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 tag “Idaho”

Genre Part III, MG, YA, NA and Other Things That aren’t Genre (Essential Categories Applied To Shelf Location)

As the title indicates, I’m acutely aware that the Middle Grade (“MG”) Young Adult (“YA”) and New Adult (“NA”) marketing/shelving categories are not genres. They are based on audience, not subject matter —to some extent, anyway. That differentiates them from genres, which are focused on the content of the books themselves. If you write to one of these categories, though these classifications are as important or more important than genre when it comes to querying. A large and growing number of agents list their interests in “MG and YA” terms instead of genre. While you also want to specify your book’s genre, if your science fiction is intended for ten-year-olds, you should mention that.

MG Versus YA in Broad Strokes:

The essential element here is the target reader. As a general rule, MG is for readers who have just graduated up from “chapter books” (the step above easy readers), which means seven- or eight-year-olds up to about eleven- or twelve-year-olds.  YA picks up from there, in theory, at least, being for eleven- or twelve-year-olds up to seventeen-year-olds.  That said, I was forty something when I read The Hunger Games and my youngest daughter read it when she was eight. But, for marketing purposes, those are the broad guidelines between the two.

It’s not an accident (or an insult) to qualify these as shelving and marketing categories. That’s the best starting point for understanding how they relate to your work. If you know who your target reader is, you know what category you are writing in. If you don’t know who your target reader is, you will have problems that extend beyond correctly identifying what marketing category you fit into. Where the Wild Things Are is one of my favorite books, and has been since I was about three. That said, I would not have enjoyed it when I was three if it had a complex plot and multiple inciting events, and I would not want to read a 100,000 word version of that book without a healthy dose of additional complexity.

I’m not saying MG should be dumbed down, by any stretch. I’m a firm believer in writing the best book you can, then figuring out where it fits. That said, you may realize the best fit requires a major revision (a literal one, a new vision of your book) when you are done, and discover your story with a fourteen-year-old protagonist would be most enticing to a ten-year-old reader. Those considerations, though, I’d strongly encourage you to look at in a rearview mirror, after the first draft is complete.

Nuts and Bolts Differences Between MG and YA

Everything here comes back to the same central question: Who is your reader? Once you know that, a number of differences in interest and ability will clarify what the content should look like. It’s important to note, this is a spectrum. Some books will clearly fall squarely within the bounds of one of these categories, and others may reach or straddle the edge. Arguably, the best books often do just that. Also, while I will list a set of characteristics, note that these are not rules. The protagonist in Life of Pi is a MG-aged child through the bulk of the narrative, but that does not make it a MG book.

The general differences between the categories are:

MG

  • Age of the characters, particularly the protagonist (this is a defining characteristic for all of these categories). Readers want to read about people their own age or slightly older.
  • Length.  Few (but some) MG novels are longer than 100 pages.
  • More outwardly focused. The character responds to things that happen, instead of growing as an individual.
  • Sentence structure and vocabulary should not be dumbed down, but should reflect the reading audience.
  • There is usually a single inciting event.  Meaning plot structure itself is not particularly complex. The world is a sane, predictable place until A THING happens to upset the status quo.
  • Kissing is still gross. Romance is typically not an element.
  • Very limited use of literary devices.  MG worlds are concrete worlds, not built of metaphor. MG cigars are always just cigars.
  • Stakes – YOU STILL NEED THEM. This is not a difference, but I am including it because in my research, I found a number of agents complaining that writers seem to confuse the simple world with a lack of compelling stakes. Two agents separately listed this as the most common mistake they see in submissions.

YA

  • More inwardly focused character development. Much of the angst in a YA novel can come from within a character — precisely the type being experienced by teenage readers themselves.
  • Romance is often an element.  Kissing is not gross, and when you’re looking for angst, what better place to find it?
  • The world is a weird and scary place. That single inciting event from MG is turned on its head somewhat – the world is a complex place, and finding one’s place in it is no simple task.
  • Complexity in the text is okay. The language and sentence structure can, and should be, be more complex than MG.
  • Complexity in theme is okay, too.  You may not want to start whipping out too many metaphorical cigars until you get to “edgy YA” or NA, but more complex literary elements and symbolism are healthy.

While a huge category in its own right, YA is a bridge between simpler books with less complex themes and structure (i.e., books appropriate for a ten-year-old) and adult commercial or literary fiction. The middle ground occupied by “edgy YA” and NA have little to do with that literary distinction, and more to do with sex, drugs, abuse, and other, touchier subjects.

“Edgy YA”

I am including this because it’s a worthwhile warning label. YA books can address adult themes. Kids find themselves in all sorts of situations that we parents might like to wish they never even knew existed. Some writers and agents have taken to adding the word “edgy” to the YA label to separate the types of situations Beaver Cleaver found himself in at sixteen from those Justin Bieber found himself in at sixteen.

NA

Looking at the titles that are actively marketed this way, I think this category could be more accurately called “Young Romance.”

Technically, the characters ages (particularly the protagonist) are key, as are moving out into the real world (or college, which people that age are inexperienced enough to confuse with the real world). That said, a book about a young marine who moves out into the real world by getting into a firefight in Afghanistan on his nineteenth birthday is unlikely to show up in this category.

What does it all mean?

It means what you decide it does. As I said at the beginning, we are dealing with a spectrum, and a great book is likely to stray over lines in the course of becoming great. Harry Potter worked so well precisely because the books had themes that transcended MG and even YA concepts, blurred the hell out of and then blatantly crossed over the dividing lines between categories, and challenged readers. But, as long as librarians and bookstores want to shelve this way and publishers want to market this way, agents will need to approach them this way. Plus, I don’t think you can ever go wrong stopping to put yourself in the reader’s shoes, which is all this really boils down to.

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Using Genre to Land an Agent (Or: Direct Marketing Your Unique Novel)

Genres are, first and foremost, screening devices. Everyone from a prospective reader in a bookstore or browsing online to an agent (or screener) slogging through the slush uses genre for one purpose – to quickly weed out the overwhelming majority of books they don’t want to bother with.

Even if you have a difficult time embracing that as a writer, on the business side of this writing thing, it’s crucial to acknowledge it. Screening devices are where the initial sorting (which usually means “sorting out,” complete with a form rejection) occurs, and genre is a key screening device.

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It’s when, not if, you need to worry about genre

Some authors write very good books and make quite a nice living writing to genre. Others write what they feel compelled to write, without regard to genre. But one way or the other, genre matters.

For someone writing to genre, it’s smart to know that heading in. Genre romances have happy endings, genre westerns are set west of the Mississippi and before 1900, and so forth. A very nice book may be set in the west, and occur a long time ago, but if it gets screened “in” by someone looking for a genre western, it’s going to get screened right “out” again as soon as it becomes clear it is not that.

