her into an individual full of mistrust and the need for isolation that all I ever feel for her is pity.

The hard-looking Lisbeth Salander from the Swedish films.

If you've not read the book, know this:  the story feels dated. Larsson drops so many brand names, especially with computer technology, that it loses some of that here-and-now feel. Grant it, the book does deliberately state that it's 2004, but time can be tricky when it comes to contemporary thrillers. Readers are constantly wanting to feel the technology and brands of today. Palm pilots may have been cool in 2004, but I don't know anyone still using them now. The book also tends to become a tedious read. There are some pretty long passages of information dumps and over explanation of the basic facts that at times the storyline gets swallowed up. As a whole, though, Larsson weaves a great story concerning Salander's background. Which, is why I had to read the third book.

Have you read any of Stieg Larsson's books? If so, what's your opinion?

Make sure to check out the rest of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse reviews:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Interview with Agent Christa Heschke

Hey, writers! Looking for an agent to represent your YA/NA/Children's book? Agent Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis, Inc. is still open to new clients, and she has kindly agreed to answer my questions about her preferences and the current state of the publishing industry. Check out what she has to say and get those query letters ready!

Hi Christa, welcome to The Writing Sisterhood!

Q: Writers are always curious about what goes on behind agencies’ closed doors. Could you share with our readers what a day in the life of a literary agent is like?

A: Every day is very different, as we’re a full service agency, so we handle pretty much everything for our authors personally, such as contracts, foreign rights and other subsidiary rights (some agents have different people at their agency who do these types of things for them and don’t handle personally). Each day generally starts with me going through my emails, answering questions, checking in with editors on submissions, payments etc. then throughout the day I’ll have phone calls, meetings and lunches with editors, negotiate deals, work on contracts etc. Of course, all of these things don’t happen every day, so this is just to give you an idea of what may cross my desk.

Q: About how many submissions do you receive per week? What do you look for in a query letter? 

A: About 75 submissions a week, sometimes more. Well, first thing I look for in a query is that it’s a genre I am currently looking for. My current wish list is on my blog and on the M&O website under Agents.  Next, I look to see if it’s something that’s new or different. If you send me something that sounds like a knockoff I likely won’t read on. Make sure your letter is professional and not too conversational. I’ll also look to see if the project is a standalone or a series and if the author has written anything else or has a website so I can learn more.

Q: Will you be open to adult fiction in the near future? 

A: No. We have two great adult agents here. If I ever were to fall in love with an adult project I would co-agent with one of my colleagues. The adult world and children’s world are very different and working in children’s I’m not regularly meeting adult editors or expanding my contacts there.

Q: What is one of the most common problems you see in the manuscripts you receive?

A: I still see a fair amount of projects that are trying to chase trends. If you’re writing something only because you think it will sell a lot of copies because it’s similar to Twilight and Twilight sold a lot of copies you’re often hurting your own chances. Writing for trends can lack passion. When you have an idea for a novel and can’t get it out of your head, that’s passion. You’re not thinking of the endgame, just that you need to write it. Those are always the best books, if you ask me, and you can feel it when you read. Writing for trends can be formulaic and it’s often too late. Books take 18-24 months to publish on average and if there are already 10 books on mermaids and you’re only now writing one, many editors may have already had their fill of it.

The other problem I see a lot is a story that reads like a first draft and isn’t fully realized. Find critique partners or have a friend read your novel before sending it out. It’s best to send a project that has gone through revisions and is as good as you think it can be before sending to agents.

Q: Would you take on a client based on his/her potential even if the manuscript is not ready to be sold? 

A: Yes! I have never instantly sent out a manuscript after taking on a client. We always at least do a bit of tweaking. I wouldn’t take something on though that needed a lot of work. If I liked it and saw potential I’d likely ask for a revise and resubmit. It’s important to make sure an author is good at revision before taking them on.

Q: Why do you think YA fiction has become so popular in the last few years? There also seems to be a preference for fiction with supernatural/fantastic elements. Do you think these trends will continue for much longer? 

A: YA fiction is often hopeful. It’s about teens who are at the beginning of their lives. There’s so much promise. It’s about growth and becoming who you’re meant to be, first experiences and making mistakes. Anyone can relate to that even as adults. It’s just so accessible and often more fast paced than an adult novel. Depending on who you ask, the response will probably vary, but those are some of the main things. Paranormal and dystopian is on the way out; we’re seeing ends to series mostly in these genres now and I can’t think of too many editors or agents looking for it. In fact, many are specifically saying they aren’t considering it.  Not too many standalones or beginning of series these days.  I think everything is shifting back towards contemporary, but I also think people are trying to figure out what the next big thing will be. Magical realism is pretty highly sought after. There’s been some sci-fi, horror, thriller and light fantasy that has been doing well and editors and agents are still looking for those genres.

