Despair

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One of the most difficult things to do if you get a lot of critique or pay for reads at conferences is to synthesize all the feedback you’re receiving into something that makes sense. Last week, a blog reader wrote in to ask the following:

I have a question about feedback about a WIP. I recently had 3 manuscript assessments completed, two full reads by highly recommended freelance editors (paid for), and one 10-page review by a professional agent (also paid for). The first two were really positive with minor ‘fixes’ to consider and when asked if I should persevere, the response was ‘absolutely’. However, the third feedback, from the literary agent, basically told me to start something new and give up on that MSS. So how does one take such varying feedback? Which feedback do you take on board and which do you reject without being biased?

This is a tough one. If it were me and my manuscript, I’d try and find a middle ground between “minor fixes” and “trash the thing.” Also, keep in mind that the editors read the full manuscript, which is helpful, while the agent only read the first 10 pages. In this writer’s case, I would be very tempted (as a human) to choose the editors’ opinions and discard the agent’s. However, as an agent (definitely not human, LOL), I say that the source does matter. Don’t reject the agent’s harsher feedback because you don’t like it. Here’s why: Besides writing quality, agents also have to react and think about premise and marketability, and they know more on that front than laypeople or even trained freelancers. They’re the ones staying on top of trends and the ones closely familiar with what is and isn’t selling.

(Sidebar: I’m not particularly thrilled with the agent’s response myself, though I would say there’s probably some truth to it. The reason for this is that saying “burn it” isn’t constructive to a writer. Even if I see little hope for a manuscript, I always try to at least provide some actionable feedback. I’m sorry to hear this wasn’t the case in this situation.)

Freelance editors focus primarily on the strengths and opportunities for grown in the manuscript as it exists before them. If the manuscript is technically good and the story moves along well, they may be tempted to rate it highly. Agents, however, are looking at the quality of the thing, sure, but they are also always trying to place it in the context of saleability. Because the most amazing piece of writing isn’t going to do anyone much good if it can’t be published for whatever reason (usually a too-slow or too-quiet or too-clichéd premise). So while the agent’s feedback is harsh, there may be truth to either the writing or the concept not working.

If the writer in question wants another agent’s opinion and money is not an issue, I would encourage them to seek yet another agent or editor’s opinion (someone from the sales side, not another freelance editor). That should clarify the picture a bit. If they can’t get another professional critique at the moment, I would focus on tweaking the story and concept to something that’s more exciting by today’s standards. Concept might, after all, be what the agent reacted poorly to. There’s also nothing like actually putting a project aside and getting a fresh new idea. The project doesn’t have to die, it can just step aside for a minute while you chase something else. Odds are good you’ll come back to it, ready to see it with new eyes. That’s a way to take the agent’s negative-sounding advice and make it empowering instead.

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We all know that the Internet is a great way to “get out there.” Get known. Put yourself in people’s sightlines in a new way. This can be intimidating, but it’s also inspiring. Shy people become less so online. Connections and friendships and business relationships are forged. More people know about you than ever before. But the kind of “shoot for the moon” attitude that social networking sometimes inspires also has a bad side. Sometimes people do things to get noticed that they wouldn’t ordinarily do, all because the Internet makes them feel bolder.

Here are some things that I absolutely hate when people do to me on social networking sites*. Just because I accept a friend request on my public agent profile (I have two Facebooks, one for Agent Me, the other for people I actually know from high school, etc.), just because it’s easy to find me and add me, that doesn’t mean you now have an open channel to do whatever. My colleagues at ABLA or other agencies may feel differently, but here are the social networking moves that I consider a faux pas:

Queries via Facebook and Twitter

Don’t do it. Just don’t do it. Don’t ever do it. Don’t ask me if I want to read your work via a Facebook or Twitter ping, either. Follow submission guidelines and get your work to an agent or editor the way everyone else does.

Obnoxious Wall Posting

I welcome posts to my profile thanking me for the add or talking about a conference where you just saw me speak or about a book I’ve represented or whatever, but leave it at that. Don’t post things to my wall about your book. The thinking is probably this: “Lots of people visit this person’s wall, so I can generate some extra traffic to my blog/ebook/whatever. It also looks like this person is endorsing my thing. That’s great!” I pick the things I endorse, whether for my Resources for Writers page or things I mention via social networking very carefully. I’ll either review something or retweet it. In fact, earlier this year, I retweeted a contest and it turns out the company running the contest was claiming rights ownership for things submitted, so I deleted my Tweet and didn’t recommend the contest anymore. I take whatever I mention seriously.