For the rest of us, though, genre is something that either vaguely sat in our minds as we wrote or (in my case) is a gnarly, weird issue that presents itself after we’re done. Either way, though, genre matters. It matters a lot, and the words we use to describe genre directly impact response rate and agent interest. Unless you are intentionally writing to genre, the issue here is about marketing your novel, not writing it. In our case, that means marketing to agents. But agents need to market to publishers, and publishers want to buy things they can sell to readers. So, when querying, your genre description answers two important questions from a prospective agent:

  1. Is this the kind of book I know how to represent?
  2. Can I sell the fucker?

The point behind genre designations in queries is to truthfully let the agent know the answers to both of those questions is “hell yes.”

Categories that are not genre (YA, MG, NA, etc.)

My next post will go into this issue in detail, trying to line out as cleanly as possible where the line is between MG and upper MG, where upper MG turns into YA, and so forth. For now, it is just important to understand that agents are increasingly identifying what they are looking for according to these categories. Sometimes, and, again, increasingly, more so than by traditional genre. These designations matter, and have a lot to do with the two questions I stated above.

Why putting yourself in the right genre matters

Correctly identifying the genre you are pitching is important, beyond just the sorting function. For one thing, it demonstrates a certain amount of knowledge on your part, which brings with it some professional credibility. Or, conversely, if you don’t even know what 99% of the publishing industry would classify your book as, you are essentially adding a post script to your query that says “I don’t really know what the hell I’m doing here, so being my agent will be a lot of work.

Also, that designation lets a good agent know at a glance whether she has the relationships she needs to sell your book. If she sold four MG fantasy chapter books last year, three of them to the same acquisitions editor, who she knows is looking for more, your MG fantasy manuscript will pique her interest because of it. Conversely, if she’s struck out with the last fourteen MG fantasies she’s tried to rep, it will do the opposite. And that is not entirely a bad thing. If what you wrote is a MG fantasy, there may be an agent six floors down in the same building with those relationships, the form reject from six floors up may just be saving both you and the wrong agent a lot of wasted time and frustration. The end goal is to have thousands of people paying cash to read your book, not to land an agent. Accurately classifying your book is a step toward landing the right agent for that book.

How do you designate genre?

This can be tricky (or not, depending on your situation). If you wrote that MG fantasy, it’s fairly easy. If you’re like me, writing something that straddles about five genres, without being any one of them much more than any of the others, it’s a totally fucked up vin diagram without much else in the middle. takes a little more effort. In either event, I think it helps to go through a backward looking process —

  • Start with your end-game. Don’t think about what you wrote, think about who will pay hard cash for your book. Ultimately, every decision from the initial slush pile screener to Barnes & Noble’s purchasing agent will be based on one question: who is going to whip out a debit card for this book.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of your prototypical reader. View your manuscript from the point of view of the person who decides to start a fan fic page based on your novel. What motivates her to love it? Find the key elements that would stick out to that person, and you’ve found the thing you should focus on when defining genre.
  • Dig deeper. The more you can imagine a third-party’s review, the things that stuck out to that reader, the better you will understand your genre What are the key elements of your story she would focus on? Is it the setting? Characters? Story arc? If your steampunk novel has more leather corsets than steam, or most of the steam in the novel is a product of said corsets, suddenly the steampunk element is more a setting for a steamy romance than an accurate genre designation.
  • Look at comps. There are comps for marketing purposes – current or recent titles that have sold well that demonstrate a likelihood your book will sell well. Those are fine for a query, but they are not what I’m talking about here. The question here is: what are your real comps, the other books, whatever they are, that are truly most like yours? Those are your guide to genre. I have had four agents (out of sixteen total queries sent) and two of my three ABC Partnerstm  tell me my writing reminds them of the same author. He is dead, and his last book was published fourteen years ago, so that’s useless information for a query. When it comes to defining my own genre, however, it is a guiding principle.
  • Look at your specific audience. Not the book-buying audience of the future, the specific agent you are querying. If your research shows you an agent who you think is a good fit (and if you pick agents the way I suggest on this blog, you will know), allow that to inform your genre statement in any particular query. It’s important that your query be accurate and honest, but if your book is 50% sci fi and 50% romance, there is nothing wrong with telling the romance agent it’s a romance novel with sci fi elements and telling the sci fi agent it’s sci fi with romance elements. Each agent will judge from your pages whether the book is a good fit, and either or both will be prerequisites to selling to an acquisitions editor, so there is nothing wrong with focusing on that agent’s interest. As long as the core of the book is, truly, what you’re representing it to be.
  • Know genre rules. As mentioned above, particularly in things deemed “genre fiction,” the use of a genre designation creates some (often surprisingly specific) expectations. Regency romances take place in a certain setting during a single historical decade, for example. Know exactly what is expected of a book in the genre you say you fit. Even if your noel strays from the specifics for the closest genre fit, you gain, instead of lose, credibility by knowing and acknowledging the difference in your query.  
  • Think about the future. If what you want in your heart is to be a romance novelist, embrace that. Your romance/mystery should not be touted as a mystery, if the next three books you plan to write keep the romance, but cross into different subgenres.

More than anything, I think It’s important to realize that genre designations begin and end as marketing tools. That is not as anti-literary or mercenary as it sounds. That is simply the reason they exist. Nobody walks into a bookstore or library planning to start with the first book on the top shelf to the left, reading blurbs until she finds something she likes. Genres point readers (and agents) toward groupings of books they are more interested in than others. There’s an appropriate grouping for any book, from small engine repair to a collection of love poems. The point behind genre designations in querying is to let the agent (who you have already researched and know will be a good fit) know that you have written what she wants to read and rep.

Next up, sorting through the age-based designations.

A Real Genre List for Fiction Queries (Or: You can Easily Navigate all this Jargon and Nonsense)

I found and fell in love with my local library during a summer reading program when I was six years old. The first day, they showed us the nonfiction section  with its beautiful Dewey Decimal System. It was like music to my little “algebra brain” ears –so clean and orderly, so wonderfully efficient. An entire system dedicated to helping me find the exact book I wanted:

700s           Arts & Recreation

796             Athletic and outdoor sports

796.5          Outdoor life

796.54        Camping

796.545      Camping Games & Activities

I arrived the next day, giddy at the thought of seeing how the nonfiction section’s beautiful sister—fiction—would be organized. I envisioned something similar. Maybe: Adventure, danger, villains, historical villains, pirates.

What I got was a three-word lecture: “Author’s last name.”

I raised my hand, and when the librarian called on me, I asked:

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I doubt those were my exact words, since I wasn’t sent home, but that was the gist of my question. And this was a small town library in Idaho in the 1970s, which hadn’t even divided itself into broad genre categories the way libraries currently do. The non-genre marketing categories based on age, like Young Adult, Middle Grade, and New Adult weren’t even a thing, beyond there being a children’s section and an adult section. Eventually, the librarian showed me the card catalog and taught me how to search by subject and the kind of book I wanted, which–although I didn’t know it at the time–was my introduction to the concept of genre.

SO WHAT IS GENRE?

