Monday, March 26, 2007

Advertising in Novels?

J.A. Konrath has a very interesting blog post about funding books with advertising dollars. Being who I am, I'm against using product placement and ads to fund my novels, but it's an interesting concept nonetheless.

Query 101

The Truth: I nearly failed Freshman English. I can't spell worth a damn and I still don't know what a participle is. I run into my grade school Language Arts teachers and when I tell them I'm a writer they laugh and assume I'm joking. Originally, I was destined for business. In high school, I was the DECA state champion and I went to Michigan State University with plans to obtain a marketing degree. Even though I soon realized my passion for creative writing and transferred to Columbia College, my business mind has never left. I may die without spellcheck and I may consult The Elements of Style on a regular basis, but when it comes to query letters, it's all about the marketing.

There are all types of query letters with all sorts of structures and formats, but there are a few universal truths when querying an agent or editor.

1) Do your homework. Visit the agent or editor's site and see what authors and genres they represent. Yes, this takes time, but in the end, it's worth it. When you write your query, be sure to show the person that you have done your homework. Tell them why your book would be a good fit.

2) Grab from the get-go. If you've ever been to an agent or editor's office, you have seen the piles. They have stacks and stacks of query letters to go through, all of which get read but only a few make it to the next step. It's important to make your letter stand out, primarily in your pitch. You only have a paragraph to say what your book is about, so you better make it good. Test out your pitch at writer's conferences, with your critique group, with your mom, whoever. See if it grabs your attention. If even you mother's eyes glaze over, it won't grab an agent's attention.

3) Show that you're serious. Before they even get to your manuscript, an agent or editor wants to know that you're a serious writer, not just someone who spewed off 80,000 words one weekend. Any publishing credits and awards received should be included in your query (usually after the pitch paragraph). If you have a BA or MFA in creative writing, all the better, especially if the MFA is from Iowa. None of the above? Put down that you've attended writer's conferences and/or seminars where you have networked. You're not just selling your manuscript, you're selling yourself.

4) No mistakes. Read it twenty times if you have to, but you're query letter should be free of misspellings and grammatical errors. It's not just a query, it's a demonstration of your writing abilities. If you make two mistakes in a one-page query, how many mistakes will be in your manuscript?

5) SASE. Always, ALWAYS, include a self-addressed stamped envelope with your submission. Without it, even a kick-ass query will be tossed aside.

Little things: Some of this is personal preference, so take it or leave it.
  • I don't like questions in the query letter. I have read many queries that end on, "May I send you the first three chapters?" It doesn't sit well. I'd go with, "I look forward to sending you the complete manuscript." It's confident and shows that your novel is ready to be submitted.
  • Always include what you have enclosed along with the query letter. If for some reason your SASE or pages get misplaced, the agent or editor will know that you included them in your submission.
  • If you have a blog or website, include it with your contact info, under your e-mail address or in your heading. My homepage has numerous short stories posted along with my resume, so people can look at it before responding. I landed two freelance gigs sending nothing but a pitch. The editor said she was sold after looking at my webpage. Going back to point #3, blogs and webpages show your seriousness.
  • Name dropping is not a crime...if it's done tactfully. Agents and editors will find you more appealing if you have a network of writers that would provide blurbs when your novel comes out. If one of those writers is represented by the agent you're querying, all the better. Here is a sample from one of my agent queries:

I received my B.A. in fiction writing from Columbia College Chicago, where I studied under great authors such as Patricia Rosemoor and Joe Meno. My uncle, Lee Child, has also been a great mentor to me. Each of these authors has agreed to provide blurbs for my novel.

For me, the book Agents, Editors, and You has been very helpful, as well as Hallie Ephron's Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel. Writing a good query takes practice, but hopefully, if you follow these suggestions, it won't be long before an agent or editor asks for pages.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Chicken and the Egg

How many times have you heard the following responses to "What's your book about?"

"It's Pulp Fiction meets Lethal Weapon...with penguins..."

"It's a high concept techno thriller with a dash of romantic suspense."

"It's about this guy...(This is where you zone out because no one should start their pitch with these four words)"

So how does an author begin a book? Do they start with a concept and develop characters along the way? Or does the idea stem from "this guy" and the plot forms from there? What comes first, the characters or the plot?

For me, it's been both. Thou Shall Not began with a group of people: ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel. I knew it was a world that most people didn't know much about and thought that many would be interested. While that was marinating, I read a newspaper article about a small scandal in New York where prevalent Rabbi's were caught soliciting prostitutes. This happens quite often, especially in Israel, but I knew that the story shocked most of America. Add some murders and a crime reporter who deviated from the community and came to Chicago and I had my first novel. However, with Street Walk, the character came first. Suzanne, a former prostitute who left the business after being attacked. Then I thought about how to make it worse. I made her pregnant when she was attacked and now she's living on Chicago's north shore raising her daughter. I had no idea what the plot would be, but the character intrigued me so much, that I let the plot stem from her.