Don’t use an agent or editor’s page as a billboard for your stuff. Not only is it annoying, but I guarantee that any such posts to my page will get deleted, which takes time, which will only make it even more annoying. And forget about those quizzes or game invitations — we may be “friends” on Facebook but we’re not that kind of friends, and my real life friends know better than to waste their time (and mine) with that nonsense.

Invitations

There are a few blunders in the invitation arena, too. Don’t invite me to Events unless I actually know you. No book signings if I’m not a real friend of yours, no virtual launch parties, no poetry slams or what have you.

No group invitations, either. There was this one writing group that I was invited to a few months ago. My name was added to this group without my knowledge or permission. Members of the group started posting their writing samples. I’m guessing a lot of agents and editors were added to this group because the leader thought it would be a great and creative way to get some work noticed. Since I don’t join groups, I had no idea that my mail settings for Facebook sent me an email every time someone posted. The day some random person added me to this writing group, I got over 200 emails from people posting. All for a group I didn’t want to be in. I was traveling that day, and couldn’t figure out how to leave the group from the Facebook app, so I had all this spam in my inbox and I was ready to kill someone.

The new thing people are doing is adding me as a co-worker. They click that they work as “Writer” or “In publishing” or whatever, and they mark us as working together. Then I have to go to my profile and say to ignore this work information. Please stop doing that. It started happening like two weeks ago, for some reason, and it’s maddening. I work alone at home and I know, for a fact, who my co-workers are. These people adding me as a peer on Facebook are not them.

Mailing Lists

Another abuse of the Internet is adding my email address to mailing lists and newsletters. I’ve had authors do this. They will add me to either their newsletter or add my email to another social networking site where they want to connect with me, and I get deluged in emails that I didn’t ask for. Do not sign anyone up for anything without their permission by using their email address. This should be common sense but you’d be surprised at how often it happens.

The bottom line is: there’s a right way and a wrong way to get attention. There’s also a right way and a wrong way to get your work noticed. Don’t try and catch my eye through tricks or overstepping your bounds on the Internet. Catch my attention with the strength of your work and through official channels. All of the scenarios I mention above annoy me. And when I’m grumpy, I focus my frustration on the source of the social networking error: you. You may be trying to expose me to the coolest event, newsletter, query, game of Angry Birds ever, but I am never going to notice it because I’m too busy thinking you’re rude. If you really have something wonderful to show me, just show me like a normal person, don’t resort to Internet gimmicks.

* I make it sound like this stuff is the bane of my existence but, really, it’s pretty low on the totem pole. I don’t sit around all day crying about people abusing my profile. There are bigger fish to fry. But I do want to get my point across here, so I invoke emotion a lot.

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Every once in a while, I talk to a writer who is still represented by a literary agent. They are not happy in their relationship, so they are seeing, first, who else is out there, and, second, if there is potential interest in their work. Writers have approached me at conferences with this particular situation, and I occasionally get queries that outline a similar conundrum.

After just such a query this past week, it dawned on me that I’d never addressed this on the blog. First of all, this isn’t in reference to any particular writer who I’ve counseled on this issue (you know who you are). And it’s not a specific response to that one query. But here, for the record, is what I always tell writers who are struggling with what turns out to be a bad writer/agent relationship:

It is considered unethical by many agents to seek other representation while still in a relationship with your current agent. It’s like looking for a new romantic partner while still dating or married to your current one. I know there’s fear at the front of your mind that you won’t find someone new if you cut ties with your dysfunctional agent relationship and go out on “the dating scene” all over again, so you’re testing the waters. Still, this behavior is frowned upon. It is only considered correct to query after you’ve severed your existing representation relationship

There’s another option for writers who feel like they’re not getting their needs met by their agent: communicate. If you’re feeling bad, be honest in an email or phone call. Some of the time, an agent will not know that you have these issues festering. Writers are often intimidated to talk to their own agents, or they don’t want to be seen as “high-maintenance,” so they keep their problems to themselves and suffer in silence. Where’s the point in that? Tell your agent what you’re not getting and what you need to be getting in order for the relationship to function.

