Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the category “Uncategorized”

Scary Agent Vetting Test (in real time)

Someone who has been around the block a time or two recently told me about an agent who sent him the dreaded:

“Your submission is intriguing, but your manuscript needs professional editing. I could refer you to a colleague of mine…” 

The incident occurred without any red flags (to him, anyway), which was discouraging, because this garbage (a) scares the crap out of me; and (b) pisses me off. But I thought it would allow for an interesting opportunity to test out the vetting process I’ve outlined before.

The catch? I’m going to do it as I write this post. Good or bad, I’m just going to go through the vetting process with this agent and agency’s name and post what I find. So, here goes:

Step 1: Google is your friend

Google result for [Agent Name] at [Agency Name]:

  • First result is AbsoluteWrite, which I’ll be going to in Step 2 anyway, so I’m disregarding for now.
  • Second result is his listing in the 2013 Guide to Literary Agents. Not bad. It’s no indicia of quality, but there is a listing (which is better than no listing) showing two agents at the agency. Using the “look inside” feature, I discover:
    • Warning flag 1, they accept queries through e-mail (normal), but their e-mail address is a Gmail account (normal if your business is run out of a school bus).
    • Warning flag 2, they list 10 clients, 5 are new/unpublished. It says they’ve been around since 2009, with 2 agents, so (assuming this is true) they’re making around one sale per year between two agents.
    • Warning flag 3, which is related to the Gmail account for queries – they don’t appear to have a web page.
  • And that’s basically it. Which is not a good sign.

Google result for [Agency Name]:

  • OK, this is a weird one. I get a web page saying:

 In 1999 I inherited the literary agency you were referred from, [then it lists another agency I’ve never heard of] and while I no longer work in that business, I do still refer the occasional book to some of my friends at major publishing houses. I have helped secure a few major book deals over the years through my referrals, so it can’t hurt to get your book information to me. I do not charge any fees unless I am able to sell your book.

  •  We’ve had some warning flags prior to this, but this is our first full-on WTF moment
  • This web page listed under (and the letter is ostensibly from) the guy whose name is on the agency name (it’s his last name), but none of this information is the same as the agency information in the guide Google found us. Nor does he mention any other agents – like, for example, the two freaking agents operating out of the agency that bears his name.
  • Then it gets weirder, with his detailed instructions about how to contact him through his LinkedIn account, and he just asks you to “submit your book.”
  • This isn’t the dude I’m looking for, but I’m still trying to figure out this agency that closed, agency soliciting submissions, dude who wants books sent to his LinkedIn account thing, so I click on “Books,” on his web page. It will be interesting to see what books he’s repped, if nothing else.
    • OMFG. I am literally laughing as I type this. The dude has a pile of books by him on this page, ranging from a cookbook to spiritual self-help stuff to a freaking rhyming dictionary he wrote.
    • So, I just clicked on one and tried to look up the publisher. Never heard of it, so I tried AW and Google and still can’t find anything but the publisher’s web page, which is literally a static web page with the name on it. No tabs, no books for sale, no address or phone number, no links – nothing. Just “Publisher Name.”
    • I clicked his cookbook (because I’m hungry), but it isn’t finished yet. It literally just says that (and lists some tasty smoothie recipes).
    • OK, so here’ a Chicken Soup for the Soul book (the Magic of Mothers and Daughters). Don’t those CSS books have the same publisher? He can’t rep all of them, can he? So I click that, and nope. Doesn’t look like he did it. I just Googled around a little and he seems (or at least claims) to have an essay in one of the CSS books.
    • If you tell me you’ve repped bestsellers in major deals, you’d better have some books to back it up. I don’t really care if you have a heartwarming story about your Nana.
  • I seriously sidetracked myself, since I still don’t know what the relationship between this dude and the agency in question even is, but I got a smoothie and two sandwich recipes to show for it. Because you need a fucking recipe to make a sandwich.

Back on the hunt

Google result for [Agent Name Literary Agent]:

  • I get the same guide to literary agents, and a Writers’ Market for novels and short stories (produced by the same company) that list him. So basically the same listing.
  • OK, I’m feeling pretty good about our process, now. There’s a listing on the Writer Beware blog. OK, it’s just in the comments, so I’m not holding that too, too much against him at this point. No specific allegation of wrongdoing (may not even be the same dude).
  • But that’s all I’m getting (outside the sites we’ll specifically go to below, the hits all seem to be a literary agency with an author who has his last name or another combination that isn’t referring me to the right guy – except white pages listings and stuff like that.
  • We already know this isn’t looking very good from a quality standpoint, even if there isn’t an ethical issue. If your agent’s name doesn’t show up in some kind of agenting related context when you Google it, you’re probably not looking a superstar agent (or minor a league player with potential, for that matter).

Step 2: The Usual Suspects.

1.     Predators & Editors has a listing, not listed as a “beware” but says “No valid sales to commercial publishers yet.” At this point, I’m done. Ignoring all the shenanigans and smoothie recipes and everything else, I’m not looking to be the first book some dude (not from New York, not in New York, and, as far as I can tell, not coming out of an agency or publishing house to start this agency up) sells. Editing conflict/scam/garbage aside, I’m not chasing this bait just based on quality of potential representation.
2.     AbsoluteWrite should be interesting. I just clicked on his entry and the only thing I’ve read so far is someone saying s/he received a request for a partial and wonders if anyone knows about the agency (the post is from March 2011).Before I go any further, are you serious here? You got that request for a partial because you sent a query. Why, in God’s name, would you be sending out queries to agents with no idea whether they are legit, and then start asking about them on message boards when you’ve received a partial request? In this querier’s defense, from later posts it appears he did look at the writing on the wall and run. I just don’t see why you’d wait to do due diligence until after you queried.
Interesting development – they have a web page. There was a link in AW.
                           i.      OMFG – they offer both literary services and in-home elder care. I shit you not.
                           ii.      Oh, wait, not really. The web page is the domain name seller, who has mocked it up to look like you are at a site at that address. Not much better, but less funny. (Sorry about that, but I promised to do this as I went through the process, not that it would be pretty).
So they had a web page once, but have taken it down, because people in the AW community are talking about their bios (which don’t include any prior experience in editing or publishing).
Oh, boy, here we go. An AW member was kind enough to include the text of a letter:

You possess good writing skills and sense of story. However, as you might know, placing fiction in today’s brutal market is extremely difficult. About the only way an unknown writer can get his or her manuscript picked up today is for the writing to be exceptional. I suggest you consider obtaining the services of an editor who can help raise your writing skills to the next level. Don’t be disappointed about my suggestion. All serious writers use editors. If you do not have any editing contacts, I will be glad to give you the name of a talented lady I’ve know for a number of years.

 

Just for the record, it’s officially –DING, DING, DING. The smoke that was too thick to see through has cleared enough to see the raging fire. Even if it weren’t for the prior misgivings, I’m running like hell now.

 
And another one, just for good measure. Same language, same offer to hook up with professional editing help. Still no sales.
 
3.     QueryTracker The dude doesn’t show up on the agent listing. Patrick at QT does quality control, and won’t list an agent with editing fees. I feel fairly confident calling this whole shady as fuck at best and possibly an outright scam at worst. Yes, I’m talking to you Jack Bollinger at the McGill Literary Agency, with no legitimate reported sales but plenty of referrals to for profit editing services.

 

At this point, we’re at least sufficiently up to speed to close the book on this agency. Sorry about the dead-ends and tangents, but they provided some good laughs. Bottom line, though, is we were able to know what the problems were going to be before we had any problems, so that part worked out well.

Happy querying.

There’s More to Writing Members of the Opposite Sex Than a Name and a Haircut

Growing up with three sisters and being the primary parent to four daughters, I have a passing familiarity with females. My closest friend over the past 30 years (since high school) is also a woman. Shit, even my dog/constant companion is female; as is our cat. We also have a frog. I don’t know whether it’s male or female, but some species of frog have been known to change their gender. In my house, if you had a choice, you’d probably be a woman.

Having spent my life treading water in an ocean of estrogen, I think I write women reasonably well. Being a huge fan of women helps. Seriously, if there is a fandom for womanhood, I’m in.

The popular, and politically correct, thing to say about gender is that “people are people, and it makes no difference.” That’s a lovely thought, but it’s also complete bullshit. Straight men are different from straight women, gay men, gay women, genderqueer men and women, and pretty much everything except other straight men. And everyone in each group I mentioned is different from every other group I mentioned, too. If you want to write from a gender and/or sexual (or asexual) orientation other than the one you inhabit, I earnestly believe step one is: There are differences, deal with it.

You can’t write a good woman if you’re a man or a good man if you’re a woman by acting as though they aren’t different and just attach a female gender designation to a generic character and expect her to be believable. You can’t include LBGTQ characters in your manuscript by taking a heterosexual couple and gender switching one of the people. Most gay male couples I know are more like hetero couples than they are gay female couples. The European Union spent ten billion dollars building the Large Hadron Collider to study shit that less complicated than some of the lesbian couple dynamics I’ve been witness to. So, no, you can’t just rename Jim “Jane” and call it a day. Trying to address the LBGTQ issues this topic implicates would expand it way beyond a blog post, so I’m going to drop that issue here, except to say that the same general principals apply.

I hate gender binaries, but the fact remains — there are generalized differences in the way women and men react to things. We process somewhat differently. That doesn’t define who a female character is, but (like education level, the stability of a character’s childhood home, and a billion other things) it colors how the character will act and react to things. Ignoring those differences is not healthy or helpful. It might be nice to claim to be gender blind, but it’s also stupid.