I think it helps to think of genre, when querying agents, as something akin to a Dewey Decimal system for fiction. There is a broad umbrella category, for example, commercial fiction. That’s fine, but it also narrows the field down to about 80% of all books sold, so it’s nearly useless as a classification in itself. From there, though, we have a few options. How to use those options to best market yourself is the topic of the next post, but suffice it to say an agent who reps a lot of legal thriller writers may be more interested in your commercial fiction if you specify that it’s fast-paced commercial fiction that unfolds in a courtroom.

The point behind this post, though, is to provide a reasonably complete list of genre classifications that writers can consult during the querying process. So, without further ado, here is…

A reasonably complete list of genre classifications that writers can consult during the querying process

  • Action & Adventure
  • African American to Zambian American (Frankly, while the drive for diversity makes this classification relevant, you may want to consider using the book description in the blurb portion of the query to cover this aspect. In either event, I would strongly recommend at least stating the narrative-based genre [whatever else on this list the book really is] in conjunction with this—So it’s a Hispanic American Space Opera, not just a Hispanic American novel)
  • Alternate/Alternative History
  • Biographical (Not to be confused with a biography)
  • Black Humor
  • Coming of Age (While this is a generally recognized category, this is also something I would make obvious in the blurb and not identify as a genre, because it’s a kiss of death to some agents)
  • Commercial Fiction (Another super-broad category, but the content of the blurb should provide the necessary clarification)
  • Crime
  • Cultural Heritage
  • Dystopian
  • Erotica
  • Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, Legends & Mythology (including new takes on Tall Tales)
  • Family Life
  • Fantasy (This is a huge category, and I would strongly recommend adding a more specific qualifier, like urban, dark, epic, historical, paranormal, etc.)
  • Gothic
  • Historical
  • Holiday
  • Horror
  • Humorous
  • LBGTQ (Let’s face it, though, there is no hetero normative category, so this shouldn’t try to stand on its own, either. This is another place I would strongly recommend finding the genre within the story’s narrative and adding that, because an LBGTQ epic fantasy and an LBGTQ legal thriller are not the same thing just because the protag isn’t hetero).
  • Legal
  • Literary
  • Magical Realism (As a purely personal aside, I recently developed a strong fondness for this category)
  • Medical
  • Mystery & Detective (This can work as a straight genre, but look to see if you fall into one of the genre-specific sub categories, like hard-boiled or cozy, which are essentially opposites, noir, police procedural, international, etc., or if another broad genre applies, such as historical or romance or whatever)
  • Occult & Supernatural
  • Outdoors (This does not show up as a genre on the multitude of lists I consulted putting this list together, but there are some publishers—like the Lyons Press imprint of Globe Pequot—that specialize in this category. Plus I’m an outdoorsman, some of the most wonderful experiences of my life happened in the outdoors, and it’s my freaking list. So here it is)
  • Political
  • Psychological
  • Religious (See the discussion under African American, above. At minimum, identify the narrative genre in conjunction with the religion—an Amish Technothriler is not the same thing as a hard-boiled Buddhist mystery).
  • Romance (Also often blended with another genre, such as historical or humorous)
  • Sagas
  • Satire (I’ll tell you from experience—I write satire, and it’s clear from the first paragraph I have a decidedly satirical bent to my perspective—my request rate in queries using the “S-word” is zero, which makes me think there is a bias against this, conceptually, even if the work itself passes muster).
  • Science (I’m listing this as a separate category from Science Fiction, even though we’re discussing fiction about science. This genre specifies novels with hard science at their core, which means a more descriptive genre or very clear statement in the blurb is required).
  • Science Fiction (Another huge category, ranging from soft (ten years from now, procreating through cloning is popular, but we still use smartphones) to hard (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”) with about a thousand subgenres between.
  • Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Clean, Safe, Renewable Green Energypunk, Biopunk, Splatterpunk, Dieselpunk, etc.)
  • Short Stories (If you’re querying this, good luck)
  • Speculative Fiction
  • Sports
  • Superheroes
  • Thrillers (Again, a more plot/story specific tie-in is probably advisable: Crime, Spy, Historical, Political, Military, Medical, etc.)
  • Urban
  • Upmarket (Some people think this term is dated, although I’ve seen it on several agent genre listings. This is in the gray area where a plot-driven narrative with literary language usage [which DOESN’T FUCKING MEAN FLOWERY LANGUAGE] is in the blend together in a space between commercial and literary fiction).
  • Visionary & Metaphysical (if you wondered why Paranormal didn’t show up in the “P”s, this is why)
  • Westerns (similar to mysteries, a more specific classification would likely help)

 

This list is not exhaustive, and I have intentionally omitted several literary subgenres (e.g., Absurdist fiction, Literary nonsense, Picaresque novel, Experimental fiction, Metafiction) that I am quite fond of, but that will almost certainly never see the light of day through the cold querying process. I’ve also left off age and audience based subcategories, such as YA, NA, and MG, because those are not literary genres. They do, however, relate to use of classifications for marketing purposes, which I will discuss in my next post. I omitted the blatant author/audience based categories (like vile classifications “women’s fiction” or “chick lit”) because I find them offensive and counterproductive. That doesn’t mean you can’t use them, it simply means I have no interest in perpetuating them.

Identifying the genre or genres your book falls into is a step in the right direction. But, for our purposes, it is only the first step. The real trick is using genre as a marketing tool in your query. Which is what we will cover next.

Author’s Note and Request to Readers

My goal with this list is to be helpful, and I consulted scores of other genre lists and agent genre listings to compile it. But I am far more interested in being right than I am in thinking I’m right. If I missed something, I would greatly appreciate a comment telling me that. It may be something I have omitted on purpose and for a reason (this post would more than double in size and be far less user-friendly if I explained the decision making process behind every item). If so, a discussion in the comments would be a wonderful annex to this list (or you may convince me I shouldn’t have omitted it, and I’ll amend the list). I may have just left something off, too. And, as my critique partners can tell you, my standard response to showing me I’ve done something wrong is to like you more and fix the screw-up. The point is, I take criticism ridiculously well, so if you see a way to make this list better, FREAKING TELL ME.

Thanks. Next post, we’ll put this list to use.

Mooky’s Liebster Post

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Let me start by saying that if you’ve nominated me for a “Liebster” and I declined, don’t take this personally. It’s a cute idea, but also kind of a chain letter, and I wasn’t comfortable asking five other people to keep the chain/pyramid going. I’m still not, which is why I’m inviting people to nominate themselves, as I discuss below. But this SOB isn’t going away any time soon, and I feel like a schmuck when I keep saying no, so I’m caving in now because my friend from the interwebz, Valerie Brown (that’s her twitter) nominated me. I follow her blog, which is definitely worth a look: http://endlessedits.wordpress.com/.

What’s a Liebster?

There are a few rules for accepting the Liebster Award, they are: thank your nominator and link back to their website, answer your nominator’s questions, leave 11 facts about yourself, nominate 5 or more blogs with under 200 followers and give them 11 questions to answer.

Valarie’s Eleven Questions

1.  What personal trait of yours do you most often give to your fictional characters?

That would be awesomeness. (This type of award doesn’t lend itself to responses from people who write humorous sarcastic satire).