In some cases, the agent will say, “Wow! I never knew you felt that way. Here’s what we can do to make things better.” In other cases, the agent might be feeling their enthusiasm wane as well (this is not said to make you paranoid, but it does indeed happen in the business) and will either be honest with you about the poor fit of the relationship, or they will keep doing whatever dysfunctional behavior in order to avoid confrontation (we can be like writers in this regard). If your issue is that your agent isn’t being responsive, for example, they can own up to the past and set a better course for the future…or they can continue ignoring you.

If it’s the latter, or if they vow to change but don’t follow through, you are probably better off elsewhere. It’s scary, I know, but the situation isn’t likely to improve. If you’ve done your due diligence and voiced your concern and it’s still not getting resolved, I’m afraid you have your answer, unless there is a real reason on the agent’s side that is temporarily impacting their job performance (illness, etc.).

As daunting as it is to face the idea of being unrepresented again, to consider queries and conferences and rejection after you thought you were done with all that, you need a better fit for you, and making an agent change is a proactive thing you can do for your career. This move happens all the time.

But don’t query or court agents before you either try to fix your current relationship or leave it. It reflects poorly on you (even if we sign you, we will always wonder…are they querying others behind our backs?), and the agent you contact might, if they end up offering representation, get a reputation as a “poacher,” someone who steals clients from other agents.

As for me, I often find myself counseling writers who are in this situation, but I have to draw the line before looking at any material. My verdict is: no walking papers, no query. For our sake, for your agent’s sake, and for your own, make sure your dealings are all above board. As with any relationship, you don’t want to blur those lines.

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Sometimes “the muse” is feeling coy (As a former MFA student I really, really groan whenever someone calls it that…let’s just call it “creativity,” okay? And please let’s take off the ironic hipster glasses…), other times, inspiration seems to flow. The push and pull of the creative life changes with our lives. Sometimes we have more hours in the day and more energy to devote to creativity. Other times life seems to explode around us, eating up and choking all of our creative oxygen. Sometimes we write and get in the groove and keep writing. Other times we stop.

I firmly believe that people are creative beings. (Why, yes, I did grow up in California, with a painter for a mother and a dad who used to live on a Buddhist commune…why do you ask? That’s how come I can say “creative beings” and talk about the “Universe.”) Creativity is our mode. That’s what we do. Life is also creative. That’s the point.

For all of you out there who are still struggling to validate your own creative impulses or give yourself permission to create — both of which are really hard for some people to do — I say: Get cracking. That’s the first step in fulfilling the rest of your creative dreams. Everybody has them. Not many people get around to honoring them, and then that disappointment tends to fester. If you feel really damaged or self-conscious about your deepest desires to write or paint or do performance art on a street corner, for goodness’ sake, run out and get a copy of The Artist’s Way, buy a journal, meditate, go into therapy, shut your kids out of your office, and do whatever else you have to do to take some responsibility for your creativity.

What’s that? You have no time? Or work is too hard and leaves you too tired? Or you’re trying to go back to school? Or you’re sick and in pain? All perfectly valid. However, all are excuses. As I tell my clients: You are the only person on this planet who is going to care the most about your creative output and your career. Sure, you will get people in your corner, like your agent, your editor, your mentors, your friends and family, you cat, and your fans, who will care about your books or whatever else you do, but nobody will care about it half as much as you. (I do work hard to be a close second for my clients, though!)

Instead of this idea being empowering and liberating to a lot of people, it’s paralyzing and scary. It means you have to take responsibility for your creative ideas. It means you actually have to do something and make them happen. It means that you have to face (gasp!) obstacles and failure. Sure, there’s fear in every endeavor, but that’s good. That’s the way it works. I’d rather live a life where I’ve followed my dreams, been myself, created, lived big, failed a lot, succeeded more often, and experienced as many things as possible. Unfulfilled creative people really are the worst…they’re bitter and resentful, they blame everyone and everything else for how little they accomplish, they pull dark gray clouds along with them as they walk down the street.

Lots of people have really valid issues in this area: parents who weren’t supportive or present, real economic hardship and family obligations, societal pressure to conform, crippling self-doubt. I don’t mean to mock or make light of these things. But they are all negative. Creativity is positive. (California, remember?) And creativity doesn’t have to mean something big: a million dollar book deal, a novel completed in a month, a sleeper hit music video (ahem, Rebecca Black), a poem published, an agent secured after the first round of queries.