It’s not writing related, but the example that leaps to mind comes from the time I was a college debate coach. Understanding the difference between the way you motivate (most) 20 year-old men vs. motivating (most) 20 year-old women was a watershed in our success. Embracing, rather than pretending to ignore, that difference is critical.

The problem is, just recognizing the differences and basing characters on them leads to shitty character development at best, and harmful stereotypes and tropes at worst. The differences between men and women don’t define men or women as individuals. Which brings us to step two: Those differences don’t define a character. Gender differences constitute one aspect of the lens through which she views things or reacts to things. It exists alongside her upbringing (abusive alcoholic parents vs. Leave it to Beaver) and education level (junior high dropouts tend to view things and react to situations differently from – and be in different situations than – people with doctorates). There are a thousand things that make up a character’s perspective. Gender is an important one, certainly, but it is still just one of many.

The funny thing about this subject is that the “trick,” if there is one, is a nuanced version of “ignore step one.” Or, more accurately, embrace it at a very deep level. There are two standard pieces of advice on this subject, and they both suck. The first is to just write good characters and not worry about whether they are male or female. That, to me, is equivalent to saying “just write good characters and don’t worry about whether they are eight, fifty, or eighty years old” or “people are people, so it doesn’t matter whether your character is devoutly religious” or something like that. The second piece of bad advice is to study the people you are trying to write – in my case study women. I understand where this advice comes from. If I want to write about a beat cop, you can bet I’m going on ridealongs with the police as often as they’ll let me. But this is one of the rare instances where studying what you write is a mistake. At least, going outside yourself to study it.

 

So here’s Step three: Come to terms with the fact that all people are cocktails of femininity and masculinity. It’s not an on/off switch between men and women, it’s a question of addressing each character’s unique blend. 

Women tend to be higher on the femininity, but that’s not always the case. In my manuscript, for example, my protagonist is a fairly feminine guy (feminine, not effeminate). He is extremely close to his sister, who is fairly masculine for a woman, and certainly more masculine than he is. She’s still quite female, but not particularly feminine in her behavior or the way she processes information. I didn’t spend a year structuring my manuscript that way so I could prove a point in a blog post – That’s just the way those characters came out when I wrote them eighteen months ago.

So if I were going to try to give a piece of functional advice, it would be to start by realizing we’re talking about different ratios of Masc/Fem, and both are present in every person. Instead of looking outward at women as a starting point, if you’re a man, look at yourself and evaluate your feminine qualities. They are the same ones that are present in women, they’re just there in different proportions. They’re probably easier to spot when you realize you share the same characteristics, just (possibly) a different blend. When looking outward at women, pay attention to what you probably consider masculine traits. Again, they’re all there, just in different proportions. Then mix and match those traits in all of your characters. Each character is a different cocktail of those traits. There is no “woman” character and there is no “man” character. And the easiest place to find and understand those characteristics is in yourself, because all of those traits are in all of us.

The Elusive “Showey Tell” (a language unique to query letters)

Show, don’t tell is a common mantra in writing. When it comes to our manuscripts, the distinction is easy: “She got angrier as she listened to what the person on the phone was saying” is telling. “Her hand tightened around the phone, as if to strangle it, until the plastic seams cracked,” is showing. But we don’t write specific scenes into our queries, so the “show don’t tell” mantra takes on a different meaning in query, er, PBP, writing.

In PBP writing, there are two bad types of telling (and zero good ones, if you’re keeping score):

Bad Telling No. 1: Conclusions about your book.

The classic example (which, from agent websites I read, never goes out of style) is, “This will be a bestseller.” Or “Millions of people will want to read it,” “This will make you rich,” “Should win the next Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,” or some other bullshit claim that your book will sell tons of copies and you are a blossoming literary giant. Don’t. Just, don’t. Nobody knows which books will sell millions of copies. Publishers and editors and agents who have been in the business for decades routinely guess wrong. Any statements you make in this regard will come off as unrealistic, amateurish, and idiotic.

Still, if agents and publishers are going to represent and publish our books, they need to think there is a chance at least one of those claims could be true. Nobody’s going to rep or print a book that he thinks has zero chance of being a bestseller. The trick is, we need to show them why that’s the case, instead of merely proclaiming it.

How to Show Your Book will Sell Tons of Copies. First, start with specifics. How awesome you are is not specific. How awesome your mother thinks you are is not specific. How awesome you think your book is – you guessed it – not specific. Because you are pitching an unpublished manuscript, it is unlikely that there will be anything specific you can say about it’s likelihood of success, in and of itself. Do not dispare.

Market demographics are specific. The last thing I’d advise is to chase fads, but, if your book is about a topical and controversial subject, there is a chance you can grab free publicity because of it. A smart agent will connect these dots for herself, you do not need to spell out how your controversial and topical book will do that. But you sure as shit need to work that controversy into your summary, maybe even noting that you’re directly addressing a controversial topic. Let’s go to the opposite end of the spectrum. Maybe your topic is so noncontroversial that people have routinely been writing books about the subject for decades or centuries. Help the agent know why yours will not drown in a sea of like books. Find your niche. The field of “teenage girl falls in love with a dangerous boy” has been plowed so many times, you’d think it would be infertile [Note: Freudian slip of the day, my fingers automatically typed the word “infernal”]. Vampire stories are a dime a dozen. Be the first to market with those two worn tropes, and you’re a trendsetter.

In other words, know your market. Claiming that your book will appeal to everyone means admitting you haven’t figured out who it will appeal to and, by implication, is basically an admission that it won’t specifically appeal to anyone. The most common approach to identifying a market is to look at comps (comparable books, readers of which, presumably, should like your books based on the similarities). I think an otherwise excellent query can be helped by good comps, but not much. Think about what taking things one step further says to an agent. Instead of saying “Readers of X will like it” tell the agent “These statistics I easily found on the interwebs show that the same demographic that purchased a billion copies of Kid Detective are also the primary audience for America’s Got Stupid Hobbies.” Coming on the heels of your blurb, which describes a mystery solved by a young contestant on a talent/variety show, the dots will connect themselves.

What did you show the agent? Assuming you’re only sending PBPs to smart, experienced agents, you showed a little bit about your book and a lot about yourself. You indicated a demographic link that could make the book easier to sell, which, by definition, makes it more attractive to the agent. But you also showed up in your “I’m not a flaky artist” pants, acknowledging that this is how we’re all hopefully paying for the next round of braces for our kids and this book has to do something in the real world. Maybe I’m too much of a flaky artist at heart, but I’m not counseling that you piece together the ideal demographic for your book and then write a book to sell them. Write the book that wants to come out of your brain. But, after you do, put some serious thought into who would be most likely to want to buy it.

Bad Telling No. 2: Telling your book instead of showing it.

This is where the tricky “showey” kind of telling comes into play. Here’s the PBP version of a bad telly tell that tells a lot:

[Editorial Note: To accomplish that end, I wrote out a 2 minute mock blurb that consisted of pairing the single most overused trope in lit fiction with my favorite uncle’s first name and a sheep, then packing it full of cliches. Last night, I received a scathing message telling me it was obvious who I was making fun of. I don’t think the complainer is aware that I was making fun of the dead-horse trope, but — screw it. I already did another bad telly blurb that tells a lot in the Star Wars Example, below.]

The “telly” problem query usually contains no shortages of clichés, discusses the protagonist’s emotional, spiritual, and/or intellectual growth as though it’s a concrete thing, and phrases everything in conclusory sentences. Even queries that should be showing exciting events frequently get bogged down in “telly” summaries. Here’s a bad, telly summary of Star Wars:

A restless dreamer of farm boy finds adventure when he embarks on an adventure with a spiritual mentor who teaches him the ways of the Force. Together with a ragtag group of misfits, he rescues a princess from the brink of death and defeats the forces of evil through his newfound powers.

It sucks, right? But it’s also a fairly accurate description of Star Wars’ narrative arc. In a bad, telly way.

 

How do you show a book in two hundred words?

This one is trickier than hell – cue the unicorns and rainbows, call in your inner flaky artist, then read Query Quagmire, the Query Shark Archives, and the billion other resources out there about querying and try to get a feel for it, because it makes little intellectual sense. The easiest way to put it is that there is a special “showy” kind of telling that makes a query blurb work. The only real test for whether you’re there is the same test Justice Potter Stewart stated as his threshold test for illegal obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio : “I know it when I see it.”

I could post 1,000 words a day for a year trying to explain this concept and it wouldn’t do the job. I’m not kidding about hitting the Query Shark Archives. Ms. Reid does a great job of breaking down why queries work and don’t work (in a constructive way, actually oriented toward helping queriers, not just trashing them for fun like some on queryfail). But the correct solution for any specific manuscript will be unique to that manuscript. I’ve even found that the right language for the same manuscript can vary by agent. Your voice as an author needs to be the driving force, balanced with the incredibly small amount of space we have to work with – maybe 200 words. For me, the test was reading through archived and criticized query letters until I got to the point that I could guest blog for the agents and nobody would have a clue I was substituting. With enough time, you’ll be able to see exactly what works and what doesn’t and know why before you even get to the agent responses. In other, geekier, words, you start beating the remote even though Obi Wan put the blast shield down on your helmet.

