Friday, April 29, 2011

The Realities of Getting Real

Fair readers, sometimes I love things that are not good for me. We've all been guilty of this, I know, but it's something I needed to say. You see, I'm not just talking about my obsession with The Vampire Diaries or my desire to wrap all foods in bacon. No, I'm talking about something far more detrimental: Contemporary Fiction.

(I'll wait for your gasps to die down and the thunder and lightning to stop.)

I know what you're thinking, "You seem so intelligent, Sarah! Why would you devote yourself to something that will never bring you happiness or wealth?"

It's true. I've often wondered this about myself too, but friends... I just can't stop. I love contemporary fiction and I need to continue my quest of saving it from the vampires, demons, and shapeshifters, even if it means starving to death or wearing clothes from last season.

Contemporary fiction (also known as realistic fiction) is a tough sell, made tougher by a surge of paranormal hits and a lousy economy. (Yes, the economy, and publishing, have both recovered significantly since 2008, but, well... you know publishing. Slow, slow, slow.) Publishers just aren't taking as many chances with real life anymore. I'm specifically talking about contemporary YA here, but it's true on the adult side as well. Real life just isn't exciting enough... or something. Well wait - we all know that isn't true. So what is it about contemporary life that makes publishers back away?

Well, for starters, there's usually very little "wow" factor in real life, and when money is tight (as it's been in publishing, particularly in the last three years), you don't waste your time and funds on something that won't draw a massive crowd. Remember that authors need to earn back their advances before anyone sees any real profit, so choosing who to give those advances to is a much more difficult decision than it used to be.

Does this mean you should make your main character have super powers instead of athletic ability? Or make the love interest a demon hunter from another dimension? No! Absolutely not.

Contemporary fiction, even in YA, is on its way back to the mainstream. Debut authors like Steph Bowe (Girl Saves Boy), Kody Keplinger (The Duff and the upcoming Shut Out), and Kirsten Hubbard (Like Mandarin) are all examples of really great realistic fiction for teens. And yes, I said debut! And yes they received real advances for their first novels! There are others like them too. This gives me hope for the genre, but these novels are not yet the standard. Rather than taking their place beside the wide selection of similar titles on bookshelves, these books still fall under the category of "defying the odds."

So how can you defy the odds? I've written before about how to reap all the benefits of a paranormal bestseller without actually writing one. But there are other ways to make your realistic novel stand out just by focusing on the way you write it.

1. Boil your plot down to one sentence. Maybe two.
Plot answers the question "What is your book about? Be able to answer this question in one sentence. Ideas, themes, character development, and even narrative are not plot. Plot is just what happens. Keeping your one-sentence plot in mind, build a story around it. This is where you can be as commercial or as literary as you like. Want to throw around $100 words and write lavish nature scenes in which the rain is a mirror for the main character's soul? Do it! It will probably be beautiful. Just remember to stay on point and not stray too far from that one magic sentence - your plot. (The magic part of the sentence is also called your "hook," a word I hate, but one that is very necessary in regards to how your novel is perceived.)

Note: Ideas, themes, and character development might not be considered part of the plot, but they can be used in your 1-3 sentence pitch to give it a little pizazz :)

2. Have an original concept.
This sounds like the type of advice that should go without saying, but "coming-of-age" stories (for example) tend to center around very similar topics: loss of a parent, going on a "life-changing" trip, losing one's virginity, growing out of your former BFF and meeting a new BFF... these have all been done and done and done. This doesn't mean they can't still be done. But it does mean you're going to have to find a really fresh angle from which to tell this story. Sometimes this means an inventive writing style or unique settling. Most other times it means having a truly memorable character that literature cannot live without, no matter how "common" his or her story is.

Remember when I told you it's OK to not be so original? Think of the above-mentioned plot scenarios as outlines. Your main character attempts self-discovery by going against a shy, quiet nature and heads to the Australian outback for spring break. He or she meets someone amazing [friend or love interest]. What else happens? Give your character an amazing adventure/purpose that highlights what this experience means.

3. Kill your darlings.
You wrote amazingly realistic scenes involving your main character and people who are less important to the plot. Your dialogue between characters is funny, moving, and real in a way that makes Aaron Sorkin himself weep with jealousy. Your settings are eloquently presented, your subplot can stand on its own, and your seemingly tangential character quirks rival the likes of David Foster Wallace and his footnotes.

But does any of that gorgeous writing slow down the pace? Make character development get lost in a sea of words? Create a subplot that never connects to the main plot?