I know many writers who start off with a genre, or a concept, and let the characters and plot form around that. Joesph Finder created the new sub-genre "Corporate Thrillers", thinking that since most people work in corporate America, they'd enjoy reading about it. Tess Gerritsen, after writing Romance novels, wanted to put her medical experience to use and write a medical thriller. It's hard for me to believe that writers such as Dan Brown or Michael Chrichton start developing their characters before thinking about plot.

Is one method better than the other? Of course not. Authors can't control where they get their ideas or what they think of first. But I do believe the final product is different. The aspect the author spends more time developing, will be the driving focus in the finished manuscript.

Take a book like Mystic River (okay, I know I'm a total Lehane-head, but the guy is brilliant.) What do you remember most about that book? The characters and the relationship between them. It's hard for me to believe that Lehane first developed the plot of that book before thinking about the characters. What about Jurassic Park? I don't think Chrichton first thought of a scientist and developed the character before even thinking about the concept.

Ideally, the final product would have both. Authors like Gayle Lynds and Lee Child manage to create both memorable characters and high-concepts. The important thing is that the story is compelling, whether it's the plot or the characters driving the story forward. We can't control what ideas come into our head, what thoughts preoccupy us until we put them down on paper. But even if you think of a plot idea or a concept first, it's important to create characters that are multi-faceted and will add to the story. Conversely, a book cannot ride on characters alone; you need a gripping story that will keep readers turning pages.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

From Fiction To Reality

When I created this blog, I promised myself that it wouldn't turn into an indulgent, "look how great I am", attempt at self-promotion, or worse, an unstructured rambling of any thought that comes into my head. I wanted to share my experiences and opinions, which are hopefully helpful and a bit entertaining. But this is something I can't resist sharing although I can assure you, it won't be helpful in anyway and may not be entertaining to anyone other than myself.

#1 The Fiction: In my latest book, I needed a way for my main character to live in an affluent suburb even though she's a waitress and has a five year old daughter and probably couldn't afford anything in that area. After much brainstorming, I decided to have her strike a deal with her landlord that she'd clean the common areas of the building in exchange for a reduced rent. Problem solved.
The Reality: In September I moved into my very spacious yet very affordable apartment. It was a sublet, so the lease is up at the end of April and my landlord sent me a letter regarding possible renewal. The letter informed me that my rent would be raised by about 10% if I wished to continue living here. That, I can't afford and really, I don't want to spend the money to move again. After lots of negotiating (okay, arguing) about how much my rent should be, seemingly out of nowhere, I blurted out, "What if I clean the common areas for a reduced rent?" Seriously, I surprised myself. But she agreed and I will continue to live in my very spacious yet very affordable apartment.

#2 The Fiction: Last summer I started a short story about a girl overcoming drug addiction who joins a swim team, knowing that regular exercise is an important part of recovery. But as the year continues, she finds herself getting addicted to swimming, going to the pool three times a day, getting tremors if she doesn't get enough yardage, etc. Basically, I've always said swimmers are slightly sadistic and have to be a little crazy, and thought it would make for an interesting story if I exaggerated the hell out of it.
The Reality: When I joined my masters swim team this summer, I started going two days a week. When my work schedule shifted, I was able to go three, sometimes four days. On Tuesdays, when I can't make it to practice, I swim at my gym. Then, in December, meet season started, so I started competing on Sundays every few weeks. My girlfriend thinks it's starting to get out of hand. Our team has a "mile-a-day" challenge where the goal is to swim 365 miles in 2007. To keep track, we have a spreadsheet where we input our yardage every day. Last week, I looked it over and saw that I swam every day for three weeks. No break. No rest. In April, we're going to San Francisco and while my girlfriend is looking up restaurants and things to do, I go online and search for pools. When I tell her there's a masters team that practices down the street from our hotel she gives me a look that says, "I will leave you if you go to swim practice on our vacation." I'm starting to agree that I may have a problem. My name is Dana and I'm a swim-aholic.

We always talk about putting ourselves in our characters, giving them traits that we possess. But I never knew it was possible to actually become our characters, become like the fictional people we have created. Anyone else? Am I the only one?

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Reviewers' Plight

The other day I received a call from a fellow writer/reviewer stating some concerns about books he was scheduled to review.

"I have two books," he tells me with a sigh. "One was really good, but the author totally cheated at the end and it really pissed me off. The other one was okay, the writing wasn't too great, but it was good enough that I can review it."

My reaction was he can review the first one and state his frustrations about the ending, or just not review it at all. As for the other one, why did he keep reading? If I'm not liking a book, I put it down. Life's too short to read bad books. But he told me he had three books on his stack and was afraid he wouldn't like any of them and couldn't go to his editor empty handed.