You can’t follow the novel-writing version of show versus tell. You have to encapsulate the main characters and key conflict from a 100,000 word novel in 200 words. There just isn’t room to have people’s knuckles turn white while they’re holding onto the telephone to show they’re angry. There isn’t even room to talk about a specific telephone call. So, step one is acceptance: you’re going to be telling. The key is telling in a way that the conclusions (Luke learns to stop whining, gets a little Force action going and blows the Death Star to shit) are obvious from the events you summarize. Taking another run at Star Wars:

Luke Skywalker had no intention of joining crazy old wizard Obi Wan on a mission to rescue a princess from the Galactic Empire, even if she is beautiful – and scheduled for execution. But when the Emperor’s henchman, Darth Vader, brutally kills the only family Luke had ever known, he joins Obi Wan and the rebellion against the Empire’s technological tyranny. Obi Wan has been guarding a secret about Luke since his birth. That secret may be the only hope for the rebels, or Luke, in their battle against the planet-killing Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon.

First, cut me some slack here. I don’t write sci-fi or fantasy, and this is a first draft blurb (meaning it’s about twenty revisions away from what I would really be willing to send someone). I can tell you right now that I wouldn’t ever send out a query that started by saying what someone did not intend to do. I can also see that a second draft would move the ultimate weapon/Death Star part up to joining the rebellion, and probably up the stakes by specifying I mean Planet Fucking Killing – billions of people at a time killed – highass stakes. But the point is, the second version has a rebellion, people being brutally killed, a scheduled execution, an evil henchman and a planet-killing Death Star that must be stopped. It hopefully has less clichés, and creates tension in the form of saying what the stakes are (although not well enough to send, yet). It also has a secret. Secrets are cool. It doesn’t say anything about resolving the conflict because, hey, that’s what the manuscript is for.

Now, if that prose were in a novel, it would be far too telly. But, for purposes of a PBP, it’s showey. Which is to say, it tells the story of the events that happens in the book. It tells the agent who the actor in the story is, what actions take place, and what the stakes are. It doesn’t say anything about personal growth or Luke’s perspective, it sticks him in the middle of a rebellion against something being driven around the galaxy by an evil henchman that kills planets. “The only hope” is cliché as hell, but I might leave it in a revised version anyway, since the name of the book is A New Hope.

Clichés have a habit of hiding in our work, even parsed work like queries. So do words signifying introspection (learns, connects, understands, grows, etc.). If you’re talking about someone’s feelings in a query, you’ve probably screwed up. You need to describe the events in such a way that the feelings are obvious. If a woman I’ve never seen before puts a knife at my throat, I’m scared and confused and probably just shit myself while simultaneously picturing every ex-girlfriend I’ve had since 4th grade and comparing the resemblance to my new acquaintance. Almost all of which can be implied by saying (depending on whether it were a crazy ex from years past) that a woman I’d never seen before put a knife there or a woman I did not, at first,  recognize put the knife there. For a query, that’s all you need to say about my thoughts.

If all else fails, make a list of the key events in your narrative arc from the beginning of the novel up to the point outlined in yesterday’s brilliant graphic. Use those events as the template for what you must convey in your query. Then pare the list down to the key events that cause conflict. What you have left is a to-do list for your query. It’s also a to-don’t list. Don’t filter any of those events through feelings or introspection or growth or anything else.

I’ll leave with an attempt at a query blurb (not the whole thing) template.

Dear Agent:

Here’s my protag. He’s up to his neck in shit, and it’s still rising. He’d better do something about that, or he’s fucked.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Michael J. McDonagh.

Querying Overview: What a Query Letter is (and isn’t)

Being new fairly to the whole ‘I want to try to publish a novel’ world, the querying process blows my mind. I’ve said it before — There aren’t a lot of other arenas in which someone with no background or credentials of any kind can fire an e-mail off to an insider in a multi-billion dollar industry and say, “check out my awesomeness.” I can’t hotlink a YouTube video of myself singing and dancing to a Broadway agent and have even a theoretical chance of playing Frank in the next revival of Rocky Horror. But in the world of literature, I can do just that.

 

Publishing was doing American Idol before American Idol was a thing. I’m not all roses and sunshine here; the numbers are daunting. I was unable to find any source that reliably estimated the number of queries sent out in a year, but I’m willing to bet its somewhere between a buttload and a shitpile. One established, successful agent kept track of his slushpile for a year. He received around 11,000 queries, one of which resulted in an offer of representation. He was what I will call an A (or at least high B) list agent, so the numbers aren’t always that bad, but nobody goes on Idol wanting to hear Paula say she sings nice before getting voted off.

As much as people want to bitch about the process, it’s still one of the most egalitarian processes imaginable. There’s just a whole lot of competition. Worse than the real competition, there’s a whole lot of noise. Which brings us to what a query is (or needs to be): First and foremost, it is something that cuts through the noise. I said “first,” so I should probably start numbering this shit:

1.     (big surprise here) A query needs to be something that cuts through the noise. This is not as hard or tricky as it sounds. It does not mean sending your query about brutal kidnappers in a box with a candy (or real) human finger enclosed. It’s not about being kitschy or clever (your ideas need to be clever, the way you present them needs to be straightforward). Cutting through the noise starts with being concise, clear, and direct. Your query should be grammatically pristine. The first person to read your query will not (as often as not, assuming you’re querying top-shelf agents) be the agent. It will be a reader, often an unpaid intern or, at best, an underpaid assistant. This person’s primary job is to weed out the garbage. I want to believe (and for purposes of this post, need to assume) that your actual manuscript is awesome and people are going to want to publish, buy, and read it. That’s not going to happen if your query about a serial killer is scrawled in pig blood on a sheet. There are enough queries that fail to directly and effectively give an indication how good the book is, you can stand out from the noise best by doing that.

2.     A query needs to follow the rules. Not the “rules of querying” because there are no such thing. But every agent has decided what he or she wants to consider when looking at an initial submission. Some want a query and three chapters. Some want fifty pages. Some want five pages, or a given number of words. Some want one or more of the above, plus a synopsis (and usually state a maximum number of pages for that piece). Next to pig blood and fingers, few things will kill your querying chances faster than not following the agent’s submission guidelines. I have yet to look at an agent who accepts unsolicited queries without finding a web page that has a tab with information about submissions. Read them. Follow them. There is no excuse for not doing this.

3.     A query needs to be directed to the right person. I don’t mean send it to an agent, not a butcher. I mean send it to an agent who reps the type of material you wrote. If you wrote a MG fantasy, don’t send it to an agent who exclusively reps athlete memoirs. If you sent it to a butcher, and she liked it, she may give you a couple of stakes – meaning you would, literally, be better off sending it to the butcher than an agent who doesn’t rep books in (or even near) your genre. [Note: I realize MG is not a genre, although fantasy is, but it’s easiest for purposes of this discussion to ignore the distinction between marketing categories and genres and just say genre.]

4.     A query has a specific job to do, and it isn’t to tell the agent all about your book. Or about you. Your query’s job is to get the agent to look at the first sentence of your manuscript. Period (as though the period at that sentence were not enough). That’s it (Because just saying period after typing a period was not enough). I’m not just filling space here. Understanding that’s the only job your query has to do is crucial. It’s also hard to do. We’ve poured our hearts and souls into 100,000 word masterpieces. The coolest thing in the story is the intricate way three plot lines converge in a brilliantly plotted twist. Our characters are amazing; the tribal rivalries between our gnomes and trolls or the flora and fauna of our intricate world are wonders. But the reader and/or agent aren’t going to give a shit about any of that. They look at a query with one question in mind: Is there a chance this person sent me an interesting, well written story. If the query makes one of them think there’s a decent chance the answer is yes, he or she will read your first sentence. At that point, it no longer matters how good your query was. All that matters is whether the first sentence is good enough for him or her to move on to the second. Because you’ve submitted an awesome story that people will want to buy, you’re golden. The query’s job is over when the agent reads that first sentence.

5.     A query is a business letter. And it’s not. It’s a combination business letter/sales pitch, but there need to be solid reasons for straying from the business letter courtesy and professionalism before you do. If you write erotica, and you’re querying a book about a bunch of people banging the shit out of each other on a cruise ship, your query is obviously not going to read like a quarterly report. But an agent who reps erotica (which is who you’re querying because you did your research) isn’t reading your query out of prurient interest. An efficient explanation of the plot and conflict coupled with the fact (which should both be stated and obvious from your explanation) that it’s erotic fiction will get you there. If you really want the agent to get a boner, throw in a demographic breakdown on the age of purchasers of erotic fiction and how it coincides with the demographic who book cruises in a way that makes it seem reasonable you could sell 100,000 copies. He’ll need to call his doctor in four hours.

6.     A query is a business plan – a short, incomplete, and overly generalized one, but a business plan nonetheless. Agents love books, or they wouldn’t be in that business. But it’s also how they pay for their kids’ braces and their cats’ food (don’t ask me, agents really seem to dig cats). There’s a two-part inquiry, and the parts overlap: (a) is this a great book; and (b) can I sell it. If you were to send an agent a beautifully written book about a subject she and seven other people in the world hold dear, you will probably get the nicest rejection letter imaginable. Because there is no market for your book, there’s no way she’ll be able to sell it to a publisher. A critical part of writing an effective query is accurately determining what your market is. This does not mean, “I think I write just like Harper Lee, and To Kill a Mockingbird has sold a billion copies in hardback.” It means doing some honest-to-goodness analysis of who your target market is. You can do this with similar author comparisons, but – since that’s what everyone just throws out – if you can find a better market basis, it will strengthen your query enormously. Using the above-example, which do you think makes an agent see dollar signs more concretely:

“This book will appeal to readers of Danielle Steel.”
 
Or

“The largest and fastest growing segment of the destination cruise industry is thirty to fifty-five year-old women, who also happen to be the purchasers of over eighty percent of all romance and erotic fiction.

[Note: I made up every statistic in that sentence, and you need real numbers, not made up numbers for this to actually work.]