Tightening up your narrative is the best way to make your story come through, but tightening language in this particular way can be hard, especially when you know you wrote something that's really, really good. (I hate when I have to do this to my clients!) Making your manuscript stand out in a largely ignored genre means making sacrifices.

I've met several editors who share my love of the contemporary, but even still, it's not always up to just them. Your manuscript goes through a lot of hoops, and many of those upper-tier rings still have "high concept!" "paranormal!" "dystopian!" on their brains. I fight on the side of realistic fiction, and it makes me, and other lovers of the contemporary, underdogs. I love my paranormal still too, don't get me wrong. But there's just something about real life that never stops being compelling, even when it seems mundane. So, no, this quest will never make me rich. And, yes, I'm setting myself up for lots of disappointment down the road. Like I said, sometimes I love things that are not good for me. But whatever, bacon is delicious.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When Things Went Sour

I hope your all enjoyed your holidays, if you celebrated anything. If not, hope you're having a lovely week! Today's story is a memoir excerpt, which always excites my nonfiction roots. The author, Donna Talarico, centers this section on her (future) stepfather in a chapter called When Things Went Sour. Donna has an MFA in creative writing from Wilkes University, where her memoir, Door to Door was her thesis. She's been published in newspapers, arts & culture magazines, and even on a greeting card.

Donna also casually mentioned that she was on a reality show on that aired on TLC in 2004, so of course I asked her to elaborate. If anyone feels like looking up archived episodes of a short-lived program called Help Wanted, Donna will be the one dumpster diving and car chasing to be a Private Investigator. She came in second! (Which is probably for the better since she would hardly have time to write if she was a P.I.)

When Things Went Sour
from Door to Door: A Memoir
By Donna Talarico

Dominic’s Pizza. Alpine Ski Shop. Matirko Hardware. My school. We were passing all the familiar scenery on Route 940, headed toward Mount Pocono. I was on my way to meet someone unfamiliar.

“You're gonna like him,” my mom said, ashing out the window of her Camaro. The car she wanted everyone to know she drove because she had a personalized license plate that said “LORI-60”.

“Is he more like Gary or Dad?” I asked. She had met a new guy. He was a new regular at Woody’s, a painter who’d come into the bar after work. My mom thought it was cute that, sometimes, he'd have a little paint in his hair.

“I don't know. Gary I guess,” she said, turning the radio dial to find a station not playing a commercial.

Just when I went to open my mouth to ask more questions, the thought was replaced with “We Built This City” by Starship.

“Do it, ma!” I begged.

Mom beeped the horn in sync with the synthesizer at just the right part of the chorus. We built this city... beep beep! She did that all the time and my friends and I thought it was the best.

Joe lived in a private development, Pocono Country Place, just like almost everyone in the Poconos. Jasmine lived in Emerald Lakes, Cori in Arrowhead Lakes, Grandmom and Theresa in Briar Crest Woods. I was one of only a few people I knew who lived along the rural main roads without the amenities of a private pool or lake or clubhouse. Joe didn't have his own house, though; he lived with his married friends, Carol and Tom.

The smell of sauerkraut greeted us when we walked into the small ranch home. I would have squeezed my nose shut as some swimmers do when they dive, but that would have been rude. I liked sauerkraut and all, but I hated how sour it smelled. Mom introduced me to Carol and Tom first. Carol was in the kitchen making dinner: a big pot of pork and, of course, sauerkraut. That looked OK, but I was happy to see another pot filled my favorite food in the world, mashed potatoes. I wondered if Mom had told Joe how much I liked mashed potatoes or if it was just a coincidence. Either way, I knew Carol’s couldn't possibly be as tasty as my mom's famous, creamy mashed potatoes with gobs of butter and the right amount of salt and pepper. I was hoping dinner would start soon, as I pictured a yellow waterfall pouring down a white hill of potatoes. Although I wanted to keep an eye on the potatoes, to avoid being asked to help set the table, I sat down on the couch with Tom.

“Oh, hi Lori,” I soon heard a man say. I turned around and saw him enter the kitchen. He planted a kiss my mom’s cheek. “Where's your little girl?”

As they headed toward me, I inspected this new man. He had a very large Adam’s apple poking from his neck. He was about my mom's height, stocky with brown, fluffy, feathered hair, kind of like Mom’s. He wore blue jeans and a tight white t-shirt and white high-top Reeboks. Also like Mom.