Creativity can be something small: one page a day, one journal entry in the morning, one picture taken, one walk at sunset. But the point is opening yourself up to it…and then being disciplined. The more you do, the easier it becomes, and the more your creativity builds off of a solid, steady foundation. Be creative regularly; every day is best. Do it for its own sake, not for the sake of the outcome (book, agent, publishing deal, etc.). Just create. Nobody will do it for you, you’re gonna regret it if you don’t, and time’s a-wastin’. What are you waiting for?

(This is as much a pep talk for y’all as it is for me. And yes, I fully acknowledge the irony of talking about creativity and the Universe and positivity and hating the term “the muse.” I’m an enigma, yo.)

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This email comes from an anonymous blog reader, and I think we can all relate to this concern:

Lately, I have been having trouble finding inspiration and the drive to actually write something. Instead of writing when I sit down with my computer, I end up checking my email, surfing the Web, and discovering other ways to waste precious writing time. In addition to being a bad procrastinator, I also have trouble finding good ideas for novels that sound interesting and appealing to my target audience. I feel like writing is constantly an uphill battle for me. How can you tell if you’re just not meant to be a writer?

Well, there are no guarantees in life, of course. You can never be 100% sure of anything, including whether or not you’re meant to be a writer. Or, I should say, you can be completely sure of it in your head but reality may not always match that conviction. There are several answers to this question, and I will strive to be as comprehensive as possible.

First, why do writers sometimes waste a lot of time and procrastinate when they know they should be writing? The good news is, all of the professional writers I know, many of them bestsellers with lots of books on the shelves, do this. They have good days and bad days, they celebrate and complain, they ride the highs and lows of creativity, just like the rest of us. But writing is their job, they’re getting paid, they have deadlines, so the most successful of them keep showing up to the page to write, even if they don’t feel like it. Because they are writers. So one piece of advice I can give you right off the bat is to keep writing and keep up your habit. If you find yourself avoiding a part in your novel that’s challenging or doesn’t feel right for some reason, skip that part and write around it. The temptation to avoid writing something and stay blocked is always there, but the trick is to keep writing past it, around it, underneath it, and the block will loosen up eventually.

The other part of the equation, of course, is the idea and the project. Sometimes, the writing urge may be there but writers get derailed by an idea that just won’t come together. So they stop writing, but the writing isn’t actually the problem. Writing a novel is a long process full of frustration and crisis (for the writer and the character, ideally). If you are losing excitement for your idea, you are going to be your own worst cheerleader. I say it’s perfectly fine to put a novel idea aside if it isn’t working or if inspiration has struck elsewhere. You can always open the file back up and start typing at another time. But if you have ideas you’re not excited about, how do you expect readers to get psyched?

So there are three issues at play: the writing, the point in the story that may be causing you to avoid it, the story idea itself. Diagnose which is making you stuck. Most likely, it is story-related. Jazz up your story or start another one. If it really is the writing, maybe take a break. If you miss it and want to come back, that will reinvigorate you.

One way writers tend to get frustrated, also, is by setting too-high goals for themselves right at the beginning. When I started writing, as a teen, I told myself that I would be completely unacceptable as a human being unless I published a novel by age sixteen. Did that happen? No. Did that put a lot of pressure on my writing at the time and take the fun out of it? Absolutely.

The fact is, not everyone who strikes out to publish a novel will end up reaching that goal. But there are many more writers out there than authors who have books on the shelves. If writing is something you are called to do for life, it you can’t think of doing anything else, then take the heat off yourself in terms of seeking publication. Take a little bit of time off. Get back into why you love writing in the first place. No matter what anybody says, publishing will still be there when you want to take another run at a book contract or an agent.

But if you find yourself churning out joyless, passionless stories or writing, day after day (and not just a brief block or period of depression), something is wrong, and you should fix it before you slog through to the query and then submission. If you’re not excited, it’ll be hard for us to get excited, too.

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Here’s a question I received a while back from Michele:

What is a writer to do when and agent really enjoys their work but passes? Obviously a form rejection tells you you’re way off the mark. If you are rejected because of an issue with the writing you can look at fixing it. But a rejection because the agent doesn’t connect with the story leaves a lack of direction. Do we leave our work as is and search for other agents? Do we assume the MS isn’t marketable and scrap it? Do we consider submitting other another Ms to that agent in the hope it will be a better fit? And, if we did submit to that agent again (and got accepted) would he/she pitch the stories the he/she already passed on? If the agent works for a house we really respect, do we query a different agent there with a future MS because they might be more passionate about our work?