Because I come into writing and querying after decades in business, the standard comparables query makes little sense to me. It strikes me as saying, “I have an unknown, untested, and unproven product that offers the same thing as an established brand does, at the same price.” I think you are more likely to be noticed if you can: (a) identify a clear market segment who would be interested in buying your book; and (b) stating how your book fills an unmet need in that market. You don’t want to be the 30th person that day who tells Mr. Erotic Romance Agent: I’m going to be the next [whoever]. You want to be the 1st person this month the agent thinks may someday be showing up in queries from people claiming they will be the next her.

7.     A query needs accurately represent your manuscript. This is where a query that does its job (gets the agent to read the first sentence) can still be a fail. There are a number of reasons the disconnect between query and manuscript can occur, and all of them are on us. There have been times I’ve read or seen interviews with agents and thought, “That’s someone I’d love to work with,” only to discover she only represents MG and YA authors. I’m not doing either of us a favor retooling my query to make it sound more YAish than it really is. I’ve also seen this happen through well-intentioned collaborations. If a query is, well, bad, there’s still hope. Most writers’ websites have a query critique section, and a lot of extremely helpful advice is available. With enough people helping critique and polish a query, a bad query can become great. The problem is, when all people know about the manuscript comes from the query they are critiquing, they may be suggesting changes that make the query look better on its own, but take the query a few steps away from accurately representing the manuscript. Once that happens a few (or a few dozen) times, it can be like a bad game of telephone. What comes out on the end bears little resemblance to what started. Even if the agent likes the query and reads your first sentence (and your first sentence is excellent, by the way), you can still end up with a fail just because you’ve set the wrong expectations before the agent started reading. It’s like taking a sip of tea, only to discover that it’s chicken broth. You don’t stop to think about how good the broth is – it tastes disgusting because it isn’t tea. And you were expecting tea. So you spit it out, not realizing it’s probably the best chicken broth you’ve ever tasted.

8.     A query is not an ass-kissing festival. This goes back to the business letter concept. On the one hand, I didn’t query agents at random. I targeted specific agents for specific reasons, and I am perfectly happy articulating those reasons (if it works into the flow of the query I’ve tailored for that agent). For example, my manuscript is a satire that directly addresses a hugely controversial subject. One of my target agents said in an interview, “I am happiest when I’m representing books that take on controversial subject matter.” Of course I’m going to tell him I’m querying him, in part, because that’s what I’m looking for in an agent. But I’m not going to fawn on him about his bravery or his brilliant work or how much I admire the authors he represents or how hot he looks since he got that new haircut or how I friended his ex-wife on Facebook just so I could tell her off about that shitty thing she did with the kids custody in their recent divorce. Instead, I recommend approaching it from the perspective that this is a mutual selection process. The agent has to want to represent me, but I also have to want to be represented by that person. Hopefully, my criteria include something more than a pulse in that regard. Articulating the objective reason in a professional manner enhances your credibility lets the agent know this isn’t a spammy, one of 4,000 queries I sent today query. And, that is abusiness plan (between you and the agent) in a business letter, that cuts through the noise, and lets everyone know you’ve directed it to the right person.

There are many moving parts to a query, some of which I touched on in this post. I’ll get to the nuts and bolts elements of constructing a query later this week. I wrote out what is, essentially, a 2,000-word description of what a query is first, because the right query for each manuscript is going to be different. Sometimes, the right query for a particular agent on a particular manuscript is different from the right query for another agent. I wanted to start with the general concept, which boils down to this: A good query is a professional and concise sales tool that accurately describes the basic concept behind your manuscript to the right person in a way that makes her want to read the first sentence of that manuscript.

Period.

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part Two (Or: How to effectively sprinkle zombies through your writing)

I already dedicated one post to my jihad against grammatical absolutism. The “Rules of Writing” Should be Called (and treated like) the “Guidelines for Editing” Once again, with respect to active versus passive voice, Messrs. Strunk & White are among the standard-bearers Once again, the general concept has been expanded to dogma. Usually preferring active construction over passive is a worthwhile editing tip, along the lines of looking for excessive, well, anything. But that’s about it.

According to Strunk & White, “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.” Gee, you mean sentences like that fucking sentence about passive voice? Let’s run a few tests from the last post.

  • Is the verb being done to the subject? The subject is “sentence” the verb is “made.” Oops. Hey Mr. White, you wrote the fucking sentence telling us not to use passive voice in passive voice. Like I said before, if you can identify the subject and verb, you can always identify passive, so that proves it. For a quick refresher, though, let’s run through the other tests.
  • Is the Noun followed by a prepositional phrase? Hey, look at that. The prepositional phrase “by substituting” follows the noun “sentence.” The preposition “by” and verb “substituting” creates a prepositional phrase. Which means the sentence is passive.
  • Is there a conjugation of “to be” followed by a past participle? Since “can be” is a variation on “to be” and “made” is a past participle – ding, ding, ding.
  • Did zombies write the sentence? “Many a . . . sentence can be made lively by zombies!” Yay zombies. Boo Elements of Style.

This example does a great job of showing how hypocritical (or, more likely, clueless) Strunk & White could be about grammar. The sentence does a great job of showing why we should avoid passive voice. It does so by: (a) using passive voice; and (b) sucking so much. Specifically, sucking so much in the precise way passive voice can (but doesn’t always) make our sentences suck.

The sentence has been treated (hehe) as a call to action, challenging writers to make their prose more vigorous and engaging. Something you can only do if you ignore what they actually wrote.

What they wrote:      “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.” (teh suk)

What they meant:      “Active voice makes your writing livelier.” (less teh suk)

By sucking, Elements manages to show us the reason we should avoid passive voice. Usually (but not always) passive sentences are less engaging. This, like the adverb advice and every other “Rule” about writing is worth understanding. Not because passives are inherently bad, but because they have about a 50/50 chance of making our writing less engaging.

 

Bad passives should be avoided.

How do we know which passives are bad? We’re the writers, it’s our world, they are our words, so it’s up to us. I like finding all of the passives in my writing, but I don’t expect to get rid of them all when I find them. Typically, I look for alternatives. In the case of the title of this tip, the obvious alternative is “Writers should avoid bad passives.” Meh, it’s a little better, so I would probably make that change (without any great feeling of accomplishment upon having done so). Sometimes, though, I find sentences that are watered down by passive voice, and changing it to active improves the sentence enormously. Changing an event from passive to active often changes the tone from one that reports to the reader about what happened (“The protesters were excited by the speaker. The embassy was attacked”) to one that shows the scene more vividly (“The speaker worked the protestors into a frenzy. They attacked the embassy.”).

There is no “Rule” for this. If I were to try to formulate one, it would be Passives are worth finding because there’s a coin-flip chance the sentence could be better. Unless you write with a lot of passives, in which case they are even more worth finding because there’s an even better chance the sentences could be better. Grammar check is your friend. If you honestly wonder whether you overuse passives, look at your readability statistics (most word processing programs have them built in, and the Google machine can send you to dozens of free sites where you can paste in pages to do a quick test). If you’re over five percent, you should do some serious thinking about your writing. Less than that, you’re probably doing just fine. That’s just a blood pressure check, though, and a final manuscript needs an angiogram. Grammar check misses passives on a regular basis. You need to be able to identify them for yourself, because (particularly in longer or more grammatically complex sentences) a fair number just slip through the cracks.

Good passives should be hugged (by zombies).

Thanks to grammar check, I know that, statistically, my fiction runs between two and three percent passives. That’s a good range for me because, at that level, I’m probably not using passive voice in sentences where it is not clearly the best tool for the job. Contrary to what my college professor, a law school professor, scores of people giving grammar advice on the interwebs, and Strunk & White believe, there are plenty of situations in which the passive voice is best. The first paragraph of my manuscript contains this double-dose of passive voice: “Feeling as though he was being watched, which he preferred to admitting he was being ignored, Nick tried look casual.” Passive? You bet, times two. That’s the least of its problems. Not only is it passive deux foix, the whole thing is nothing but exposition about my protagonist’s feelings and thoughts. Something else I do very little of in my writing. For good measure, I split an infinitive.

In that introductory paragraph, I’m teasing out why Nick is there and what he’s waiting for. It’s all explained, through dialogue, about 200 words later. For that particular paragraph, though, I wanted to leave a bit of a question mark about who was watching (or ignoring) Nick. I did this largely to make the “them” more of an abstract concept (which, to Nick, “they” were at the time) and less of a good-natured guy named Jim (which, “they” turn out to be). I want the putative watcher(s) to be as abstract as possible. Because active voice usually helps by making our writing more concrete and direct, it works against that goal.