2.  Which part of the writing process do you dread the most and why?

I hate the point where I’m happy with “A” and know exactly where “C” needs to be, but have no idea what “B” is going to need to do to get me there.

3.  What’s your favorite book and why?

This is such a stock answer it feels trite, but probably To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it as a kid and saw the whole thing through Scout’s eyes. I read it again as an adult and found myself experiencing it through Atticus, which was wonderful in a very different way. But it wasn’t until my life was at its low point, and I saw things through Boo Radley’s eyes, that I fully appreciated that book. You’ve never really read To Kill a Mockingbird until you’ve read it from Boo Radley’s perspective.

4.  What time of day do you usually write?

I’m a night writer. I wish I weren’t, but raising four kids and having a day job require it. 90% of my writing happens between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m.

5.  Do you prefer libraries or bookstores?

I’ve raised four veracious readers, so I would spend something in the neighborhood of $5,500 per year on books if it weren’t for the library. Seriously, I did the math. Plus I’ve been a library volunteer and story hour reader for ten years now, so my connection to the library is deep. I am also certain that some of the kids I’ve worked with will spend their lives buying and reading books thanks largely to the fact that there was a place they had access to a bunch of them for free when they were little. I don’t feel the slightest bit hypocritical wanting to sell books and adoring the public library system.

6.  What do you normally eat/drink while writing?

I’d never thought about it before, but nothing. Some water, maybe.

7.  What are your muses?

Motion, more than anything. Since I spend at least an hour a day exercising and an hour a day exercising my dog, my imagination always has a backlog of material for my fingers to put down. I have a writing partner who is working her way into muse status as well—more in terms of getting my fingers to put things down than inspiring the content. I think. [On writing those words, the author realizes they are almost certainly false, and his muse is a sneaky little shit].

8.  What kind of genre do you read?

Anything written well (or any good story, even if not). I tend toward the literary side in my reading, and read more contemporary fiction than historical or fantasy or sci-fi, but I’m all over the map.

9.  Who’s the best character ever written?

[To make this question answerable, my mind superimposed “you’ve” between character and ever in that question. So, no, I do not think I’ve succeeded in writing the best character ever written. Thanks to one of my lovely CPs, who takes it upon herself to critique blog posts and everything else I write, I now see my error. So my answer to the question as presented is: Are you fucking kidding me? I’m supposed to compare Leopold Bloom to Phoebe Caulfield? No thanks.]

Denise Harrington. She’s the favorite of every CP and beta who has read the book as well. Denise exploded on the page so unlike I’d imagined her I just had to roll with it. She is my protag’s sister and confidante and I intended to write her as a slight, pretty girl who masked her razor sharp intellect with an affected sweetness. What showed up instead was an even smaller, prettier girl, almost angelic in appearance, whose first line was “You’re the one who should be pissed off. Can you smell the K-Y? Because they were getting ready to fuck you in the—”

10.  If you could travel through time, would you go to the past or future?

The past. I don’t want to know what’s on the last page of my biography until I get to it.

11. How do you balance your life while reaching your writing goals?

I only sleep four to six hours a day.

Eleven Facts About me

  1. My grandparents were Irish immigrants, and my grandmother ran guns for the IRA when she was a teenage girl.
  2. The hospital I was born in is about a twenty-minute drive from the desk where I’m writing this.
  3. I was a four-time national finalist and a national champion at the college AFA-NIET national speech championships.
  4. I bake four or six loaves of bread every week.
  5. Most of the animals in my life have been strays I took in off the street.
  6. I have four daughters, and everything else in my life orbits them.
  7. I consider myself an ardent third-wave feminist. Because, No.6.
  8. My garden produces all of the vegetables we eat about six months out of the year, and most of the canned vegetables we eat as well.
  9. The only things I truly hate are: intolerance, ironing, and musical theater.
  10. I love fly fishing, particularly for steelhead and salmon.
  11. My WIP is a memoir, so I left all the juicy stuff out of these eleven points. 😉

 

Here’s where I break the rules…

I want you folks to nominate yourselves (I’m not sending out invitations). Give a shoutout on a comment here, and I’ll link to your blog in the space below and consider yourself nominated. Then answer my eleven questions listed in the space below the space below.

The space below

This is where my Liebster self-nominees are listed. Don’t be shy. If you take the chain letter part away, it’s fun.

http://rochelledeans.wordpress.com/

http://bethellynsummer.com/

The space below the space below (MJM’s Eleven Questions):

  1. Do you have a regular writing goal? If so, what is it? (Words or hours per day or week? Anything else?)
  2. How far ahead to you plan or plot and how? (Seat of the pants? Detailed outline? Somewhere between?)
  3. Describe your most important writing relationship (A beta? CP? Your sister or mom, who reads your stuff? A spouse who’s brutally honest?)
  4. When did you start writing fiction and how long have you been doing it?
  5. What are the last three books you read?
  6. What was your favorite book from childhood?
  7. What is your biggest weakness as a writer?
  8. What is your greatest strength as a writer?
  9. What’s the best line you’ve written?
  10. What are some of the most embarrassing things someone else has pointed out to you in your writing? (List your face/palm moments here)
  11. If you could choose between writing a great novel that stood the test of time (but didn’t return significant financial gain during your lifetime) or making a boatload of money on a novel that would soon be forgotten, which would you choose and why?

The Best Book About How To Write is Free (yay free)

I have some strong opinions about “How To” books by and for writers. One opinion, really: They usually do more harm than good. They contain opinions from authors about what worked for those particular authors on the particular books those authors wrote. Which would be great, if those authors had time machines and could send copies of their “How To” books to themselves twenty years ago. As guides for the rest of us, though, they usually suck.

Using the time machine and sending “here’s how you will write” books to themselves would still probably do more harm than good. The process that got them to the level of success that warrants a “How To” book certainly included about a million valuable mistakes. It also probably involved a lot of reading—real books, with well-developed characters, interesting plots, and compelling dialogue, instead of douchey how to manuals. Novels that showed them what good writing is, instead of telling them how to construct the “Next Bestseller” or a “Blockbuster Novel.” A compelling narrative is not an IKEA bookshelf, and no assembly manual will ever tell anyone – other than the person who wrote it – how best to assemble it.

Outlining is an example I’ve used before. Ken Follett advises a complex 25-40 page chapter-by-chapter outline, including plotted biographies of each character. Stephen King, on the other hand says an outline “freezes it, it takes what should be a liquid, plastic, malleable thing to me and turns it into something else.” He’s even gone so far as to say, “it’s the difference between going to a canvas and painting a picture and going out and buying a Craftsmaster paint-by-the-numbers kit.”

Who’s right? Both are, with respect to how they should write. Neither is, with respect to how anyone but Ken Follett and Stephen King should write. If he hates doing it, Stephen King is not going to write a better novel if he’s forced to create a forty-page outline first. Ken Follett obviously works best with that kind of preparation and structure. The Pillars of the Earth would not improve if Follett decided to say “what the hell” and just start winging it.