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: That’s a hard question. Meeting an editor or agent at a conference certainly helps as we generally will put priority on those submissions.  Networking is always helpful. Join writing groups or book clubs with other writers. If any of the writers are published or become published they may recommend you to their agent. Referrals always get priority. Send your best work. It likely won’t be that first novel. Many writers have several novels under their belt before submitting to agents or editors. You keep getting better with practice. Make sure the book you submit is polished and as good as it can be. Have friends and critique partners give you opinions. Sending an agent every project you have isn’t going to get you noticed. Most agents frown on it unless they specifically ask to see more work.  Send the project you think is the best fit for that agent. An online presence is nice to see but it doesn’t sway me either way unless it’s particularly negative towards editors/agents/the industry. Try to keep your online presence professional and positive.   Contests are good too. I’ve found some of my clients that way.  It’s hard work to get noticed and you really have to dedicate yourself to it and not let yourself be troubled too much by rejection. It’s all about finding that right person to champion your work and it may take some time to find them.

Q: How do you feel about writers posting excerpts of their unpublished novels and/or creating websites for them? 

A: I think short excerpts are fine.  It can help get you some readers/fans who will buy your book once you are published.  I don’t think an entire website dedicated to an unpublished book is necessary. I’d stick to an author site or blog and you can talk about your work there. But, be wary as there are people out there who steal ideas so I’d say less is more.

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

A: They can happily co-exist. I think there was some worry about it, when they first started becoming popular, but I hope that there will always be those book lovers who enjoy holding a real book. It’s such a different experience.

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

A: That is so hard to answer! I have a lot of authors and books I really enjoy. I always was a big RL Stine fan (Fear Street specifically), I loved Corduroy as a kid and The Teeny Tiny Woman (it’s an early reader). My parents said that I would act it out while I was reading it.  The Hobbit is another favorite. I also am a big Bruce Coville and Garth Nix fan.  Oh and can’t forget Jane Austen!

Thank you, Christa, for those very insightful answers!

For more information about Christa and what she's looking for, check out her blog and her agency's website.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Being a Good Critique Partner 101

I've been at this writing thing for a while now. Eight years ago I had an idea and I ran with it. It wasn't until later that I realized I had to (*gulp*) let someone else read my manuscript. And thus, I found out about this critique partner thing.

If you're serious about having your work published one day, there is a vital key ingredient to this ever happening -- you need to eventually have a small group of writers just as serious as you are read your work and be willing to give an objective critique on what you've written.

This, my friends, is crucial.

Now, I've heard stories, read stories, have my own stories as a matter of fact, on what goes into being a good critique partner. And each story (much like a written story in real life) contains key elements as to why a critiquing partnership has held together as strong as super glue, has unravelled at the seams, or why it became just a struggle to keep. In case you didn't already know, for the past few years I've been blessed to have two of the best critiquers I could ever ask for -- the other two lovely sisters who participate in this blog, Lorena and Stephanie. I have a couple of fringe readers who may or may not read my work if the mood strikes them, but at the core I know I have these two. (You guys are awesome by the way!)

You might be asking how I managed to snag two great critiquers. Well, I'm going to give you a few pointers on how to go about looking for someone who matches what you're looking for. It's kind of like dating, but the expectations are very different (i.e. no small talk necessary, no dinners to be bought, and no wondering if he/she will call you the next day).