In a perfect world, reviewers would love everything that comes across their desks. Unfortunately, that's not the case. We have to make judgement calls and tough decisions about what to review and how to review it. Most of it depends on the publication. Crimespree doesn't publish bad reviews (with all the ARCs they get, they don't need to waste time reading bad books) while Time Out Chicago wants brutal honesty. Truthfully, when I read a book like my friend did, where the author cheats at the end, every part of me wants to vent and tear the book apart. But most of the time, it's refreshing to read what you want and not be pressured to get through a book that you seriously dislike.

But most books aren't so clean cut. There are books that I love and books that I hate, but most fall somewhere in between. Most books are well written but have plot problems. They have interesting characters but not enough suspense. So, what to do? Generally, if the author kept my interest for 300 pages, they're doing something right. If I made it to the end, it's getting reviewed. But what if there were significant problems with the plot, or a character, believability, etc.? I give credit where credit is due, writing about the good things and dropping no more than a line about the bad. The reader can take it or leave it. Fact of the matter is, we all have different tastes. I'm more into character driven novels, but someone else may enjoy the high-concept novels with less character development. I did not particularly care for The Da Vinci Code, but I can think of thousands of people who did. Something that I may view as a weakness, someone else may see as a strength.

As with blurbing authors, reviewers run the risk of losing credibility. Write too many good reviews of bad books and you will surely lose your audience. Write too many bad reviews and authors will hiss at you at writers conferences. Be honest and you'll maintain your credibility. Yes, I write a lot of positive reviews, but that's because the bad books don't get reviewed. It's hard enough for authors to sell books without some critic writing about how bad it is. Like my mother taught me: if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

I can't speak for every reviewer, but most of us got into this business because we love books. We're not disgruntled authors who could never get anything published so we decided to degrade the work of others. We love reading, love a good story and love discovering new authors. We sometimes have to read books we don't want to, or write reviews that aren't stellar, but in the end, the hope of finding a book we adore makes the whole process worth it.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Chicago Contingent: Why We Rock

I am very fortunate to be a part of a wonderful critique group, something that many writers struggle to find. The original members were all handpicked by Patricia Rosemoor, our professor at Columbia. We had all taken either her Suspense Thriller writing or Writing Popular Fiction class and wanted to continue working on our books after the semester had ended. Now, most of us have completed our manuscripts, Marcus Sakey and Andre Frieden each have books out, and Marc Paoletti has two novels due out next year. I'd say that as a group, we're doing pretty well.

Aside from having a talented group of writers, there are many reasons our critique group works as well as it does. For starters, all but one of us attended Columbia College at some point in time. We are familiar with both giving and receiving feedback. We know how to read critically, to listen both as readers and writers. Many writers never attend writing workshops or go through a creative writing program; they only have themselves to critique. But because we are all familiar with Columbia's method there is a level of understanding when making comments or receiving them.

Although we all write genre fiction, everyone is working on something different. We have a couple of YA authors, one espionage, and a few crime/mystery/thriller writers. I find variety refreshing, even though it is sometimes jarring to go from a serial killer thriller to a Young Adult fantasy book with fairies and giants. But I think that it is important that we are all writing novels, and it helps that they are all genre fiction. I don't know how effectively I could comment on a play or poetry; prose is what I know. In my opinion, maintaining a certain level of uniformity within the group is important.

On that note, because we are all writing genre novels, the writing group also serves as a support system when it comes to publishing or getting an agent. Now that many people in our group are beginning the querying process, they are turning to the members who have agents for advice. When it comes to publishing, everyone has a different experience and it helps to know people who are going through the same thing. When I got offers from two agents (both exciting and nerve racking) I turned to Marcus for advice. He also had offers from two agents, knew what I was going through, and gave me the best piece of advice I could have gotten: have a beer. Which I did. And it helped. When another member of our group finished her novel and was ready to begin the agent search, three of us sent her the spreadsheets of all our agent research. When Marc Paoletti's book got picked up by Five Star, Andre and I gave him blurbs. We all have a goal, to succeed in the writing industry. Our writing group isn't just about getting feedback, it's about coming together and helping each other out.

I'm not going to say that a writer needs a critique group in order to be successful. I will say that personally, I need my critique group. I think I'd lose my mind without it. But if you're searching for a writing group, keep these things in mind. It's not just about getting feedback or hearing other people's work. It's a group, a network, and for it to be effective, everyone needs to gel. I know that Backspace has tons of people looking for writing groups, but for me, it would be a little weird to get together with a bunch of strangers. If you go to writer's conferences or readings, network with local authors, find out if they have writing groups. I think the most important thing about the people in a writing group is that they respect each other's work and that they can have fun together. Writer's conferences and readings are perfect places to do both.

Anyone else form a critique group? How did it come about? Please leave comments, advice, additions to my ramblings, etc.