Rejection isn’t just disappointing and hurtful, it’s frustrating, too. The writer is left with very little direction, as Michele so astutely points out. If the writer goes back to the agent with a question or a request for more detailed critique, the agent will usually decline to elaborate or not answer the email. We simply don’t have the time and energy to give personalized advice to everyone who wants it. So what’s next?

I’ll address Michele’s thoughts in order, starting with the first two. After an agent fails to connect with the manuscript, do you submit to other agents or do you scrap the MS and call it unmarketable?

When we submit a client’s manuscript to editors, we often get detailed feedback. If we made our client do a revision after every rejection, the client would feel jerked around, it would take forever, and there’d be no guarantee that the editor who offered some thoughts would go on to buy the project. It’s exactly the same here. I personally submit to smaller rounds of editors to see if we get some of the same feedback over and over. If we do, I can guide the client on a revision before submitting to other editors (or editors who wanted to see a revision). I suggest you do the same. Send to a group of agents and see if they all say the same thing. If they do, maybe think about revising. If they all hate it, try another group or, yes, it might be time to consider how saleable your work is. But do bounce it off several people before making revisions or the drastic decision to give up on that manuscript. There are so many tastes and opinions out there that letting one person’s rejection decide these questions isn’t the smartest thing to do.

As for querying that agent again (or another agent or editor at the same agency or house) with a different manuscript… I say you can try, but only after some time goes by and you really hone your craft. We really do get annoyed hearing from writers we’ve just rejected, if we rejected them because of basic writing issues. We’re going to think their new writing has the same issues, because so little time has passed since we saw those issues in a previous piece. Michele astutely wonders, also, if getting representation after a previous rejection means we’ll have to represent the previous project, too.

This is a sticky situation. I firmly believe that all writers are on a path toward improvement. So I never swear off a writer just because they’re not “there” in their craft, their ideas or their execution just yet. You never know. Everyone starts somewhere and then they go on to grow and learn and really impress people. That’s why I’m always going to at least look at a project from a writer who I’ve read and rejected before. If I do end up offering representation to them after time has passed and after they send along a different project, we’ll talk about their previous project. In most cases, writers who improve a lot tend to hate their previous work because they can see all the flaws in it. I can’t stand to look at most of the things I’ve ever written because I know so much better now. If the client wants to pursue it, we’ll look at it together and see if it’s viable. If it’s not, I am under no obligation to represent a client’s past work and drawer novels because I put my name and reputation on the line with everything I send out to editors, too.

If you still want to work with the same agency or house but want to try another editor or agent there, do make sure that you’ve done significant revision. And wait until you’ve heard from all the other agents and editors who you have submissions out with. One of them might have feedback for you. If you’re really set on working with a particular company and they’ve already rejected you once or twice, really do put everything you’ve got into that next submission, since you may not have that many more chances. And, as always, patience is your #1 asset at this point.

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It hasn’t happened to me yet, but I know that I’ll get ragged on for telling people the truth, as I see it. Writers are sensitive beings. I say some pretty harsh things. Like that you’ve got to write a million bad words before you can start writing seriously. Or that getting published is easy, if you’re good. Some of these things are not fun or easy to hear. I’m sorry for that, but I’m not sorry I say them. Why? Because they’re true.

Writing is a difficult, solitary, extremely personal thing. People spend years of their lives pouring their souls and creativity into a project. I’m acutely aware of that fact every time I sit down to read slush. Not only am I rejecting a particular manuscript, I could be rejecting years of a person’s life. It’s a tremendous responsibility and an amazing act of trust. I don’t take it lightly, even if I do make jokes about bad queries or the slush sometimes to keep things lively on the blog. Many of my friends are writers. I make a living by working with writers. I write myself. I have the highest respect and reverence for both writer and the written word. And that’s exactly why I dish out the truth, even if it sometimes sounds harsh or callous.

The biggest thing that stands between a writer and their own success is their ego. So many critique groups flourish on the idea of positive reinforcement. Unpublished writers sit around complimenting each other for hours and tiptoe around the problems. Everyone feels good but nobody learns, nobody grows, nobody goes through that horrible revision that makes them want to eat a gallon of ice cream every five minutes. And nobody gets published.