[Note to Mr. King: Writing your own outline is not like buying a kit someone else created. By your estimation, every finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the last two years and virtually every Nobel Laureate do “paint-by-the-numbers” fiction. The difference is more akin to doing a sketch before putting the brush to canvas, which hacks like da Vinci and Rembrandt did, than paint-by-the-numbers, which kindergarteners do between naptime and snack.]

The best book a person can read to learn how to write is the fifty best books in her genre. Period. There is no substitute for doing that. Even to the extent there are worthwhile things to learn from books about writing, getting any real value out of them requires that you already be immersed in good writing. If you aren’t immersed in the craft itself, books discussing it theoretically aren’t going to do jack shit for your writing.

The First Five Pages is a fine book, but until you’re ready to conceive and give birth to a novel, it won’t do you much good. Self Editing for Fiction Writers is certainly a helpful, hands-on craft guide, if you’ve created something to edit. Save the Cat and Scene & Structure certainly explain how to structure a narrative, but without the formed context of what your own narrative should be, the result will be more akin to what King was warning about than anything Rembrandt ever produced. After immersing yourself in the specific type of book you want to write, the core elements and themes should become self-evident—with or without a handy checklist of core elements and themes.

But I promised a recommendation,

and I intend to deliver. Not a douchey “all” (Here’s a list of 500 novels I think everyone should read) or “nothing” (Craft books? We don’t need no stinkin’ craft books”) recommendation. An honest-to-god recommendation.

Some of you know me well enough to know what I’m going to say. If you found this blog because “Michael J. McDonagh” is the number one result when you Google “Anton Chekhov’s bitch” you’ve probably got a pretty good idea as well.

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Physician, comedy writer, grandson of a serf (read: Tsarist Russian slave), and master of the short story, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov provided the most helpful and useful writing advice I have ever found anywhere. Not just “write with your heart” platitudes, either. Direct, craft-oriented advice. Advice that could never come from someone fattening her wallet or stoking her ego by hawking a book to aspiring writers. Advice that comes almost entirely from letters the patient, dutiful mentor wrote to people he was emotionally invested in. Loving, fatherly advice about how to do something from someone who was a master at doing it himself. Not given as grand proclamations or even for posterity. Straight-up advice to people asking him for help learning to write better.

As a doctor, Chekhov went out of his way to help the poor (who were not particularly hard to find in Tsarist Russia). As a writer, he evolved from a popular “lowbrow” comedic writer to a literary figure as venerated as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. But, always, he studied the craft the way a scientist studies anything, with a deep need to objectively understand the world, even if, as a writer, it was a often world of his own creation.

His letters are fascinating. They are also public domain, which means 100% free (yay, free!). Creighton University has collected many of the key sentences and paragraphs about the craft of writing in one place (so, I guess, “Here’s your How To book”): Anton Chekhov on Writing. If that taste makes you want to read a much larger, less focused, but richer collection, check out either The Letters of Anton Chekhov to his Family and Friends or the Project Gutenberg version of the same book (yes, still public domain, which means, yay, still free).

Even Chekhov’s papers are no substitute for exposing yourself to good writing in a deep, meaningful way. But if you want to experience something that is as close to sitting down for the night with the great masters and a bottle of scotch as any of us are likely to get, buy a bottle of scotch and start reading. Those collections are a goldmine. They are arguably the greatest wealth of writing tips in existence, and completely free.

So there’s my recommendation. Screw all they quasi-mysterious “keys to the craft” bullshit, and read some damn books. Then read how a true master, who isn’t shilling his own crap to make money, talks to an aspirant. It’s concrete stuff, but it isn’t a checklist. Because if the bullshit checklist craft books worked, nobody would write anything but brilliant narratives. Plus all of our books would look the same, and who the hell wants that?

Get back to me when you’ve had a chance to check out those links. I am thinking of expanding the “Anton Chekhov’s Bitches” organization. If that’s not a convention worth flying to, I don’t know what is.

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Making the Most of your ABC Relationships (More on Alpha Readers, Betas & Critique Partners)

Notice the word “relationships” in the title. As I said in my last post, the most important blog post on the subject of ABC Relationships in the history of the interwebs, BOTH YOU AND YOUR PARTNER NEED TO BE CLEAR ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR IN THIS RELATIONSHIP.

That sentence, which I yelled in bold italics, was what made it the most important post on this subject. Like all relationship advice, any generalities I can throw at you are going to be of little use in any particular ABC RelationshipTM. That bigass, bold, screamed sentence is 90% of what I have to offer on the subject. Well, that and coming up with the name ABC RelationshipsTM which I think is catchy as hell.

For what it’s worth, though, here’s the other 10%

All relationship advice sucks. People always say “do what you love for a living, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” but don’t hesitate to tell you that “A successful marriage takes a lot of hard work.” What the fuck is up with that?

There are soul crushing jobs and soul crushing marriages and anyone who wants to give you advice about either probably has both—and lacks the good sense to do anything about it. In other words, I think relationship advice is cognitive dissonance and denial, dressed up to look like wisdom. Plus, someone with a great marriage isn’t going to be able to tell you how to deal with a shitty one, and you don’t want to take advice from someone in a shitty marriage about how to be married. So screw the advice giving.

Just remember it’s a fucking relationship. It’s going to have all of the components of any other relationship. Meaning:

  1. The people heading in probably have expectations about what the other person is going to do and what they will do for that person.
  2. Unless those expectations are communicated, they will almost certainly go unmet, causing tension.
  3. If there’s enough tension in the relationship, sooner or later you’re going to be screaming that you want your fucking Pink Floyd CDs back, damnit unhappy with how things are working.
  4. If those expectations are clearly communicated, they are far easier to meet.
  5. Last but not least, and this is a big one, relationships constantly change. Sometimes they do so by ending, sometimes by growing, sometimes they’re just different, but they constantly change. So knowing where you’re at in Step 4 one day does not mean you shouldn’t ever talk about it again. 

This is harder than it looks. It’s easy to say “sure, I’d love to read your book,” and hard not to feel like an ass by saying “I’m really sorry, but I don’t have time for it.” It’s also great to have ten people looking over your stuff, but (unless a fair number true betas, which I’ll get to), you can’t be a good developmental editor, copy editor, idea sounding board and a bunch of other stuff to ten other people.

Personally, I max out at three real critique partners (CPs). That’s not advice for anyone but me, and I often think I can do more than that—until all three finish their revisions and hit me with a novel to read the same fucking night. Then I’m overtaxed with three and thank God I haven’t agreed to a fourth.

Which is not to say I don’t also pretend I’m a beta on occasion. If I’m reasonably safe for a while in terms of my CP workload and feel like my own writing going where it needs to, I’ll agree to rip through part of all of someone’s manuscript and give some general impressions. But I also tell them up front that is what I will be doing. It’s OK, because I’ve said that’s what I’d be doing up front.

