Category Archives: advice

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#notagoodidea

As you all know, we’ve been pushing the whole build-your-platform-through-social-media idea pretty much relentlessly since grumpy cat memes and the Kardashians became a thing.  We’ve also suggested that understanding how social media works and knowing how to use it properly (for good, not evil) is essential.  We’ve seen how often it can backfire and how damaging the repercussions can be.

That was brought home to me this week by two separate “#Ask___” Twitter events.  First, E.L. James had to deal with responses that ranged from mildly sarcastic to outright insulting when she agreed to participate in an online chat to promote her latest iteration of 50 Shades.  Then, in a very different arena, presidential candidate Bobby Jindal’s #AskBobby hashtag elicited some pretty rude commentary about the Louisiana governor’s policies and even personal life and left a lot of people wondering if someone so clueless about how Twitter works could actually be a good president.

What’s amazing about both of these situations is that these are folks who should know better—or at least their handlers and p.r. people should.  The social media universe is mostly a Hobbesian place—all cynicism, righteous anger, and meanspiritedness—where moderation in opinions or dialogue is in very, very short supply.  And, those who are out there promoting themselves, their work, or a cause, need to figure out how not to fall victim to the pitchfork wielding mobs (metaphorically speaking, of course).  So authors need to beware.  In order to reap the benefits of an effective social media presence, you need to understand the potential pitfalls and be thoughtful about how to avoid them.  Like any tool, this one can help build or destroy.

What useful things have you learned from your experiences on social media?

 

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What I’ve Learned as a Writer Working at a Literary Agency: The Essential Elements of a Pitch

On the last day of my MFA program, I attended a lecture about how to secure and work with an agent. The lecture was very informative and covered a lot of what I’ve learned since starting to work at an agency; however, as a writer, I wanted to know more about query letters. She didn’t quite get into the importance of pitching your novel. She merely said, “write a short synopsis.” This was so vague! How short is short? What details should you give? What does an agent need to know about your novel, and what can you leave out? Luckily, this got me thinking, and I made a list of the items that I want to see when reading a pitch in a query letter.

Main character(s) – You should include your protagonist(s) and antagonist(s), along with their roles in the novel.

Relative age – Whether directly stated or implied through action/conflict/setting of the story.

Genre – This can be stated before you pitch your novel. You can say it directly (e.g. “In this fantasy novel…”), or you can imply it in the pitch (e.g. “Jamie wants only to be king, but can he defeat the Lord of the Dragons?”). Just make sure it’s clear somewhere in the query letter.

Inciting event – What starts the conflict of the novel?

An idea of the direction in which the plot goes – What can I expect to read about?

Promise of emotional payout – Probably the most important to make sure you’re including. Why should I care about this novel? What can I expect to feel? Though, this should NOT be directly stated (e.g. “You’ll cry when you find out how his daughter was murdered.”). You should imply it (e.g. “When his daughter is sacrificed by his religious leader, he has to choose between loyalty to the religion that will make him king or vengeance.”).

You do not have explain the conclusion of the book—this isn’t a true synopsis, but a pitch. You want to use the query letter to draw your reader in and make them want to read more. If you spoil the ending, what’s the point?

What do you think? Are there any other essential elements that will make a pitch perfect?

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Lessons from a ghostwriter

The work of a writer can take on many forms. Whether it’s articles, nonfiction, short stories, fiction or some combination of all of the above (thinking of Stephen King, Ann Pratchett, our own David Morrell and many others). But I think it’s safe to say all writers do one thing over anything else – they write.

So I found this article in PW interesting as it is written by a ghostwriter or collaborator who had worked with several authors on their own nonfiction projects, and then she decided to write her own memoir. It’s a bit of an unusual hybrid to have a ghostwriter penning a memoir, but it worked for her, and she learned some things about her own work from working with others. The lessons she offers are worth reading because she shares what she learned about her own life from writing about other people’s lives, and how she applied it to her own work.

I think there is takeaway here for writers in general. Especially her last idea that you are responsible for your own story, not other people’s reaction to it. That is such a widely applicable concept as a writer because so much uncertainty and fear exists in putting your work out there for others to see. Even seasoned authors sometimes complain that they can’t handle a bad review, or they feel terrible when they see a negative comment about their book on Amazon. We’re all just human, after all. And it takes real guts to write, and share your work with others. Bravo to Sarah Tomlinson and to all authors for overcoming their insecurities and sharing their work with the rest of us.

Take a look and see what you think. Any other tips you can share for improving your own writing from working with others?

The art of storytelling

The story matters. But so does the way you tell it. Just learn from this 23-year-old who has been writing a memoir on Instagram.