There are a number of situations in which passive voice may be the better choice. (Alliteration, yay. We should all march around chanting that). Those times include instances in which:

  • The actor shall remain nameless. Maybe you don’t know who the actor is (“The book was printed in 1614”), the actor is too broad to try to identify (“…has been proven by hundreds of studies”) or you want to keep the mystery going (“we were being watched”).
  • The action is the focus of the sentence. Sometimes, passive voice can be used (by zombies) to place emphasis on the verb, downplaying the relative importance of the subject. “All men are created equal” may be sexist, but it’s not bad writing. Saying “the experiment was conducted in strict conformance with ethical standards” shifts the emphasis from the subject (the experiment) to the manner in which it was conducted, which is the focus of the sentence. If the answer to the question “Where’s mom?” is “She was kidnapped,” you are not lacking for clarity, action, or anything else. “Three men in a gray sedan kidnapped her,” provides more information, makes the sentence active, and changes the emphasis from “kidnapped” to the three men.
  • Put your best foot forward. If your subject is not the actor, but you still want to keep as much focus on the subject as possible, it helps to identify it first. “Clouds are formed by evaporation” places the emphasis on clouds. “Evaporation forms clouds” says the same thing, and does it actively, but it also changes the focus of the sentence from clouds to evaporation. This is the inverse of “action is the focus of the sentence” and can sometimes yield the opposite result based on whatever else is happening in the sentence. Hence absolute rules being a bad idea.
  • If you’re Richard Nixon’s press secretary or you’re withdrawing your nomination of Zoe Baird to be Attorney General. In some instances, the grammatical double-speak that is the hallmark of passive voice can be your friend. “Mistakes were made (by zombies)” is easier to say than “My boss, the President, really screwed the pooch on this one.” My favorite personal example comes from this group. I had a legal research and writing professor who was adamant about passive voice. He would not accept the argument that “Sam Watson was killed” was better than saying “My client killed Sam Watson.” A man like that needs to be in academia. In the real world, his adherence to the prohibition against the use of passives is called malpractice.
  • The nature of what you’re writing is instructive. Meaning, you are writing a passage or blog post or something else that provides instruction. “When you finish doing X, Y will start happening” is a natural formulation in instructive writing. Most of what I am advising here is oriented toward fiction writing. The advice is probably worth keeping in mind, but sometimes constructions that avoid the passive in instructional writing are so convoluted, they make things way worse than a zombie ever will.

A sensible approach to passive voice makes the ability to identify passives a valuable tool. Saying that passives have no place in our writing just makes you sound like a tool. It’s ironic that I feel compelled to defend something that only shows up in one of every forty sentences or clauses of prose I write, but the idea it needs to be avoided altogether (by zombies) compels it. Primarily because we should get rid of passives most of the time. Knowing the rule and being able to spot them facilitates that. More importantly, it empowers us to look at a sentence and, with the full understanding it’s passive as hell, decide, yea, the zombies can keep this one.

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part One (Or: What World War Z taught me about passive voice)

I had a professor once who thought (a) passive voice happened any time you have a conjugation of “to be” at work in a sentence; and (b) passive voice must always be avoided (hehe). He was wrong on both counts, and it took me years to overcome the trauma. We’ll start with a rule (whether something is passive or not is a yes or no question, so there’s no problem having a “rule” about that). Then we’ll talk about applying the general idea (not a rule) that passives usually (i.e., sometimes but not always) weaken our writing.

A)  The Basic Rule

Passive voice is a simple, but often misunderstood, concept. We’ll start with the simple part. In passive sentences, the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action in the sentence. That’s it. You do not need a Spymaster Deluxe Decoder Ring to work your way around this concept. If you can figure out what the subject of a sentence is, you can figure out whether the sentence is passive or active.

If you can’t figure out what the subject is, don’t worry. That’s not rocket surgery, either. The subject of the sentence is, generally, the thing the sentence is about or the thing that does the action. If it’s the thing that does the action, the sentence isn’t going to be passive, so the problem solves itself. We only need to worry when the sentence is about a thing that isn’t the actor. This also applies to clauses, but I am going to just address sentence structure to keep this simple.

We ate pie.           We are the subject of the sentence. We did the verb (ate). Yay us. This sentence is not passive.

The pie was eaten. The pie is now the subject of the sentence. The pie didn’t do shit. It just sat there being eaten. Boo pie. This sentence is passive.

So, the basic rule is simple. Look at the verb and ask whether the verb is being done by or to the subject. If it is done by the subject, you’re golden. If it is done to the subject, the sentence is passive. Does the fact that it is passive mean it sucks? Not necessarily. But we’ll deal with that in a bit.

B)    Same Rule, Just a Little Less Basic

If all sentences were three or four words long with one noun and one verb, the issue would be closed there. We’d sound like 1950s Hollywood stereotype cave men and Native Americans, but we’d be done worrying about passive voice. Assuming we want our narratives to be slightly more nuanced than “Kate make fire,” we need to take a couple more issues into account.

The pie was eaten by us. Now we have two nouns (well, OK, a noun and a pronoun). Now there’s a noun (us) doing the eating, so the sentence can be active, right? Not quite. The “by us” part is a prepositional phrase (“by” is the preposition). But hang with me here, because if you just learn one more little rule, you’ll have your black belt in passive kicking. Or at least your fourth-degree brown belt (not to be confused with a fifty shades of grey belt, which is a whole other thing).

Whenever a passive sentence has an agent doing the verb, that agent is going to show up in a prepositional phrase. So there will be a preposition (by, from, after, etc.) followed by a noun or pronoun. They aren’t the subject of the sentence, they modify the verb that is doing something to the subject of the sentence.

If you grew up speaking English, you don’t think twice about prepositions. If you are learning English as a second language, you probably think preposition is a four-letter word (or a twenty-one-letter word like “big-fucking-pain-in-my-ass”). From a linguistic point of view, they are amazing little buggers with an amazing history, but today I am focusing on the fact that they are a pain in the ass to identify.

In passive sentences, the prepositional phrases most often used are: by, for, from, after, off, on, and between. That’s not a scientific study of language, by the way, it’s my opinion. Here’s another opinion, about half of the time, the preposition is “by.” So when you see a sentence with a noun, a verb, and a prepositional phrase “by [whatever]” your passive radar should start ringing.

C)     Same Rule, The Part My Dickhead Professor Didn’t Get.

If he weren’t the only person with this misconception, I’d assume he just learned half a rule and missed the next day of class. Because a good portion of the English-speaking world (including a few old-school English teachers) labors under the same misconception, it’s worse than that.

The truth is if you find a form of “to be” in a sentence AND it’s followed by a past participle (let’s just call it a past-tense verb for now), you’re going to end up with a passive.

The cake has been [that’s our ‘to be’] eaten [that’s our past participle] by them (or anyone, at that point, because it’s already passive).

So Professor Asshat had half the rule right. Well, half of the first half of the rule, because he was dead wrong about passives being wrong all the time, too. But forms of “to be” (is, are, were, will be, have been, etc.) by themselves do not create passive sentences or clauses. When combined with past participles, they’ve always resulted in passive voice, though (hehe).

 

D)  Same Rule, Keepin’ it Real.

If your eyes rolled back in your head when I started talking about prepositional phrases, roll them back. The grammar part is over, and it’s time to deal with the real-world use.

1)    It helps to learn about the past participles and prepositional phrases, but it’s not required. You can identify passives if you are able to identify the subject of the sentence.  

2)    What’s the sentence about? That’s the subject. In my examples, some sentences have been about pie (“The pie was eaten by us”) and some sentences have been about us (“We ate the pie”). If you can identify the subject, you can identify passive voice.

3)    What does the subject do? In many sentences, the subject is also the agent of the action. If the subject is doing something, we don’t need to worry. The subject can’t be the doer of the action and the recipient of the action at the same time. It’ll go blind. (I’m kidding, it’s grammatically impossible). If the subject is doing the action (e.g., “The pie attacked Cleveland”), your sentence will be active.

4)    If the subject isn’t doing anything, you probably have a passive sentence. Take a look, is the verb being done to rather than by the subject? If the answer is yes, then your sentence is passive.

5)    If all else fails, look for prepositional phrases. Sentences can get complicated. Especially if you write like I do, and half of your first-draft sentences are run-on amalgamations of phrases and punctuation that seem to last for pages. You can still catch most passive sentences that have two nouns (and/or pronouns) if you just look for prepositional phrases that include “by.” Broaden your search to include on, off, from, against, between, and the other prepositions, and you’ll nail that type of passive.

 

E)    What the hell does this have to do with World War Z?

Because — zombies, man!

Among their few contributions to society are the zombies’ uncanny ability to guide us through passive sentences. Want to know whether a sentence without a telltale prepositional phrase is passive? Ask yourself this: Could the zombies have done it?

We ate the pie. (nope, there’s no pie left for the zombies)

The pie was eaten (cue awesome, eerie music) BY ZOMBIES! (yep, passive).

What you’re really doing here is inserting the implied prepositional phrase to show the actor in a sentence that lacks one. This is one of those rules that works better than it should, probably because it’s fun, which keeps editing interesting. Nothing livens your writing up like a good zombie apocalypse. Ironically, nothing shows the need for livening as effectively, either. If you run through a page or two of your manuscript and realize that you could have zombies doing most of the things that happen, there’s a pretty good chance your writing contains too many passives. One zombie every few pages? That just keeps your characters on their toes.

As I’ve said before, there are no rules of writing that shouldn’t be broken for the right reason. More importantly, knowing what the rule is, why it operates the way it does, and why it has been accepted as a “rule” is a prerequisite to breaking those rules effectively. Today I covered the relatively boring part (except for the zombies, because zombies are cool). Next up, we get to the fun part:

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part Two (Or: How to effectively sprinkle zombies through your writing)

The “Rules of Writing” Should be Called (and treated like) the “Guidelines for Editing”

Just about everyone who has written much has compiled a list of his or her Rules of Writing. Most of those lists include similar items, like:

  • Don’t use adverbs.
  • Don’t use adjectives.
  • Use “said” (and nothing but “said”) as your dialogue tag line.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Don’t use passive voice.
  • Have your character see something, don’t just tell us she could see it (and a corollary, tell us the thing happened, don’t tell us your character felt it happen).

and so forth. Often, the lists also include one more item, saying it is the most important rule of all:

  • There are no rules.

None of the “Rules” is truly a rule — or at least not a law. The last one in particular. There is, however, an important reason for including that on the lists. Starting with the fact that these are not really “Rules of Writing.” they are, more accurately, “Rules of Editing Your First Draft.”