That person may get 500 or 1,000 words of comments on a novel, without any usage or style issues corrected or questioned. By contrast, this morning I hit one of my poor CPs with about a thousand word e-mail, not counting all sorts of comments and questions on the manuscript itself, in response to 6,000 words she sent me. And that’s my response to writing I absolutely love—on my second pass through those particular chapters. Another CP got a less significant line-by-line back, too, but her changes were less substantial, and it’s an entirely different genre from a technical standpoint. Still, in the time it’s taken me to write this much of this blog post, I’ve received and responded to three e-mails from the very people I’m talking about. Because I fucking love my CPs, and that kind of love is a lot of work.

All of it boils down to: know up front what you’re asking for and what you’re being asked to contribute. If I were to come perilously close to giving relationship advice, it would be that there should be some balance between what you are taking and what you are giving. In other words, don’t be a selfish douchebag. Or a doormat, for that matter (though I’ve done soooooo much better picking partners for this type of relationship than I did with the other, the doormat issue hasn’t presented itself in my writing life).

Plus, get yourself some damn betas

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Real ones, like the term really means in the software industry (from which it was borrowed before being bastardized to really mean critique partner most of the time writers use it). Betas are end users (read: readers), not programmers or engineers (read: writers). There are a few great things about betas. Starting with: They aren’t writers. Also, they don’t have a bunch of their own shit they want you to read, too. Because they aren’t fucking writers.

They read your stuff because they like to read. They respond to your stuff like readers do. They won’t use all our douchey writer words like “head-hopping,” “POV slip,” “narrative arc,” and whatnot. They’ll still point out those problems, though (although they usually have to be more severe than they do for a good CP to catch them). They’ll tell you things like “I didn’t really like this part,” or “Chapter Three was confusing.” If a beta starts your book and “keeps meaning to get back to it,” but doesn’t, you’ve learned volumes. Your critique partner is on a mission and has an agreement with you, so it’s rare one (who isn’t a selfish douchebag) will not crunch through your book — good or bad. Betas have a sneaky habit of not getting back to books they find boring.

The ideal beta is someone you know, but barely, who likes to read and reads a lot. There can be no physical attraction, job relationship, family relationship, outstanding debts, or any other reason for that person to hesitate to tell you the truth. Betas are awesome, because their payment is getting to read your manuscript. They don’t have a manuscript to read. Because they aren’t fucking writers, so you don’t have to read their shit.

Always be on the lookout for a new beta. Talk books with people. It’s easy to see whether the person you’re talking to knows what she’s talking about when it comes to reading. If she does, see if she’ll read yours and give some honest opinions.

Then stress you want honest opinions. Bend over backward to make that person understand that the biggest favor they can do for you is provide direct, accurate, completely honest feedback. Assure them you know not everyone will like what you’ve written, and if she falls into the category of people who don’t, so be it. All that matters is that her opinions be honest and complete. As a side note, I’ve found its usually easier to get that kind of response in writing as opposed to face-to-face.

That’s why, while I’d encourage you to have all sorts of people read your work, I don’t count family or friends or other people with close ties as betas. Betas truly need to be like their software industry counterparts – typical end users testing the product in normal usage conditions. Your mom is not a typical end user. She may have great insights, but you still won’t know what a stranger thinks after reading your book. Assuming, that is, the stranger reads the whole book, which your mom will at least lie about and tell you she did.

So, here’s everything I think about ABC Relationshipstm

  1. They are relationships.
  2. Make sure everybody knows what they want and expect from that relationship at the outset.
  3. Don’t be a selfish douchebag.
  4. Get some damn betas, they’re basically free.

This is Your Brain on Words Part Five: Using red-hot metaphors

It’s only a baby step from what we discussed in Part Four of this series to the far more limited topic we’ll cover today. Last week we talked about how readers use the brain’s sensory regions when reading something that involves those senses.

In short, when you read:

“The ball shot past the pitcher. The defender at third dove to her left, stretching her body to reach. The line-drive slapped into the meat of her glove, her stinging hand instinctively closing around the ball before she skidded down the second base line.”

the language centers in your brain aren’t the only parts that you’re using. If you’re typical, your visual regions lit up on the first sentence, motor regions followed as you and the girl playing third base dove and stretched. You felt the slap and the sting and skidded across the infield — or at least the parts of your brain that would feel those sensations lit up as though you did. If she takes the glove off with her teeth and smells the leather when she does so, your taste and smell receptors (which are separate but intricately entwined) will come into play.

“Play” being the operative word. Reading fiction is playtime for our brains. Our asses may be planted in a chair or hammock when we’re reading, but our brains are running, jumping, aiming a sniper rifle, undressing a hottie, smelling cinnamon rolls baking, feeling the burn down our throats from shot of scotch, swimming… whatever.

Like I’ve said before, powerful mojo. So powerful, we need to be a little circumspect in how we use it.

First, the science

This is such a natural and logical extension of we’ve discussed already, I’m not going to dedicate much of this post to the underlying science. A 2012 Emory University study reported in the journal Brain & Language (Boo — not free) involving metaphors that refer to the sense of touch was enlightening. Long story short, when someone reads a metaphor that uses words associated with the sense of touch (like, “The singer had a velvet voice” or “He had leathery hands”) the sensory cortex –which is adjacent to the More Cowbell area and responsible for processing the sense of touch when you’re actually touching something– gets active. Control phrases meaning the same thing (like, “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,”) did not result in activation of that region.

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Regions of the brain activated by hearing textural metaphors are shown in green. Yellow and red show regions activated by sensory experience of textures visually and through touch.

In other words, metaphors create associations beyond the conscious meaning we know they have, activating parts of the brain not directly associated with language. The phrase “that was rough” will result in a more visceral and sense-based response than “that was difficult.”

What to do with it

There’s the rub (hehe). For starters, this cautions against indiscriminate metaphor as much as it encourages its use. At the risk of sensory overload, here is my analogy.

Yesterday, I cooked a sage and garlic crusted pork roast for dinner (and used a whole bulb of garlic, plus about a cup of fresh sage). I was doing yard work and could smell all the garlic and sage from the corner of my yard. When I went inside, one of my daughters asked what we were having for dinner. I asked, “You can’t smell it?” because by that time the house smelled like someone hosed it down with a firehose full of garlic and sage. But she’d been inside with that smell so long, it wasn’t even registering anymore.

Our brains get used to stimuli and ignore them all the time. You noticed your shirt when you put it on this morning, but probably haven’t noticed it since. Well, until you read that, at which point your brain probably went there again and said “yup, there’s a shirt there.” So now I’ll talk about your rear end making contact with the chair you’re sitting in. Something else you are sensing, if you stop to think about it, but are ignoring unless you do so.

This is where the power of metaphor must be, like all things in the “powerful mojo” category, handled with some care. Being aware that the brain wants to experience the sensations we expose it to through words needs to govern how we describe things, including use of metaphors. Simple adages we’ve grown used to over time still have a significant impact on how the reader’s brain is processing things. With intent, we can use that to our advantage. Done haphazardly, even things that are clear and make perfect sense are not going to work harmoniously for the reader, sending logically consistent but viscerally conflicting messages. Those stories you think you should have liked but — for some, unknown reason didn’t bother finishing? Take a quick look. You may find that all the instruments in the orchestra were playing different songs. All fine songs in their own right, but it still doesn’t make for much of a concert.