It’s very difficult to divorce yourself from your writing, since writing is so deeply personal. However, writing is personal, yes, but the business of publishing isn’t. Divorcing the two in your mind is the only way to grow and learn anything. Feel free to have that “I’m a genius and nobody else understands me!” moment. But don’t get stuck there. The fact of the matter is, there are many aspiring writers out there who are constantly honing their craft. Don’t get behind just because you’re afraid of a little criticism. (Don’t follow all criticism and change everything about your work for other people, of course, but that’s for another post…)

Here are the facts, as I see them: Not everyone who wants to will get published. A lot of people’s writing is mediocre and will most likely stay that way because nobody has ever told them it’s mediocre. Some critique groups are more harmful than helpful because everyone is afraid to actually, you know, critique. Not every book deserves to be published… in fact, many writers practice with two, three, five, ten manuscripts before they ever start to see a positive response from agents or editors.

It’s tough going. Really tough. It’s in your best interest to develop a thick skin, learn how to take criticism and rejection, separate yourself from what you’ve put on a page, learn everything you can about the industry, get realistic, and keep writing every day. The one-in-a-million publication stories are the ones you hear because they’re glamorous. Most people get published through the tears, snot, spilled coffee, midnight breakdowns and rare moments of joy that comprise a long time spent chasing a dream. It’s not terribly sexy, nor is it quick. But that’s how people make it and that’s the truth.

You come to this blog to learn things from the perspective of someone who sees thousands of queries, reads thousands of manuscripts and meets thousands of writers. Unlike well-meaning critique partners or clueless friends, it’s not in my best interest to sugarcoat. But I will tell you that books sell every day and that dreams do come true. When they do, though, it’s no accident or luck on the part of the writer, agent or editor, it’s hard work and determination and the hard-earned reward at the end of a long road. Unless you’re Stephenie Meyer, as this funny op-ed from agent Stephen Barbara recently pointed out. But that origin story is taken, so it’s time to find your own.

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Let’s begin at, well… enough smart-assery for today. But seriously, let’s talk your beginning. The first sentence of your novel. The first paragraph, the first scene. This will, in most cases, determine whether an agent reads on or not. Whether an editor reads on or not. Whether a reader picks you book up, scans the jacket and then the first bit, and buys it… or not.

Before I tell you what to do, I will tell you what not to do, in no particular order:

  • Waking up: DO NOT. DON’T. Don’t even think about it. Many of the manuscripts I get begin with a character waking up. Why are you making this choice? Most good stories begin with a character who has just been knocked out of their usual equilibrium or is going into a tense situation. Surely, you can begin in a more interesting place than waking up. And even if the character is waking up into their strange new situation, just change it. Make them awake. Do you really want to be exactly like everyone else I reject today? On that note…
  • Regaining Consciousness: This is also a no-no. I know a lot of people like starting their books moments after a character has just received a blow to the head. Here’s the problem. A reader wants to be grounded when they begin a story. They’re looking for basic information: Who is this character? Where are they? When are they? What’s going on with them? A little bit of confusion is fine, but that doesn’t play well with a reader, especially at the beginning of a story, because all the reader wants is information. If your character is confused, your reader is confused, they’re working hard, they’d rather put your book down and go have a cookie. You have to hook them… not give them a headache. So if your very own character is asking “Who am I? Where am I? What year is it? What’s going on?” then your reader will not have anything to hold on to. They’ll put your story down.
  • Scene Setting: People care about characters, not landscapes. Start your story with a person, not with beautiful prose about the glorious rolling hills of I Don’t Care. This especially goes for weather. Remember how “It was a dark and stormy night” is lambasted as being the worst first sentence ever written? Lots and lots of people start out talking about the weather… especially stormy weather… because they think it’s dramatic and will heighten tension. No, relationships between two people who want different things, in a scene together, are dramatic and heighten tension.
  • Emotional Scene Setting: The same goes for a long description of a character’s emotions. I read a lot of manuscripts that begin with things like, “He was so depressed. Depressed-er than depressed. Things were so wrong, they’d never be right again. He felt like he’d been plunged underwater, all the colors and the sounds and the joy… gone!” (Obviously, this is bad on purpose.) Well, this is fine, but we don’t know why things are so terrible for Emo Boy, so we don’t care. It’s a bad place to start.
  • Normal: This is perhaps the biggest cliche I see in novel openings. “Jimmy was just a normal kid, everything about his life was so totally normal. He woke up when he typically does and walked the normal path to his normal school. ‘What a normal day!’ he told his usual friends, Norm and Al…” etc. And then, something completely changes him into an extraordinary kid!!!! WOW!!! Okay, so, granted, this is usually how a book starts. A character’s “normal” way of life, their equilibrium, has been knocked off-kilter. Now they have to find a new normal. That’s fine. BUT DON’T TALK ABOUT IT! SHOW US! (More about showing vs. telling later.)
  • Backstory: A long prose-filled retelling of the backstory of a character, place or event isn’t a good start, for me. I don’t know the character, event or place yet, and I’d rather see it with my own eyes, see it in action, than being told about it. Work backstory and context into the prose later, but not in the very beginning (and not too much of it).