When she introduced me to Joe, he handed me a bag of Starburst candy. Not a pack, but a big, value bag with dozens of chewy candies inside. I was told to save them for after we ate. During dinner, I took three helpings of mashed potatoes, hid some fatty pieces of pork inside my napkin, and told Carol, Tom and Joe things my mom already knew about me, like how I wanted to be an actress (like Alyssa Milano) or a detective (like Nancy Drew) or maybe even a bartender (like Mom). They asked questions about school and I told them I liked English and social studies and that I had the preamble to the constitution memorized. I told them that, tomorrow, I had a spelling test and that I would probably get another hundred percent because I was one of the best spellers at Tobyhanna Elementary Center.

Joe seemed OK, even though he smoked like Mom. He made the adults laugh, so I laughed too, even though I didn’t understand what I was laughing at. After dinner and dishes, Tom and Carol went into their bedroom, while Mom, Joe, and I watched TV on the couch. I started to eat my Starbursts and pretended not to notice Joe stroking my mom’s leg. Soon, Mom and Joe disappeared into a bedroom to talk about adult stuff. I waited patiently with the bag of Starburst on my lap. I was getting bored, so I ate all the Starbursts, except the yellow. They were sour and made my eyes water and I didn't like them very much. An hour later, I was still waiting, so I ate all the yellow ones too. They still didn't come back, so I threw the empty bag on the coffee table, sprawled out on the couch and eventually fell asleep. No pillow. No blanket. Still in my clothes.

It took me a few moments to figure out where I was when I woke up in the morning. It smelled the same way, like coffee and smoke, but yet it wasn’t home. The TV was still on, Channel 16 news. I sat up and looked into the kitchen. Carol was drinking coffee. When I told her I had to go to school, she went down the hall to a room and woke up my mom; but, over her first cup of coffee, Mom reasoned it was too late to take me all the way back home to get ready for school in time. Joe came into the kitchen and said good morning to everyone. His hair was messy, not as fluffy and I felt differently about him this time.

“You eat all those Starbursts?” he asked, pouring coffee into a mug.

“Even the yellow ones,” I said.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

Today's post has absolutely nothing to do with religion, but I am taking advantaging of the title (and ignoring that it represents crucifixion) in order to say THANK YOU to my readers.

I know this sounds sort of hokey coming from me, but seriously - I've been meaning to say this for the past month. Every time I open up Blogger and they tell me 500+ people are following my little blog, I do a double take. It reminds me of a very, very early blog post from September 2009 - Do Androids Dream of Me? - in which I want nothing more than to have 7 followers. I started this blog before I was an agent and before I understood the point of Twitter, and no one really knew I existed. But I kept posting anyway.

Anyway, I know 500 readers is small potatoes compared to other industry blogs, but I've never called myself an industry blog or tried to be, so I am still pretty happy. Actually, I'd still be happy with 7. You guys are just awesome. And if there are any writers out there who don't blog, but are thinking about it, do it. Even if no one reads it or you think you have nothing to say. If you keep at it, eventually people will respond.

That's about as sentimental as I get (online), friends! But I really, truly mean it when I say THANK YOU. Your stories and comments are what keep this blog going. I'm just the messenger.

No post on Monday, as I will be on a train somewhere along the Hudson. Enjoy your weekend!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

ReGeneration

In case you haven't seen the highly snooty NY Times "review" of Game of Thrones, or read the even snobbier "defense" of said review this week, then I suggest reading those now, but only if you feel like getting enraged. Both pieces can be summed up with the phrase "only classless nerds and boys like fantasy. Obviously, we all know better.

Today's story is not fantasy, but it does fall into another overlooked and under-appreciated genre - science fiction. Not only that, but it falls into the third category of young adult, which to the philistines who refuse to educate themselves outside their own worldview, might as well be "kid stuff." Again, we all know better.

This is all to say that I am very happy to bring you some teenagers, some futuristic worlds, and some clones with today's excerpt from the novel, ReGeneration. It's set in 2031, twenty years after human cloning first became possible. Even though human cloning is no longer illegal, not everyone accepts them, including high school sophomore, Riley White.

The author, Tamara Kelly is a mother of five (!) and somehow finds time to work on a new novel and, she adds, a few novellas "here and there," she says. After you give her story a read, check out her blog at ReGeneration Series. Enjoy!

ReGeneration
By Tamara L Kelly

Despite it being the first day of school, I was already in the principal's office. Mrs. Ward had seen my shoes and assumed they were against the school dress code. School uniforms sucked! Even though I went to a public school the district had changed their policies a year ago and forced us all into wearing “school appropriate clothing.”

It never failed that I ended up in the office, at least five or six times a year. I had all but memorized the school guidelines by now, especially the part about uniforms. It didn't specify what kind of black shoes were acceptable.