Why the difference? Because we have enough on our plates when we are actually writing a story or novel. Creating believable characters in the midst of a situation fraught with conflict is hard. Doing that well, writing dialogue, thinking of a clever (but not too clever) way of resolving that conflict is hard. Writing believable dialogue where fifteen different characters sound like fifteen different people — with different education levels, who grew up in different parts of the country or different countries, who have different motives, who may be acting out of character for themselves in a given situation or who may be perceived by other people in the world you create in a way that is entirely different from the way they perceive themselves — is ridiculously hard. 

Trying to come even reasonably close to writing a half-decent first draft while also worrying about following all of the “Rules” is like trying to drive cross-country being followed by a cop who watched you walk out of a bar. You’ll be so worried about signaling before every lane change you’ll probably forget to look at the fuel gauge and run out of gas somewhere in Kansas.

So you soldier through the first draft, secure in the knowledge that it is going to suck whether or not you bother trying to follow any “Rules.” The difference is, if you disregard the “Rules” at that stage, there is a chance you will actually finish your first draft.

That’s why they are rules of editing. You use them when you are done to go back through and clean up the steaming pile of shit that is your first draft. 

There are “Rules,” and then there are rules.

Capitalization notwithstanding, the rules (like the one that cause me to put a comma after the introductory clause in this sentence) are relatively concrete. When people are talking, we put what they are saying inside quotation marks (unless you are Cormac McCarthy, and even with a writer that much more brilliant than I will ever be, it still bugs the shit out of me). Rules of basic grammar and construction make your writing comprehensible to people who have learned to read according to those rules. There is seldom (like, maybe, one time per couple of full-length novels) a reason do deviate from that outside of dialogue.

“End each sentences with a period, exclamation point, or question mark” is a rule. There is virtually never a reason to deviate in prose. “Don’t use more than three exclamation points in a novel” is a “Rule of Writing” (which is to say, an editing tip). There’s a big difference.

Make no mistake about it, I love the Rules of Writing. Almost all of them. They are rules of thumb from people practiced in this art who know what they are talking about. And I follow those rules 95% to 100% of the time.

Because of that, I love breaking the Rules of Writing even more.Because that one time in fifty or one in five hundred that I break them, I’ve had a long, hard talk with myself about whether I should be breaking the Rule in question. There are few sentences in my writing I have examined more closely, dissected more thoroughly, more earnestly searched for alternatives to breaking the Rule, and so completely convinced myself that there was no alternative. Going down the list:

  • Don’t use adverbs. Maybe I overdid it a little in the prior sentence, but it’s packed with adverbs that, combined with the alliteration, hopefully made the point. I am certain that I did not overdo it with the sentence prior to this one, because I’m not sure whether I accomplished that end, so “hopefully” is necessary for the sentence to be true.
  • Don’t use adjectives. Application of this rule and its exceptions are functionally the same as adverbs. If the bomb is going to set something on fire, it’s best to give the reader a heads-up that it is an incendiary bomb. 
  • Use “said” (and nothing but “said”) as your dialogue tag line. Unless the speaker just finished running and finds herself panting. This is the Rule I probably break more than any other Rule, but I can also say that I follow it at least 9 times out of 10.
  • Show, don’t tell. Novice (or bad) writers breaking this rule without a good reason account for most of the crappy writing in the universe. That said, if you show something important at the beginning of a dinner party and your plot doesn’t move again until the drive home, no reader wants to watch everyone eat just for the hell of it. A sentence or two giving us the gist of what happened during the meal (telling) is much better storytelling.
  • Don’t use passive voice. Thanks to grammar check, I know I hover between 97% and 98% active voice, which is as close to following this rule as I will ever get. Sometimes (though very rarely), the “passive” voice means livelier writing. “He put his hand on the doorknob, not knowing that if he opened the door he would be killed,” is passive, but, if you don’t want to disclose who or how or why he would be killed in that sentence, it’s still the way to go.
  • Have your character see something, don’t just tell us she could see it (and a corollary, tell us the thing happened, don’t tell us your character felt it happen). Done without intent, ignoring this rule leads to flat, boring writing. It adds unnecessary words and perspective to action, diluting its impact. By the same token, though, writing that a character “could feel the sweat roll down her forehead, stinging her eyes” changes the sensation completely — because the significance is not the sweat itself, it is the character experiencing it. And if I want to say she could see Canada from her back porch on a clear day, I shouldn’t feel obligated to make her go out and look at Canada every day it isn’t raining.

Do not read that analysis as me being dismissive of the Rules, because I am not. Odds are, you will find those and many other general rules of writing followed closely in my prose (which, unlike blog posts, I edit). More closely than most other writers. The distinction between bad Rule-breaking and good Rule-breaking is this: Good Rule-breaking means (1) you know the Rule; (2) you understand the purpose behind the Rule; (3) you have looked at the sentence that breaks the Rule to see if you can re-write it so that it follows the Rule; (4) every way of following the Rule you can come up with makes the sentence worse; (5) so you highlighted the sentence and moved on; (6) looking at it the next day, you remain reasonably sure the Rule needs to be broken; and (7) you make a mental note to go back over that sentence when revising (each and every time) to make sure that the changes don’t eliminate or reduce the need to break the Rule.

That’s how seriously we should take the Rules. They are not absolutes, but they’re close. If you make a conscious decision to break them 2% of the time for a really good reason, those departures can make your writing shine. Up that to 5% and it dulls your writing. More than 10% and I can almost guarantee you are not someone who knows the rules and is making a conscious decision to break them. A person breaking them that much just doesn’t know how to edit his work. 

What #Queryfail Taught Me About Agents and Writers

I was late to the #QueryFail party, which is a little bit like being late to the Jonestown Kool-Aid party. I am not bummed I missed it.

If you, too, were fortunate enough to miss the massacre, here’s what went down. A couple of agents thought it would be a good idea to post the most egregious “QueryFails” they saw – i.e., parts of horrible query letters, on Twitter. OK, no big deal. They removed names, etc., so they weren’t calling anyone out. Some people even thought it might be a good learning opportunity for writers. Nothing teaches you how to succeed like watching other people crash and burn.

As one of the agents who started the party put it:

Colleen_Lindsay: It’s about educating, not about being mean! =) #queryfail

Then it got mean. Which is to say, its primary value came from mocking the easily mockable queries that must drive agents nuts on a daily basis.

As one person tweeted:

@Colleen_Lindsay i find your #queryfail to be both mocking & mean-spirited. laughing at people’s inability to reach their dreams always is.

Then there was some back and forth, with many writers saying how “hilarious” the queryfails were (and they’re often right) a few pointing out that the agents in question were mocking others for their own amusement (and they’re right). I have to assume the lopsided numbers have a lot to do with people’s propensity to tweet “u r so awesome & smart & funny” to someone whose ass they are kissing. True as it might have been, “u didn’t really think this thru” probably is not going to score points (not that I think the ass kissing scores that many, either).

By the time I stumbled across the corpses that were left in its aftermath, I think a consensus had arisen that throwing what was essentially an online party to make fun of other people probably wasn’t a genius move.

There’s nothing to learn from doing an autopsy (nor is it time to do the autopsy yet, the hash tag is still in frequent use). As of two minutes ago, the hash tag yielded this:

“SlushPile Hell, rejection, #queryfail – all signal an air of entitlement”

With a link to an interesting article from a publishing veteran in the Australian Book Review. https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/current-issue/109-december-2013-january-2014-no-357/1739-queryfail?utm_content=buffer84247&utm_source=buffer&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=BufferShe has a frank and mature take on the subject (which is code for, “she agrees with what I was writing here when I checked the hash tag and found her article.”).

There is, however, a lot to learn from looking at the back and forth #queryfail entailed. With plenty of good and bad on both sides of the seesaw.

  • It’s About Educating People. Let’s just get this one out of the way right off the bat.

First, thanks for giving me the opportunity to laugh at something ridiculous that you wrote right before you started laughing at ridiculous things other people wrote. BWAAAAHAHAHAGWAHAHAHGAGAA –Good one.

Second, if someone is earnestly writing that s/he was divinely ordained by God to write a novel, there is a very good chance that person is mentally ill. Bitching about the query on twitter isn’t going to fix that, nor will it stop the next person who hears voices from sending you a query. There are already a billion other resources on the internet giving people this basic information. This added nothing new to the discourse. You were having fun with the most outlandish “queryfails” you could find. Period. Nobody who has ever spent an hour studying how to query would have done anything listed.

Third, what, exactly, was the purpose of providing the supposed education? Was your goal really to teach the person who believes God told him to write a book how to query you successfully? I find it somewhat difficult to believe that teaching the people in the bottom 10% of the slushpile how to query better, so you could invest more time in their manuscripts, was really your goal. “Not following our submission guidelines is a #queryfail” is educational. “My book is about a friendship based upon mutual vomiting practices in high school.” AAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!! #queryfail” is laughing at someone who is probably naively describing a book about eating disorders among teenage girls. Laughing at her is not educating anyone.

  • So, fine, it was about being funny. Everybody needs to blow off some steam. I have no doubt that what was happening on twitter was merely an online version of what happens at your agencies’ water coolers every freaking day. I get that. I’m willing to bet you have dozens of great query stories queued up for every cocktail party/date gone wrong/ uncomfortable holiday dinner with the in-laws imaginable. The problem is, twitter is not your in-laws’ table or the water cooler. It’s instantaneous communication with millions of people. In other words, public humiliation for the people you’re talking about. Which makes it a lot less funny.