  • Are they even a writer? -- You might think this is an easy one to pick up on and, yeah, why wouldn't you choose a writer to read your work. Surprisingly enough, there are many unpublished writers out there who do anything but let writers read their work. I think, especially in the beginning, there's a lot of anxiety attached to having anyone read your book, let alone someone who really knows the craft. One way to ease out of those anxiety-filled thoughts is to enter a few contests that give you some sort of feedback. Any small amount of feedback will be helpful, plus it will help you get over that I-can't-let-a-soul-read-my-work hump.
  • What's a good number of readers? -- Like that saying about too many cooks in a kitchen, the same goes for critiquers. If you have so many, all with differing input, then you will be forever lost in the swirling typhoon of revisions. You won't know who to believe or what is the best route. For me, three is a good number. Why three? Well, if two partners have different opinions about an important scene, then the third will usually lean one way or the other. Anything beyond three and there's too much input for me to properly digest. Personally, I need information that will lead me in a solid direction and so far I've been fortunate enough with the readers I have.
  • Is it a good idea to have family members as critique partners? -- This one is a slippery-slope, my friends. At first, you might be inclined to have a mother, brother, or sister read your masterpiece because, hey, don't we all want our ego stroked once in a while! The fact of the matter is that you need objective readers. Family members tend not to be objective. They tend to be nice. They don't want to see you fail, so why not be a cheerleader instead. This can be one of the most harmful things for your writing. You will fail to grow if all you hear is loving feedback and that, yeah, your work is perfect, perfect, perfect!
  • Does a critique partner have to write in your genre? -- Better yet, do they even like to READ in your genre? Let's say you write horror. You meet a new friend at a writing meeting/conference/on the bus who loves inspirational romance. She finds out you're a writer and BAM! wants to read your work. You're so excited that you forget to mention you write horror. After you hand your book over to her, a day later she calls you and says she can't read such a dark, horrific storyline. You're crestfallen. The first thing you want to find out is if a critiquer has the ability to even make it through your book. Don't waste your time with grabbing up the first person willing to take a look at what you've written. Ask the pertinent questions first.
  • Do I really have to read their work in return? -- Um...yeah! That's the whole point in the critique partner relationship. After all, you're PARTNERS. This means you read what they have and they read what you have. Not that you both have to be finishing a novel at the same time to make it even-Stephen, but you do need to always be willing to take on what they've written. But don't act like they have to constantly make time in their schedules every week to read the newest novel you've started. There is a natural ebb and flow to any partnership. It's good to feel out the group, see what is expected of everyone, and make plans accordingly. As time goes by, the rules may get looser, since every writer works at his/her own pace. Never throw a snit fit if someone has to put off reading your work due to other circumstances. If you feel at some point that they are deliberately avoiding reading your work, then it's probably time to look elsewhere for a new critique partner.
  • What if I don't like the advice my partner(s) gives me? -- After any critique, you should first listen to what your partner has to say concerning your work. Don't get argumentative with them, just listen. Take it in and give it time to process. Chances are you won't agree with everything your partner says (after all, a lot of writing is subjective), but really take in what they've told you. If it's crucial critique pertaining to your plot (Is it messy? Does it flow? Is it too boring, too fast, too blah, etc.), to your main characters (Are they fleshed out properly? Does the conflict match up with them internally and externally? Are descriptions off or don't make sense?), or even dialogue (Is it boring? Is it realistic?) then pay attention! They're trying to show you where the main work needs to be done. If someone has gone to all that work to thoroughly read your manuscript, don't blow them off! Even if you hate your own book and never want to see it again. Always listen to your critiquer. Don't waste their time. After all, you chose him/her to read this book for a reason.
  • Should I follow through with changes? -- The simple answer here is yes. If you've done your homework properly and have chosen critique partners who enjoy your genre, are good at finding your problem spots in the manuscript, and aren't patting you on the back and giving you nothing useful in return, then take into account everything he/she has told you. If you have multiple critiquers telling you changes need to be made concerning the same problem spots, then you definitely should be making changes. The little bits can come later, but if you have a definite issue with plot structure, then sit down, chart out your plot, look at the critiques you've been given, and work it out accordingly. If you turn around and have that same partner read your manuscript again and you've done nothing to heed his/her advice then they will only be annoyed and chances are not have any interest in reading your work again. Don't burn your bridges!
  • How do I leave a bad partnership? -- I guess it depends on the maturity level of the other writer(s) in your partnership. Personally, I feel it's best to be straight with the individual. Don't be mean or angry about ending your critiquing partnership (you can still be friends, right?), but make sure he/she understands that this is a partnership that just isn't working. If you feel your work isn't progressing, or maybe there's more give than there is take on the other's end, then you need to move on. Eventually, though, you need to know what's best for your writing.
I was fortunate enough to meet both Lorena and Stephanie through a local writer's association. I didn't know if I would hit it off with either one of them. With my first critique group, I was the new one in the group, but that group eventually dissolved and a new one formed. Again, a member left and a new friend joined. Critique groups aren't written in stone. We all take different paths with our writing. Be willing to be flexible in your search for the right mix. If you feel damaged or thoroughly pissed off you are no longer part of a partnership, then take some time to rethink this writing thing. As writers willing to share our work, we have to be able to take on the tasks I listed above -- share your work, give productive feedback, take the advice given you, and rework your manuscript accordingly. After all, the point is to grow, and not be stuck in novice mode!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Listening to Stories

Whether you're talking about hunter-gatherers sitting around a fire, or a toddler nestled in the crook of daddy's arm at bedtime, people first absorb stories through their ears. Humans are listeners before they are readers. It is curious, then, that people tend to look down on audiobooks, isn't it? My son prefers audiobooks, but his friends tell him "that's cheating," as if he's getting away with something. One of my own friends said to me, "You're not really reading books," when I confessed (why was it a confession?) that I listen to books as often as I read them. Of course, audiobook fans are less likely to have this prejudice, but I know I feel slightly embarrassed to admit I listened to, rather than read, a given book. Why do we give audiobooks so little credit?