So, my thick healed, lace up Docs should have been fine. I was wearing the required navy blue skirt, white-collar shirt and had the tie loosely hanging around my neck, like a noose. My hair had been died to a black color, from the pink it had been during the summer, and a band-aid was over my left eyebrow, where a new piercing was concealed.

I sat in the hallway, now picking at the black nail polish on my fingers waiting for Principal McFarlin. In the rush to polishing them and my mind having been focused on the article I hadn't been as steady as I had earlier thought, slopping some of the enamel onto my skin and cuticles.

“Riley you're already in here?” Principal McFarlin barked across the hallway from his office. He was leaning to the side of his chair peering out the open door.
“Mrs. Ward sent me in.” I said, a lack of emotion resting on my face.

He motioned for me to come into his office. His dark stained wood veneer desk was neat and orderly, with only a small stack of papers to the right and a new name plate on the front edge. I slouched down in the chair in front of his desk, picking up the name plate and twisted it in my hands, while reading it out loud.

“Principal Marlin McFarlin?” I looked up at him. “Seriously! Marlin?” I snickered. He calmly grabbed the name plate from my grasp, placing it back on his desk, then nudging it just so, making it line up with the edge of his desk. Principal McFarlin was your typical middle-aged man with a receding hair line and a thinning spot towards the back. In-spite of me being in his office he was a decent principle. He'd actually listen to the student before administering punishment and sometimes he could be persuaded by something you said, which was what I was hoping for now.

“I thought it would take longer to see you in here Miss White. What did Mrs. Ward send you in here for?” He stood up stepping closer to the door, peering out at the front desk. It was obvious he was distracted by something else. “Torturing small underclassmen?”

“Whatever!” I turned in my chair to face him.”That really wasn't my fault last year.”
He looked down leering at me “So you say, but I'm sure that Sarah Copper would think otherwise, since you were the one to have started the name calling.”

“Mrs. Ward is looking for anything to get me written up. I guess my shoes aren't acceptable for the dress code,” it sounded harsher than I meant to, but I didn't want to talk about Sarah Cooper and her life as a pathetic and miserable wench.

“You can change into your gym sneakers.” he said. He stood to the side, towering over me, now giving me his full attention, probably attempting to intimidate me. I, however, wasn't about to back down.

“Mr. McFarlin, the dress code doesn't specify the type of shoe. Only the color.” I stood firm on my argument. He was about to speak when the main doors to the school opened adjacent to the office. Through the glass window of his office I saw a boy with brown hair and brown eyes walked in. He looked just as normal as any other boy in the school. I didn't notice anything different about him. He was wearing the school uniform, his tie was perfectly straight, his shirt was pressed, and his shoes were perfectly polished.

His hair parted and combed to one side. If you asked me it looked more like the uniform was the style of clothing he preferred, a preppy look. There were two adults with him, probably his parents. I didn't really get a good look at them, considering I was more intrigued to know if this was the boy, we'd heard so much about? They walked forward to the front desk where Mrs. Ward stood waiting on the opposite side. She motioned to Mr. McFarlin.

“Okay Riley. Get to class.” He dismissed me forgetting the topic completely and letting me off the hook. I wasn't sure if it was because of my argument or because of the current situation distracting him, but I would take it any way I could.

While reaching for my bag, “Marlin” walked out to the new arrival waiting for him. With all the fussing occurring at the front desk; papers being pushed in front of them, lots of looks from school staff and students, and knowing most of the time Principal McFarlin didn't handle the new student enrollment forms, I could only assume this was all for Liam Kingsley, the clone.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ultimate Query Tips (No Really This Time...)

This morning, after a fairly Internet-free weekend, I opened my Google Reader to 1000+ unread items. After "reading" everything on The Huffington Post without actually opening anything, my Reader was boiled down to all the publishing news/blog posts I missed (OK, and some Cute Overload pictures). Since you also follow these agent, editor, and writer blogs (probably way more intently than I do), I don't have to tell you that we publishing folk love to give advice. Like, a lot of it. Today was no different.

I searched on Twitter and in my Reader for "query tips" and the number of posts featuring those words were so many that there was no way I could link them all here. We all know there are tons of them. So much so that some writers have taken to mocking people who still don't know the "rules."

For sanity's sake, I will focus on the two items I clicked today back-to-back - one from BookEnds and one from Rachelle Gardner. (By the way, both of these blogs are must-reads. Go follow them right now if you aren't already.) Both posts offer query tips. Both posts are absolutely correct. And both posts should be largely ignored.