 

  • The people you were making fun of are people. Some seem young and naïve. Some may even be mentally unbalanced. I have no doubt it must suck to have to sift through 1,000 pieces of crap, looking for the next J. D. Salinger and being offered a 700,000-word first volume in a nine book series from someone who didn’t make it 200 words without spelling and grammatical errors aplenty. But that’s the freaking job you chose. By all means, send the form rejectionthe minute you see the obvious queryfail. But celebrate the fact that it made your job easier, don’t go out of your way to humiliate the person who sent you the query.

There’s a lot here for writers to learn from, too. Just not anything about the reasons the queries in question were publically humiliatedrejected.

  • Queries are business prospectuses, nothing more. We are sending a proposal to a professional in the publishing business. We are essentially requesting that they invest significant amounts of time and effort bringing our product to market, using their names and reputations to facilitate that.
  • Negative feedback is a given. Ideally, it should be provided in a professional and courteous way. I have little doubt that a clear, professional query letter that meets all of the agency’s guidelines is not going to show up as a #queryfail even if the proposal itself is rejected. Writers seriously need to stop thinking in terms of “I sent you part of my soul – you owe me something.” That may be what you sent, but what the agent received was, to her, a business proposal competing with 1,000 other proposals for the same limited resources. Your love of your book, the earnest emotion you poured into it, the years of toil you’ve invested are irrelevant. How good your book is matters.
  • We are dealing with a world where the floodgates have been opened. Everyone has a computer, everyone has e-mail, nearly everyone thinks s/he can write a novel, and more people than ever are doing it. The frustration the agents are voicing is legitimate (even if their manner of voicing it was less so). There is no good excuse for a queryfail. The web is teeming with resources on how to write a query, agency guidelines are usually quite specific, and anyone who invests a reasonable amount of time and effort should be able to create a query that will pass muster. That’s not to say the agent will request your manuscript or offer representation. Rather, your proposal will be evaluated on its merits instead of the fact that it was written in hieroglyphics painted in pig’s blood.

I am really writing this blog post for one specific person, who may not even exist. When I saw the posts by agents and sycophantic laughter from writers piling on, I couldn’t help but think of some teen-aged writer who wrote a bad query letter for an equally bad novel. A writer who, 10 years from now, may write a good query letter for a good novel, but who may not do so after being laughed at by a bunch of so-called grownups. Or the person who was deemed #queryfail because he is in prison, without mention of what his book was about or how good it was.People who may be or develop into real writers, but who were told, through public humiliation, that they shouldn’t bother to try. They were somehow deemed unworthy of having and working toward the dream of being published — under the guise of “educating” them.

#agentfail 

 

The Outlining Debate (Or: Stephen King outlines and Ken Follett is a pantser, really)

Extremists rarely add much to any conversation. The functioning (or lack thereof) in the federal government right now is proof of that. Coming from a long line of bomb throwing (literally) revolutionaries, you’d think I would have more sympathy for radical elements. As it is, they drive me nuts. In the world of writerly discourse, there are few places those elements like to chuck their Molotov cocktails as much as the great TO OUTLINE or NOT TO OUTLINE DEBATE.

This is not unlike other arguments in this field. Like most, it has one correct answer, and, like most, that correct answer is: who gives a fuck?

Also, like many of the questions of this type, the desire to be right in the argument trumps the desire to take a sensible position with regard to the issue. That is the only reason there is a debate at all.

The simple fact is, everyone is an outliner (to an extent) and everyone is a pantser (to an extent). [Note: Pantser is the nickname for the non-outliners, since they like to ‘fly by the seat of their pants.’] Since no two authors ever do anything the same way, and there is a huge spectrum (about a 2% difference, from what I can tell) that everyone falls into. There are certainly differences. They may even affect the end product. But that still doesn’t mean there are two camps and people are in one or the other.

1)  Every writer, including Stephen King, is an outliner. Stephen King (wisely, from a marketing perspective) threw a can of gasoline on the simmering debate in his how-to book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.In that book, he famously stated that he never uses an outline. More to the point, he advised that other writers should keep from using outlines, too. After all, he’s sold a bagillion books. Today alone. Since it works so well for him, it must work.

There is, of course, a serious flaw in King’s logic. I have absolutely no trouble hopping into my car and backing out of the garage without paying attention to where the door is. I do it every day. My oldest daughter, on the other hand, managed to plow into the door within about a month of getting her license. The lesson to be learned is not that “Drivers do not need to worry about where the garage door ends,” as King would have us believe. The lesson to be learned is that, after 30 years of backing out of garages, I’ve advanced to the point that I do not have to consciously remind myself to look at the location of the door to have a full understanding of where it is in relation to the car.

I don’t back my car out of the garage without stopping to look at where the door is because it’s more fun or interesting to do it without knowing whether I’m going to hit it. Nor would my daughter be better served by paying less, instead of more, attention to the door. Following King’s logic, though, she would be.

Another famous quote often attributed incorrectly to King is that the first million words are practice. [Note: I’m not disputing that King has said that, and I don’t think he ever claimed it was his original thought – it’s just that the thought is attributed to him and it’s almost certainly not].

So let’s take a second to combine the two concepts. According to King

A)  You should be able to sit down and just write a book, starting with an idea and seeing where it will take you. (Pantsing works)

—But—

B)   You need to write about a dozen full-length novels before you have one that isn’t worth throwing away. (After writing, editing, revising, and throwing away a dozen novels that didn’t work).

Hey Steve — you know what else works when you bust your ass learning how to do it for several years of focused and determined work? Fucking everything, that’s what.

It wouldn’t have done as much to sell copies of his book about writing to put things more simply. And, let’s face it, the man is a master at knowing how to sell books — particularly through instilling a sense of mystery in things. But, if you combine the two thoughts, all you’re really left with is:

If you keep writing novels long enough, there will be a time – probably around the time you’ve written twelve or thirteen of them – that you begin to get a feel for how the story should unfold in your mind.

That’s it. No elves making books while you are sleeping, no magical muses arriving to guide you through the fog. It’s like cooking or fly-casting or sex or backing the car out of the garage. If you spend enough time focusing on a particular skill, you will be able to make utilization of that skill second nature. To pretend differently is almost delusional.

If writing “without an outline” means just sitting down and seeing what happens next, how the hell did King know to spend a whole bunch of the first part of Carrie building up to the prom? The answer is obvious. With or without a written outline, King knew he was going to have a catastrophic event at the prom. The pig blood, all of it, is in there pretty early on. So he may never have written down his outline of events, but he sure as hell had a pretty good idea where his book was going.

2)    Every writer, including Ken Follett, is a pantser. I’m picking on Follett because he was generous enough to let Al Zuckerman (his agent) use several drafts of his outlines from The Man From St. Petersburg in Zuckerman’s book Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Suffice it to say, Follett is a heavy-duty outliner. Scene by scene, his outlines tell the entire story in remarkable and structured detail. His outlines are truly impressive in and of themselves, and give a clear picture of what the book will ultimately look like. He does something interesting with them, too. He circulates them to what we would almost call beta readers – getting feedback on his characters and story arc, changing the story as indicated, and, if necessary, circulating a revised outline.

Geez, the pantser says, handcuffed to a 30-page outline. Where’s the wonder? The Joy? The discovery we all love so much when we’re writing?

I’m as guilty as the next person on that one. My happiest moments writing come when it seems as though I’m drumming my fingers while I read a story that’s appearing on my monitor. That’s when writing feels the most magical.

Let’s put it into perspective. Follett writes 1,000 page doorstops. Even conservatively saying one of his books is 600 pages long, he is “pantsing” 20 pages of conversations and fights and sex and fights about sex and conversations about fights for every page of plot he has outlined. In other words, even the most detailed outliner I can come up with is pantsing 95% of what ends up on the page.

Is there a difference? Absolutely. Some leap to the surface just by comparing the two authors’ books. King typically focuses on a “thing” or an event or a specific evil that affects a defined group of people. That is one of the great strengths of his books – taking a specific thing we are afraid of and exposing a small group of people with whom we can relate to its wrath. Follett writes sprawling epics, covering years or centuries, often playing out on a global scale from multiple points of view – books that would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to write without taking written notes on how he expects the disparate parts to come together.That said, the difference is minimal.

Even if King outlined as much as Follett does, most of his stories would require about a quarter of the outlining due to their more finite nature. His books are also about half (or less) as long. So a hyper-detailed Ken Follett-type outline of a Stephen King book would probably be about five pages long. And, while he might not want to admit it (possibly even to himself), I’m willing to bet that at least 3 or 4 of those pages are bouncing around inside King’s head by the time he’s finished writing Chapter 1.

So, what’s a writer to do? You’re on your own for that one. For the same reason I don’t want to read Ken Follett horror or a Stephen King epic about building a cathedral in the Middle Ages, I wouldn’t try to suggest how you approach that two or three percent difference that is the entire scope of “manic outliner” vs. “absolute pantser.” But it helps to understand that the difference we’re talking about is minimal. I’ll also let you know how I do it – not as a suggested guide, but more as an indication of why it seems ridiculous to me that people try to cling to either side of the spectrum.

I’ve only written two novels (one is shelved indefinitely) and I’ve now outlined my third (which went on hold almost immediately after outlining because of what are now THREE revise and resubmits telling me to change exactly the same thing). For the last two, I’ve had five or six page outlines, basically covering the narrative arc. Not all of the characters even have names, but I know how I’m introducing the characters, ratcheting up the conflict, ratcheting it up again (and again), and how it gets resolved.