One reason is an assumption that because audiobooks are "easier," you get less out of them. I found little data to support this theory. It hasn't been well studied, but Forbes reports on one study that indicated no retention difference between audio and visual books. "In some cases, listening offers major advantages over reading, even with material as tough to parse as Shakespeare," the article states. "That’s because an audio book pre-determines an aspect of language called prosody, or the musicality of words. Prosody is how we known that someone is being self-reflective when they ask aloud if they left the gas on (or when Hamlet asks whether 'to be or not to be')."

Saunders narrates his own book: a rare success
Whatever the reason for it, the bias against audiobooks is fading. Audiobook sales have soared as more and more people become aware of their charms. First and foremost for me is the time component: Because I'm able to combine "reading" with "doing," I nearly double my book-consumption rate. Do you know how much of your day requires little to no engagement from your brain? Washing dishes, vacuuming, folding laundry, commuting, walking the dog, cooking, gardening, jogging. We do a lot of activities by rote. You can liberate hours a week for book consumption. If you're like me, you'll also move around more as you listen, wanting to putter and find things to do so you don't have to leave the story. And less sitting is good for your health. See? Audiobooks will help you live longer.

An audiobook performance that blew me out of the water
Now, some books I truly prefer to read in visual form. YA-book narrators are often breathless and squeaky, which reminds me that I am a middle-aged woman listening to a novel for teenagers. I prefer to read those books. But other books really come to life when they're performed. When I first tried Dickens' Hard Times, I found it easy to put down. Then I came across a free version, originally recorded as a book for the blind, on iTunes. I was completely hooked: Alistair Maydon, the narrator, showed me the humor, the pathos, the personalities of the characters. From there I found Far from the Madding Crowd and Wuthering Heights. Those narrators changed the story from mere words marching across a page to a living, breathing thing. A good narrator performs a story, and when you're talking about something dry, or difficult, or written in an older style, a strong narrative performance can change everything.

The difference between reading and listening can come out in other, odder ways, too. Recently, I was reading The Good Lord Bird as I was hiking a snowy trail. There's a particular scene in that book, a gritty situation involving slaves being hanged for attempting a rebellion. I can picture exactly the spot where I was stepping as I listened to those events unfold. When I return to that spot—the 10-foot-tall rocks on the side, the patch of ice that never melts in the shadow, the way the trail curls around the rocks like a cat's tail around its paws—the scene from the book replays in my head. This happens to me frequently when I listen. The heightened emotional state seems to cause me to take mental snapshots of the scene around me, which probably has something to say about the relationship between emotions and memory.

Rewind, Scrubbing, Bookmarks: apps make it easy
One common complaint of audiobooks is that it's too easy to lose your place in a story, or space out and miss what's happening. The Audible app has a bookmarking function, which helps with this. But more critical is the 30-second rewind button. Most listening devices have this, and I use it often. I've learned to catch myself spacing out before I lose more than a minute. Another complaint is the books are too expensive. They can be: Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is $47.55 on Audible. (It's also 42 hours long, so that narrator deserves every penny, plus maybe a medal.) But the Audible membership makes the books much more affordable—if you buy 24 credits, it amounts to $12 a book, which is no more than a paperback. Amazon, which owns Audible, often offers the matching audiobook for a discount when you buy an e-book. This allows the reader to go back and forth between reading and listening: each device even remembers where you left off, so you don't have to hunt for your place: I love this feature. I also pick up audiobooks from the library and from the iTunes store. Librivox is a site offering free classic novels read by volunteer narrators. If you're a Nook sort, Barnes and Noble has its own audiobook store, with its own special deals. Money doesn't have to be an impediment.

A final drawback can be terrible narrators. If someone last dipped into the audiobook world five or more years ago, you may remember some pretty bad renditions of novels. Try again. Narrators are usually professional actors, and while there are some stinkers in the bunch (review before buying), most narrators really add to a book. Some of my own favorites are Davina Porter (the Outlander novels), Fanella Woolgar (Life After Life), Jim Dale (Harry Potter), and Neil Gaiman, who narrates his own novels. Um, I just realized these are all Brits. Yes, I think I have a preference for those narrators, but I'm listening to the very American Oliver Wyman narrate an Iraq-war novel right now, and I can tell you: he is just as talented as any of my beloved UK-folk.

So what about you? Do you listen to audiobooks, or do you think they're "cheating?" If you like them, how often do you select them over a visual format? Do you have any favorites?