I bet you’re asking yourself: “Well, what’s a good place to start my story?” If you hadn’t gathered from the above, a good beginning involves tension, conflict, relationship and characters. In other words, a scene would be a very good place to start! You have a main character, you have what they want, you have what’s getting in the way right now, and you have another character. Toss them like the Chaos Salad they are and give us a scene to launch your story with action.

It’s called in medias res in Latin. And no, I don’t know a lot of Latin, just enough to make me seem slightly pretentious. It means “in the middle of things.” Launch right into some conflict with more than one character and catch the reader up with backstory and quick flashback as needed. Start with a scene. Most movies start like this, so do most plays. You don’t often go to a movie and see the main character monologue for 15 minutes before the action starts, right? The same should be true for your book. Start with a scene that shows the reader, a) who the character is, b) what they want and c) how things have changed for them recently. Try imagining this scenario for your characters and writing a scene for the beginning of your story. It’s hard, but beginnings are often the most time-consuming and most-frequently rewritten bits of a novel.

Speaking of which, there’s also a little something called the “promise” of a novel that you need to consider in the opening pages. I need to know, after the first 10 pages, what the rest of the novel will be about. This is the promise you make to the reader when you start out. You don’t have to say, explicitly, “The rest of this book will be about alien warfare.” But little Jimmy should at least be gearing up to fight aliens or in alien warfare class or something so that, in my head, I get a sense for where you’re going with this. Don’t start the book off with Jimmy in alien warfare class and then make the rest of the story about his passionate fight to save the redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest. Both stories are fine, but you need to make sure you make a promise to your reader — my book will be about _____ — and stick to it. We won’t know how far you’ll go or where your plot will take us, but if we’re prepared for the general idea of your story from the first page, we’ll follow you very far. Up next… plot!

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This is a question writers ask a lot. Here’s the situation: you polish a manuscript draft (so you think) and then you send it out to agents. Then, since publishing is notoriously slow, you sit around and have some time to think and wait. You realize things about your manuscript that you should’ve done differently. You begin to revise and realize there’s a LOT you could’ve done differently.

Oh no.

Now you can’t even begin to fathom how awful your last draft is and you can’t believe that it is sitting in Dream Agent’s inbox in that deplorable, horrid, unfinished condition. An anxiety flares up in your chest and makes your pinkie toes tingle. You have to send them the new version. You have to. Right. Now.

But there are lots of questions involved. Will the agent take it? Will it make you look bad? Will even asking guarantee a speedy rejection?

Here’s the thing, and I can’t say it enough: there are only a finite number of agents in the world (or, only a finite number worth working with… the point, remember, is to get a good agent, not just any agent…). You’ve spent all this time writing a book and you can only show it to those agents once, unless they ask to see a revision down the line. Why wouldn’t you take the absolute maximum time you can to make sure this book is polished and perfect?

Because you’re human and you’re impatient and you want to get feedback from publishing professionals on it now now now. It’s okay. I understand this urge. I’ve sent out manuscripts to agents only to do a huge revision. I’ve sent that dreaded “Actually, can you look at this instead?” e-mail.

So if you find yourself in this situation — having rushed out a manuscript that wasn’t ready — you are in the same boat as many, many other writers. It happens. Agents know it happens. So when you e-mail us and ask to submit another draft, it is likely we’ll say “Sure, send it in,” unless we’re already reading your manuscript. If we are, we still might still say “Sure, send it in,” but only if we like what we’re reading so far. Or we might reject you, because some agents have no tolerance for this. At this point, it’s up to you whether you want the risk.