Now, to be honest, I didn’t need to write the story down to have a clear idea where things are going to go. But it was nice to work through it and have a partial skeleton. One of the main benefits of said skeleton is I now have a place to hang various phrases, ideas, thoughts, insults, or anything else that pops to mind that I may want to use in the book. The outline serves almost more as a filing system for random ideas that pop to mind than a pair of handcuffs.

The outline is also fluid. In the book I have out to agents right now, my protag was supposed to have a pretty, slight, sweet, deceptively smart sister. What I got was a slight, pretty, devastatingly smart sister who cusses like a drunken longshoreman who just finished a bar fight. His fourth of the night. I love her. She’s my favorite character in the book. She was also an unplanned child, and I had to change the rest of her aspect of the novel accordingly. That doesn’t mean I’m not an outliner, it just means I know a good thing when I see it.

The bottom line: Pants all you want, but you still probably want to have an idea what’s going to happen at the prom so your characters can stock up on pig blood. Outline all you want, but if the 95% you didn’t outline starts taking you in what seems like a better direction, you might want to adjust your outline accordingly. More than anything, embrace the similarities and bounce around until you find the right balance (within that 2% difference) for you.

Writer’s Guide to Copyright and Trademark Infringement (Episode 3: I’m finally going to talk about fair use! And, yes, there’s a douchey top 10 list)

This series of posts has addressed the use of trademarked and copyrighted materials in fiction writing. Most writers believe the conversation begins and ends with fair use (and a fair number of message board participants believe fair use is reducible to a single sentence answer).

If you’ve read my prior two posts on this topic, you know THAT’S WRONG. If you haven’t read those posts, for the love of God, go do so. The point behind this post is not to provide a complete summary of the broad topic in the title. This post discusses fair use, an important (but only one important) aspect of trademark and copyright infringement. If you’ve read the two prior posts and come to realize that fair use is not the beginning and end of this issue, but skip this post on fair use, you’ll be ahead of the game. If you just read this post on fair use, you’ll walk away with a general understanding of one piece of a complicated puzzle. That’s it. Which is why it drives me freaking nuts to see broad proclamations about fair use thrown out as the alpha and omega of this issue.

Recap of Important Points:

  • Infringement and its exceptions are really fucking complex topics that vary based on the facts of each case (and a different judge or jury could come to a different conclusion based on the exact same set of facts).
  • Because the standards are fact-driven, there are no hard and fast rules. Ignore anyone who tells you there are.
  • This is not something to factor into your writing or initial editing process. Just get the book out and treat these questions like your crutch words – plenty of time to go back and worry about them later.
  • If you’re going to be traditionally published, this isn’t something to pay much attention to (unless you’re writing about a serial killer stalking kids from inside a character suit at Disneyland or something, which could effectively keep you from being publishable). Your publisher will provide guidance based on your specific text, which will be more valuable than any general blog post – regardless of how insightful, witty, or devilishly handsome the person putting that post up may be.
  • When looking at your use of branded to copyrighted material, one key factor is whether anyone (on a bad day, looking for a reason to complain, with barely a shred of something to bitch about) can say that you are “disparaging” the other name or work (i.e., portraying it in a bad or unflattering light). Even if you are within the exemptions, you still can’t disparage others.
  • Does your work NEED to use the copyrighted or trademarked material? Do they have to be in a Starbucks, or can they just meet at Mo’s Coffee Emporium. Is it necessary for your protag to curl up to read Harry Potter or can she just as easily be reading “her favorite book about a boy who goes to a school for wizards.”

 

So, yea, I just started the post where I FINALLY get around talking about Fair Use with 500 words about shit other than fair use and a warning not to just look at fair use. That’s because I keep hearing this issue discussed as a question about fair use, which it is not. But what the hell. Here is my

Douchey Top Ten List of Things Writers Need to Know About Fair Use

1.     Fair Use is a Four-Part Balancing Test. Everything you’ve heard about magic numbers of words or percentages of work or anything else with a set, objective standard associated with it is wrong. Four things are evaluated and the total overall interplay between those four things determines whether you fit within the fair use exception. Some can count for finding a fair use exception, some can count against it, and the total overall conclusion is what will drive the Court’s determination.

 

2.     The Four Parts Are:

  • The purpose and character of your use (This is also called the “transformative factor” and basically asks whether you are creating something new, adding new meaning, or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, just using someone else’s ideas)
  • The nature of the copyrighted work (Are you relying heavily on facts from a biography or history book? If so, the same level of parroting that would be a violation if it had not been scholarly nonfiction can be just fine.)
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion taken (This is the one everyone seems to think is all that matters, but it’s third on this list for a reason. It’s also two separate standards:

1.     Amount (number of words, both total and as a percentage of the copyrighted material/percentage of your material)

2.     Substantiality (Did you take the words from the “heart” of the creative work – a common example are the five words “I can’t get no satisfaction” from the Rolling Stones’ song Satisfaction – that’s so substantial to the heart of the work, those five words could be too much) and

  • The effect of the use upon the potential market (Are you taking food off the original artist’s table? If sales of your work are not likely to have any kind of impact on the market for the copyrighted material, it helps. A lot.).

 

3.     Copyright and Trademark are Not the Same Thing. I am glossing over a lot of nuances here to provide a really rough guide. Courts will, on occasion, look to copyright law (even though the rules come from a statute) for guidance in evaluating a trademark case, and some cases (e.g., those involving the Mickey Mouse logo) involve things that are both copyrighted and trademarked at the same time.

 

4.     Don’t Make the Source, Sponsorship, or Approval of Your Work Confusing. This is technically a trademark standard but is also a good guide for evaluating copyright infringement. If you are referring to brands (or making your cover too similar to a logo) or including specific items or characters in your narrative to an extent you seem to be writing a book about a particular brand of whiskey and not your own drinking problem, it’s going to be an issue (trademark). If your character’s love of a certain boy wizard seems to make the book a love story between your MC and that character, we have a problem (copyright).

 

5.     If You Can’t Say Something Nice, Don’t Say Anything At All. Nothing will get you in hotter water faster than disparaging. “Disparaging” is the legal term for shit talk. At this juncture, pick one. You can either mention Twilight in passing or dedicate a chapter to insipid, poorly written, gag-reflex-invoking teen vampire romances that suck.

 

6.     Use Things That Aren’t Protected. Fair use is an affirmative defense. Among other things, that means the defendant (who usually doesn’t have the burden of proof in a case) has the burden of proof. But it only applies if you would otherwise be infringing. Avoid infringement in the first instance. Ideas are not copyrighted. Themes, concepts, and motifs are not copyrighted. You can write all the novels you want about plantations during and after the Civil War. Just don’t call any of them Tara.

 

7.     Being Right is no Guarantee You Won’t Be Sued. Or, more commonly, receive a cease and desist letter from counsel for someone who wants to bitch about your alleged infringement. Lawsuits are expensive. Win or lose. Since the average advance on a first novel from a significant publisher is something like $16,000 (and the average profit from a self-published book from a first time novelist is something like $0.16) they know the threat will probably be enough. The music industry is notorious for this, regularly losing cases in federal court but still merrily threatening and bringing them every time someone whispers lyrics from Sympathy for the Devil as the antagonist enters the room. Quote Dante instead, he’s public domain.

 

8.     Copyright Extends to Derivative Works. Under US Copyright law, copyright owners have the exclusive right “to prepare derivative works based upon [their] copyrighted work.” Yes, that means fan fiction. It also means anything else that would reasonably derive from the original. So Hogwarts’ New Class, A Harry Potter Christmas, etc., are all out of bounds. This one is vague as hell. There is a line (somewhere) between the universe Captain Kirk explored and the universe the rest of us can write about. As an aside, this issue came up in Gene Roddenberry’s somewhat messy divorce. I have one piece of advice here (which should really cover you with respect to almost all copyright and trademark issues). Create your own fucking universe. That piece of advice, alone, is the safest piece to follow. Klingon is not that cool a name, anyway. Not compared to Trogphlops. Which happened to be a random string of letters I just typed.

 

9.     Combine the “Ideas Cannot Be Copyrighted” and “Copyright Extends to Derivative Works.” And have a field day. You can have spaceships and warlike aliens and logical aliens and furry little fluffy pets that reproduce exponentially (as long as they aren’t called tribbles). None of this stuff should be limiting your creativity at all. You can have a man wake up from a coma with no memory and let him discover he has awesome ninja assassin skilzz. With two zs. Because he’s that awesome. As long as his name is Basin Jorne. If the functional limitations on the copyright end are a problem, you are writing fan fiction and need to come to terms with that. Have fun doing it, but don’t publish. Some authors don’t mind fanfiction, as in posts on sites dedicated to them, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is a copyright violation.

 

10.   The Bottom Line. Make your work your own. If you are telling a new story in your own voice in a different way than anyone else has, the occasional mention that the car was a Toyota or the beer was Pabst is fine. If you have wizards but they aren’t in a prep school together or you have a prep school but it isn’t full of demons, you’re fine. KEEP THE CORE OF YOUR STORY, AND THE WAY YOU TELL THAT STORY, YOUR OWN and everything else will more or less sort itself out.

 

LIMITATIONS:      In addition to the thousands of words I’ve already written about how limited this advice is (and the fair use rules are, generally), bear in mind a few specific limitations. Parody and criticism are outside the scope of what I’ve addressed here. Because those exceptions are EXTREMELY fact-sensitive, they can really only be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Plagiarism is a whole other evil, for which the practitioners should spend eternity having their private parts ravaged by flaming, demonic termites while being forced to watch Toddlers in Tiaras reruns. But I didn’t talk about it here.

 

Hope that helps.

 

 

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