There are so many great things to love about this story. Sure, I appreciate the beautiful photos and well-written captions, but I admire the sheer ingenuity most of all. Fact: a new memoir is published every 38 minutes. Don’t fact-check me on that, just trust me. There are a lot of memoirs out there. Another fact: not many of them are written using the medium of a photograph social media platform, with carefully curated shots posted a year later, a completely different practice than the usual immediacy and spontaneity of picture posting.

Short stories and even entire novels have been written on Twitter too, but what technology gives, technology also takes away. Algorithms generate news stories and a scary amount of written content that you would never suspect. Don’t believe me? Then take this test.

The point is this: technology has changed everything and will continue to change everything, for better or worse. There are an unimaginable number of ways to spread stories now. Get creative and find a way that is uniquely you. Otherwise computer algorithms may as well write your story for you.

Also, I just wanted to include a quick update on one of my earlier blog posts. In March 2015, I posted a blog about censorship and China being named the guest of honor at BEA 2015. Want to see what that all amounted to? This was the result.

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One project at a time

I was flipping through brainpickings.org and came across some writing advice from Henry Miller that I liked and thought I’d share with our readers.

Apart from the fact that he was a master at his craft, Henry Miller’s advice feels timeless and random in the best of ways. I also like the fact that his suggestions based on his own writing habits are positioned as Commandments, an authoritative approach to getting your writing life in order. Mostly, I really like that he indicates clearly that you should work on one thing at a time until it’s finished. The rest of the ideas support this, and it’s an interesting thought. In our current culture, there’s very little focus on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is the (not so) new normal. So the idea of working on one thing at a time until it’s done feels daunting and refreshing. How nice to have just one creative project to think about until it’s finished! While it might not always be practical or even possible, it does make one think about taking a breath and paying attention in a different way that could enhance productivity.

I also like that he tells writers to keep human and see people, go places and drink if you want to. It does conflict with his advice in point 11 to write first and always while painting, music, friends, cinema come afterwards (at least the drinking is still allowed!).

What parts of his advice resonate with you? People are so fascinating. I love hearing what makes a brilliant writer tick. Don’t you?

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What I’ve Learned as a Writer Working at a Literary Agency: Creating Captivating Pitches

Creating a captivating pitch is arguably one of the hardest parts about getting an agent. As I’ve mentioned in some of my previous posts, agents are busy and read unfathomable amounts of queries every year. It’s difficult to stand out amongst the masses, but you would be surprised how easily a carefully crafted pitch can hold our attention.

Throughout my time reading queries, the ones that have stood out always followed these simple rules:

– Be reflective of what your book is and use a similar tone.

  • If you’re writing a middle grade novel about a blundering superhero, it’s okay to use goofy words (though, don’t go overboard and remember you’re querying an adult). If you’re writing an adult thriller, you shouldn’t use infantile language.

– Be concise.

  • You should be able to tell the summary of your story in 100-200 words. Any longer is likely to bore the agent, any shorter and you’re probably leaving out necessary information.

– Be clear.

  • Give the agent enough information so they’re not led on to think your book is something that it’s not. This will work against you when they read your manuscript or proposal. If they think they’re getting one thing and they actually get another, it will turn them off to whatever they’re reading. It’s similar to the idea of someone making you close your eyes, saying they’re going to feed you candy and then actually feeding you steak. You’re going to be repulsed. You may even seriously love steak, but because you were expecting candy, your tastes are off.

– Be exciting.

  • What makes your book interesting? That should be the center of your pitch. Don’t say in plain form, “My book is different because…” Make sure the distinctiveness of your novel is portrayed in your summary. If your character is a going to a magical school in a unique setting, make sure the characteristics of the school are mentioned in a way that makes it stand out from every other magical school out there.

 

I hope these tips help you make the best of your queries. I look forward to reading your captivating pitches!

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Connections

Last week, I got a submission over the transom for a YA novel. The query was well structured, a sample was attached, and while it wasn’t for me, I did appreciate that the author took the time to research and follow our submission guidelines. End of story, until a few days later I got another email from the same author—turns out her son was a very close friend of my sister from college, and could I help her out with suggestions for other agents who might want to take a look?

Well, of course I’d be happy to help—but why didn’t she make the connection in the first place? Yes, it was a couple of degrees of separation, but I think if she’d dug just a little bit deeper, she would have connected me to my sister, and then she could have included that connection in her original query. And with that, while I still wouldn’t have taken on her project, I might have written her a personal note when I responded, or offered some editorial advice, rather than sending my form rejection.

The point is, connections are a major part of the publishing game. It’s why I stress to authors at every conference I attend that if they’re going to submit to me, make sure they reference meeting me or hearing me talk at that conference. And thanks to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, etc., making those connections has never been easier.