Using the above baseball analogy, we may want to set the scene as a slow, lazy summer day. If we hope to draw a contrast by the sudden burst of action, that metaphor may be the perfect way to set the scene. If the contrast is not what we’re looking for, however, it is the wrong way to do it. Either way, the metaphor about the day is going to interplay with the physical activity in the scene, and all of it is going to happen in the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in sensory responses. And, significantly, that will nearly always happen without the reader being consciously aware it’s taking place.

Not all metaphors involve those responses. My guess (and this is only a guess) is that the metaphor in the first sentence of this post (“It’s only a baby step from what we discussed…”) lights up a host of areas. In addition to those portions of the cerebral cortex cued by taking a step, also vision (if you literally see a baby, which is how I process those words) and other, more diffused areas associated with your emotions relating to babies. Being a sucker for babies, I am certain I have a loving, protective, happy emotional response to that word, even when it’s being used in a metaphor about our analysis of brain function and reading.

That sets me up for an entirely different response to reading “baby steps” if the subject is an elderly couple walking, hand-in-hand, down the street (awwww) as opposed to a serial killer entering a family’s home while they’re asleep (creepier than shit). There is no right way to use this knowledge – if you’re going for creepier than shit, that may be the way to go; if awwww is not what you’re after, it may not be.

So, there’s the important part

…simply being aware. Not using metaphor out of laziness or without thought, but understanding there are real consequences to the reader (albeit often not consciously) every time we use one. This knowledge encourages “choosing the right word” at a different, much deeper level. The nature of the word we choose can invest the reader more deeply in what we want her to experience or subtly, unconsciously, divorce her from the experience we are trying to create. That metaphor that either seems so clever standing on its own or is thrown in out of habit without thought is still a part of the readers “physical” journey. Knowing the way that journey is processed and playing with it – either reinforcing or using metaphors to draw stark contrasts – can have a powerful impact on the feeling the reader takes away from the experience.

I think this goes a long way toward explaining why we sometimes just connect with the way a book was written. Even if we can’t quite…

 

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Put our finger on it.

This is Your Brain on Words Part Four: Words as a gateway to all of the reader’s senses (or, Why my blog smells like cinnamon)

Spoiler alert – this is the post where the Brain on Words series goes from providing interesting but required background information to blowing your mind with unbelievably cool shit that makes being a writer the awesomest thing in the universe.

So far, we’ve covered how the reader sees a word (actually one syllable, clearly, and the next one or two less clearly). That sound is combined with the other sounds around it to form words. Those words are processed by the semantic systems in our brains, essentially treating them like spoken words, which is to say sounds that have specific meanings. 

This part is not new. Researchers have known for decades that our brains have language regions, like the Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, because if you are the first person to figure this shit out, you get to name part of everybody’s brain after yourself. Unless you were both that smart and really awesome, which nobody is, or we’d have the More Cowbell area and the RedSox Nation area. But I digress.

While none of that science is new, we’ve already covered one new discovery. While it was thought for some time that not all fluent readers “subvocalize” or turn words into sounds to process them, brain imaging technology has given us a look, and it turned out most cognitive psychologists were wrong. Our sound processing systems are the gate through which all hearing people usher words into their brains.

Once those word/sounds are in, the really fucking cool stuff starts.

Brain imaging technology has finally advanced to the point that neuroscientists have “discovered” what everyone who’s ever been really into a great book already knew. Those word/sounds don’t just stay in the More Cowbell and RedSox Nation areas. They stimulate every brain center for every sense and every emotion we are capable of feeling in the real world.

One experiment was conducted by researchers in Spain, published in the journal NeuroImage (this publication is available free, courtesy of Oxford Journals). They came up with a list of sixty words with strong olfactory associations –everything from lavender and cinnamon to turpentine and vomit. They then looked at subjects’ brains via a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine as the subjects read those words (as well as the neutral control words, like “chair”). When the subjects read the “smell” words, their olfactory centers lit up — they were cuing their brains to respond to the sensation of a smell that was only there in the form of a word. To the olfactory centers in the brain, though, that smell was there.

Other neuropaths are involved, too. Not just those required for understanding the word and recalling its meaning, but also those required to remember what cinnamon smells like. Basically, the readers’ brain is saying “OK, it smelled like cinnamon, so I’ll respond the same way I do when I smell cinnamon.” Then it gasses itself with a little burst of imaginary cinnamon.

That’s about a 10 out of 10 on the scale of awesomeness. It isn’t just that sense, either. All of them – from touch to gross motor “running” actions, from the sense of taste to the sound of a bird in the distance – you name it, your brain will respond to by signaling the regions responsible for experiencing it in life. Here’s a great paper from Universite Lyon, France (also free) about how our brains respond to things like throwing and running and other physical activity. Also, check out Reading Salt Activates Gustatory Brain Regions: fMRI Evidence for Semantic Grounding in a Novel Sensory Modality from the journal neuroscience (once again, thank you to Oxford University Press).

When we describe a sensation, our readers’ brains are responding as though they were experiencing it. First freaking hand. Books were virtual reality before virtual reality was anything more than an oxymoron.

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Readers do not translate words into mere “pictures” as many researchers (who apparently never read erotica of any kind) assumed for decades. The words are better described as being translated into experiences. First hand experiences that the reader is going through. Smelling, tasting, running, sex – a writer’s description of physical sensations creates an experience for the reader. That experience may include a lot of images, but it is far from limited to those images.

Unless, that is, a writer forgets that every sense, sensation, and movement can be part of the experience. This may well be one of the reasons successful screenwriters are seldom successful novelists. Sight and sound (i.e., dialogue) are two elements, comprising two of our five senses. The other three — taste, touch, smell — are too easily overlooked. Not just by screenwriters, but by all of us who are too in love with our story’s narrative arc to let a character stop to smell the roses (or turpentine, or whatever). In fact, this research was so compelling, I’m seriously considering a re-read (meaning the gagillianth edit) of my queried manuscript. Just focusing on the other three senses. I’m certain I covered them all to some extent, but my appreciation for their significance was far below what these studies have made it now. 

I find myself thinking back to the use of taste and smell in Like Water for Chocolate, which I read 20 years ago and can still remember, thinking that may be why I can still remember it. This is some powerful, powerful writing mojo.

Too much mojo for one blog post, that’s for sure. Did I mention we were finally getting into the mind-blowing shit? Because I saved the most awesome part of this slice of the Brain on Words series for the next post.

And that one is still not the coolest thing I discovered when researching this series.

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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.

I Have no Talent as a Writer (and Neither do You)

“There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift.”

– Flannery O’Connor

Talent is a beautiful thing. Talent is the concept that God (or the gods, in the case of the ancient Greeks who loved to talk about this stuff, or the cosmos for my agnostic friends) has imbued our flawed, frail mortal existence with a divine spark of greatness. It’s breathtaking.