The fact that writers pull the trigger too early is no secret in agenting circles. Besides, there are precious few debut manuscripts (if any) that go out on submission to editors without some revision. Whether you do that revision for an agent before or after signing their contract, you will do some revision. So, agents know that a manuscript is a malleable thing.

It doesn’t exactly impress us that you submit a manuscript and have a brand new draft the next week, but it happens. Just make sure the second draft you submit is really, really, really good. Otherwise, you will lose points in the competence and professionalism departments. I repeat: if you plan on re-submitting something, take your time, for the sake of all that is holy. Don’t just rush through this draft, too! Someone once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results…

I will say it once, I will say it a thousand times: patience is a virtue, my dears. You’ve got a list of agents. You’ve got a manuscript that represents your tears, blood and late-night tiramisu binges. That stack of words and paper better be your damn best piece of work before ever the twain shall meet. Dig?

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by Carol Lynch Williams
Young Adult, 224 pages.
St. Martin’s Griffin (2009)
ISBN: 978-0312555115

Kyra Leigh might be Chosen to wed her uncle, Hyrum, an Apostle in their fundamentalist religious sect, but his Choice is only the beginning of the toughest one she will ever make. A thirteen year old girl raised by three mothers among a brood of brothers and sisters, Kyra knows she has to obey Prophet Childs, whose messages come to their Compound directly from God.

But she knows a few other things, too. She knows that Joshua, a neighbor boy, has feelings for her which are deeper than those she sees in most plural marriages. She knows that the books Patrick brings by every Wednesday in his Mobile Library on Wheels do not contain the word of Satan like everyone says they do. She knows that just because Prophet Childs decrees something, it isn’t always right.

Kyra and her vulnerable, extremely human family are pitted against the cold and effective machine of Prophet Childs’s zealous hold on the community. Her uncle’s desire to take her as his seventh wife puts her in the eye of a controversy that results in death threats, beatings and near-constant surveillance. She must choose between giving in to his Choice and abandoning her home and family for the terrifying freedom of the real world.

When Kyra finally chooses, the reader can intimately feel the entire weight of the world on her shoulders. And there is no happy ending. There is only hope and, for what it’s worth, the noble knowledge that truth and faith don’t have to be contradictory, violent things. THE CHOSEN ONE is a poignant, gut-wrenching story of destiny, family and the search for self in the face of great obstacles. In these brief pages, Kyra takes the stand of her life, loses everything and I will never forget it. This book is one I highly, highly recommend.

THE CHOSEN ONE comes out May 12th, 2009. Pre-order your copy today or pick it up at your favorite indie store. Here are links: THE CHOSEN ONE (Amazon), THE CHOSEN ONE (Indiebound).

For Readers: Kyra is a character who will remain with you. Invisible walls that feel stronger than any brick and mortar surround areas in everybody’s life. Williams’s honesty in writing this and Kyra’s great courage alone are worth the read. While there are a few violent or upsetting scenes, they’re crucial to the richness of the climax. One big issue here is women’s rights and gender roles. Under Prophet Childs’s watchful eye, women are second class citizens who are not allowed to act or think or speak for themselves. The brutal lessons here make this book even more unforgettable.

My galley came with a preview of the audiobook, which will be released on May 12th by Macmillan Young Listeners. Actress Jenna Lamia, from what I’ve heard so far, does a pitch-perfect version of Kyra. If you prefer listening to books, pick up a copy.

For Writers: An environment must be a character in your story. If it isn’t, you’re missing opportunities to bring out themes or manipulate the emotional impact of the work. Williams’s emotionally-charged settings are a masterpiece. From the real world, where Kyra and her family are ridiculed, to the Prophet’s office in the Temple, where danger crackles in the air, any writer can pick up the subtle yet unmistakable mood Williams sets. If your settings aren’t doing any thematic or emotional work for you, pick up THE CHOSEN ONE and see how it’s done.

I don’t think I can say this enough, but a writer can’t be afraid of consequences. Some writers tend toward unrealistic happy endings and neat topped-with-a-bow conclusions. In a lot of cases, that’s not lifelike. There are consequences for every action, good and bad, and, if you’ve done your job, your novel will have a lot of action. Don’t be afraid of putting your character in a difficult situation, it will make them more real to your readers. For one of the most emotionally raw, unsettling endings I’ve read lately — and one that hits all the right emotional buttons — read this book and see how oddly satisfying it manages to feel.

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