If you really need further proof of the power of connections, go back and watch the MAD MEN finale again—or stop reading if you haven’t (SPOILER ALERT). For me, the most gratifying wrap-up by far was for Joan’s success in her new business—which is based, as they stress several times, on her Rolodex, i.e., her connections. Yes, it’s fictional and set 45 years ago, but the power of connection endure; after all, the job of a literary agent at root is to connect authors with publishers…

So while we always encourage authors to do their homework before submitting and check out the website, submission guidelines, etc., I’d urge you to go the extra mile and look for a more personal connection as well. Look around on-line, ask your friends and family if they know anyone in the publishing industry, check your college’s alumni listings—even the wedding listings in the Times can suggest a contact. Sure, at the end of the day it’s the work that matters, but that common link definitely helps get your foot in the door. And who knows where that connection might lead in the future?

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My love affair with Ann Patchett

I think Ann Patchett is amazing on so many levels. She’s so uniquely talented, is incredibly prolific, and writes nonfiction as well as fiction. I loved her beautiful tribute to Lucy Grealy, Truth & Beauty, as much as her wonderful novels like Bel Canto and State of Wonder.  And I’m a bit biased at the moment because she recently made a large donation to my small town library, which I talked about recently on this blog.

I was pleased to find an article on writing based on her book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, for brainpickings.org that offers such interesting and lovely advice for writers from one of the masters of her craft. In it she talks about how writing nonfiction for her has been easy, while writing fiction has always been more challenging. She talks about the importance of learning to forgive yourself in creating art, which she feels is critical. She uses metaphors that resonate, even if they initially feel a stretch of the imagination.  Why do writers so often feel they can send early work to The New Yorker when musicians would never think they could play at Carnegie Hall after just a month of practice!

Words of wisdom here from a magnificent and gifted writer who not only writes beautiful books, but is so open to sharing her knowledge and skills with other writers. She’s a true gift. Enjoy!

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The Pseudonym

I know I have written on this subject before but I think it is worth another round.

Authors use pseudonyms when they change categories; they also use them if their first book(s) sells less well than hoped and they want to try again.  There is nothing wrong with doing this as long as you are upfront in saying you are doing so.  (Note please, it is not necessary to provide your real name unless asked directly and then you should, while offering an explanation for why you have chosen to use the pseudonym.)

Pseudonyms can be extremely useful.  Writers can change categories by changing their “pen names” going back and forth as they wish.  Fiction, in particular, lends itself to using pseudonyms in categories such as mystery/thriller, horror, romance (contemporary, historical), sci-fi/fantasy, etc.  A pseudonym, in fact, can be an effective marketing tool.  Why tell the customer (the book buyer) the author’s real name when using another will boost sales for everyone? With social media, promotional possibilities abound when using a different name. We put together a list of a number of bestselling authors who use this device and I wanted to share it with you:

J.K. Rowling

James Patterson

Anne Stuart

Eloisa James

Stephen King (wrote short stories under the name Richard Bachman)

Nora Roberts (also writes under J.D. Robb)

Dean Koontz (writes under Aaron Wolfe and K.R. Dwyer)

Michael Crichton

Lemony Snicket

Sapphire

Anne Rice (also writes under Anne Rampling)

Agatha Christie (also wrote under Mary Westcott)

Stan Lee

I would be curious to know what you think about the use of pseudonyms, whether as a writer, you have used one, or as a reader you would buy a book by someone who does.

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Plausibility

As devoted DGLM readers know, we run an in-house book club here to broaden our horizons and keep abreast of categories we might not otherwise investigate. This month, we’re doing thrillers, and while I enjoyed my book—fast-paced, good characters, lots of practical information—ultimately it bugged me because the central premise was totally unbelievable. While there’s eventually a plot-twist that tries to explain away the implausibility of the concept, it doesn’t pass the smell test.

Yet without naming names, the book came from a Big Six house, edited by a top editor, and was the author’s tenth novel. It came armed with tons of blurbs from major authors, and I could find only one review that took issue with the premise. To which I say… really? But while I sit here feeling like I’m taking crazy pills with Mugatu from ZOOLANDER, the book did make me think about plausibility in general.

I’m sure plausibility is a question  for all writers, but especially ones who write in plot-heavy genres like thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, kids books, etc. It’s hard enough to come up with inventive plots, character and voice, yet do it in a way that readers will buy–even if your story is about, say, zombie kittens from Mars. So if you’re wrestling with plausibility issues, check out this essay from Steve Almond in Writer’s Digest, which ably dissects the various plausibility traps writers often fall into (I’d say the premise of my Book Club book falls under the Factual/Logistical umbrella). Or, for an elegant summation of how to think about plausibility, it’s hard to beat this letter from Ursula K. LeGuin.

How many of you have run into problems with plausibility? And how have you found your way out of the traps?