It is also complete bullshit.

I’m not saying talent doesn’t matter, nor am I claiming talent is not important. I am going one step further. I am saying that talent resides in an imaginary world with leprechauns and gods who drive chariots across the sky, hauling the sun around like a boat trailer. Talent is not a thing.

Opportunity is a thing. Experience is a thing. Practice is a thing (and the right kind of practice appears to be the biggest thing of all). In certain endeavors, your body’s size and shape are things that matter – Michael Phelps’ clown-shoe sized feet certainly don’t hurt when it comes to swimming, and no matter how much or how well my daughter practices, she will never be an elite NFL Line(wo)man at 5’2 and about 100 pounds. But the concept that some people, in our case writers, have an innate ability that makes them superior to us (or that we have an innate ability that gives us some kind of leg up) is just flatly and empirically wrong.

This is not just my half-assed opinion. When addressing this issue with other writers (and surprised to find myself in the minority in an argument on this subject), my half-assed opinion was that talent is a minor element of success, far less important than diligently honing the skills required to write well.

I was wrong. It’s less important than that. Being a data-driven person, I went looking for studies evaluating the role of talent in controlled environments. There have been dozens of studies, and they all come to one of two conclusions:

(1)   The existence of talent cannot be proven to be a significant factor in reaching world-class performance levels in any activity (music, sports, writing, art); or

(2)   There is enough data to infer that the thing we conceptualize as “talent” does not exist.

So, if you were expecting to rely on your God-given gift to become a successful writer, you are shit out of luck.

FIRST, THE DATA:

Because we were having such a heated debate about this subject, I didn’t realize I was researching a question that has basically been put to bed in the scientific community. Geoffrey Colvin has a good rundown in his mass market book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. As far as free, objective resources are concerned, the study: Innate Talents: Reality Or Myth  published in Behavioural and Brain Sciences 21 399-442 #128 (available from Cambridge University Press) is awesome and free.  http://cogprints.org/656/1/innate.htm

Interesting studies have also been conducted on chess Grand Masters, dating back to the 1940s. They are consistently found to be of average intelligence and have average cognitive skills. They also have average memory ability, except when it comes to one thing. You guessed it, chess. After a certain amount (five or more years) of intensive chess-play, they begin seeing the board as one organic whole, rather than thirty-two separate pieces. Using magnetoencephalography (seriously, I didn’t make that up, it’s a machine that measures the electromagnetic signals in your brain), scientists have found that chess players get to a point that they access frontal and parietal cortices of the brain when they look at the board. They are not actually analyzing the move their opponent made, they are remembering past games. Lower-ranked players, on the other hand, are accessing their medial temporal lobes. When they look at a move, they are encoding new information about the way the board changed.

I’m going to generalize and oversimplify a tad here (so check out the book or click on the link for more data or search “precocity” and “talent” in Google Scholar). So far, researchers haven’t conclusively ruled out the existence of innate biological traits that may aid in performing at high levels in things like art, accounting, writing, tennis chess, gymnastics. or any other endeavor.They have, however, determined that there is no relationship between people identified early on as potentially having “talent” and long-term success in any of those activities. If you were deemed mediocre musically year 1 and another student was deemed to be musically adept and advanced year 1, it’s a coin flip to see which student would be better year 6. Starting at the opposite end, looking at the “world-class” participants in those activities and working back to where they started, the researchers have also ruled out any factors happening before the first several years of dedicated practice in any activity as being predictive of the subjects’ ultimate success.

SECOND: ENVIRONMENT

Eli and Peyton Manning are “talented” football players, having each won a Superbowl, each having jobs as starting quarterbacks in the NFL, etc. The odds of two sons from the same family having the top starting position on two teams in the NFL are mind-bogglingly low. But their dad is Archie Manning (a legend in the game), they grew up around it, it’s what they’ve known and practiced and done and absorbed since before they can remember.

Now let’s pretend they were my sons. Guess who would have no “talent” for football. Same dudes. I can almost guarantee we’d still be hearing from college coaches, but they’d be the college debate coaches we’re hearing from about my daughters. My daughters are “talented” debaters. Not coincidentally, I went through college on a full-ride debate scholarship, met their mother at the national speech championships, and she and I both coached college speech and debate for a few years. Drop Peyton and Eli into my household, and you would probably have two of the best debaters in the country and a perfect score on the English portion of the ACT, but neither one would have a lick of “talent” when it came to football.

There is a spinoff from that early exposure thing, called the multiplier effect. Here’s how it works: Little Girl A happens to bowl a really good game when she’s 5. Everybody says “ooh, aah, look at that,” and she gets some ice cream. Then she gets a bowling ball for Christmas and keeps bowling to get more ice cream until she is old enough to bowl in a tournament where, having been doing it regularly for a couple of years, she crushes everybody. Yea Little Girl A! So she keeps bowling and hanging out with people who bowl, and taking lessons and competing against higher level opponents until – wow! She’s one of the best bowlers in the country. Then she fires her old coach and has three new coaches, working on foot placement and stroke and other bowling stuff (because I’m in way over my head here, I’ve bowled about five times in my life). So she ends up the grand champion of bowling or whatever and drives a Cadillac with longhorn steer horns across the hood and a giant diamond belt-buckle that says she’s the best bowler in the world! Because she is! But she doesn’t have one bit more “talent” for bowling than I do. She’s just spent 50,000 more hours deliberately practicing how to bowl than I have.

That’s what environment contributes to “talent.” More than anything, the mistaken belief that you have it. Or, worse, the mistaken belief that you don’t, but someone else does.

Which means there’s some good news and some bad news:

The bad news is, you’re not a talented writer. the good news is, nobody else is, either.

In either event, if the numbers in the English study are roughly accurate, even if you are at zero, with no background or supportive environment or anything else, start now and you’re probably going to catch up to the people who mistakenly believe they have talent and have also been working on it in about six years.

Not coincidently, that six year finding nearly mirrors Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours conclusion, though coming at it from an entirely different angle. It also fits squarely in the realm of the amount of time invested by chess Grand Masters. Take off some rounding errors, and you’re right at those “first million words” that people generally agree are “practice” before writers become good writers. [Note: The original attribution of that number is disputed, but I can assure you that Stephen King was not the first or fourteenth person to use it, despite it often being attributed to him].

So you give me a break about this “talent” crap. I don’t want to hear about it if you believe you have talent and therefore your words are lyrical gold that flows onto the page. I don’t want to hear about it if you think you lack talent and therefore cannot succeed. Write seriously for six years/ten thousand hours/one million words and get back to me.

I genuinely believe that the only real “talent” an author may possess would be the “talent” to see her work objectively and critically.  To identify specific, precise skills that need to be honed and work on them. To evaluate criticism effectively (which sometimes means rejecting it, after earnest evaluation) but always looking for the thought in that criticism that can be employed to improve. Which is to say, the only ”talent” one can have in the field of writing is a willingness to practice hard and well and for a long time.

image

If he was all that “talented,” why does he have to change every single fucking sentence?

 

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