Explanation:

Every blog post or tweet offering query tips is useful. I do this on a regular basis via Twitter and offered a few blog posts myself in the past (here and here). However, every post you read about query tips, no matter who writes it, can be boiled down to one sentence: JUST TELL ME WHAT YOUR BOOK IS ABOUT.

Maybe it's not in all-caps, since we're all professionals here, but that is basically the sentiment. All agents ever want are a few succinct sentences that give a plot overview and an interesting character detail. No need to over-share or be overly coy. Just give us something that won't make us ask any question other than "what happens next?"

The reason agents sometimes need to write posts detailing the more specific "don'ts" of querying are because sometimes writers need to be reminded that the story is 99% of what matters. We do not write them so you can analyze each one individually and obsess over whether you've committed that particular crime. We want you to stay sane! We just want to let you know when we keep seeing the same mistakes and try to prevent them.

Remember the one and only real query rule, which is presenting your book in an effective and direct way. Agents will always have different preferences when it comes to the "other stuff" in queries (grammar, personal info, novel comparisons, etc.), so take what we have to say and put it through your individual filter. If it doesn't apply to you, move on. If it does, then take it under consideration. Note I said "largely" ignore us, but don't discount us completely. We never open a query thinking "I can't wait to reject this." And if it becomes too hard to see why we shouldn't, then we'll write a blog post for you.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Commander in Chief

I don't know about you all, but I am very, very tired of hearing about who the GOP will nominate in 2012. Speculation about speculation is exhausting, and it doesn't get any more tiresome than Donald Trump. No matter what your political affiliation, let's all agree that the country probably does need someone with the catchphrase "You're fired" to bring them out of a recession.

Anyway, while Obama begins his re-election campaign and the other side tries desperately to get their shit together, let's go into the weekend thinking about a much more pleasant presidential election - a fictional one.

Which literary character would you most like to see run for president? And remember because it's fictional, your choices don't need to be limited to pesky rules like age limits and U.S. citizenship.

My dream ticket would be Hermione Granger and Tracy Flick. If there are any two people who can lead the free world, it's them. And I'd be happy to sit back and, for once, not worry about what the people in Washington are doing to me. The hardest part would be choosing the top of the ticket, but I guess I'll go with Hermione since she can keep cooler under pressure.

Honorable mention: Atticus Finch. Not only is a natural leader, but he'd make us all better human beings. Plus, he's pro-civil rights, from the deep south, has a background in law, and (if you think of him as Gregory Peck) has a simultaneously dreamy and commanding presence. Kind of hard to beat.

What say you, readers (American and non-American alike!)?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Up The Body

Presenting a dose of literary fiction today from Pauline Benninga. It's a short selection of from novel, Up the Body, but the words have no less of an impact. Pauline is a wedding gown designer from the Boston area who, in addition to have two kids, also manages to write novels. Despite her addiction to romance novels, she's sticking with literary fiction for the time being. (Perhaps someday...) Hope you enjoy!

Up The Body
By Pauline Benninga

IN ONE OF my earliest memories, I’m staring down at my brown toes wiggling their way through the small shower of white beach sand that my older brother is pouring in boy-sized handfuls over my tanned three-year-old feet. We had gone to Pawley’s Island that summer, driven most of the way with the windows down, starting from Washington, D.C., climbing through the Great Smoky Mountains, careening down the Eastern side of North Carolina, then on into its Southern sister, and finally stopping in Charleston after a hot, windy ride in the white Lincoln town car with camel colored upholstery. My father loved that car. We stayed the night in Charleston at a hotel with blue shag carpeting in the room.

Looking back, I realize that the trouble had already begun then, though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. Mom would later ask me, fixing those honey-colored eyes on my chubby pre-adolescent face over the rim of her highball, if I remembered that vacation. I always said that, no, I was too young, because I didn’t want the questions that would inevitably follow. She would want to know if Dad ever made phone calls from the restaurants (or the bait shop, or the grocer) where he would take me and my mother in order to “give mom a break. She would want to know what he said during those phone calls, or had he ever asked me not to share something with her, a big secret?

It always rankled my mother to have never had the opportunity to even lay eyes on the woman for whom my father left her – left us all.

But that wouldn’t happen for another year.

Then, in that moment in 1965, standing on an expanse of sand that met the even wider expanse of the Atlantic, I was a tiny speck of a yellow sundress next to a little boy in a blue sailor’s outfit (my great-aunt’s attempt at decency that my mother desperately wanted to destroy.)

My father had gone into the water and is standing, back to the sea, and calling our names as he makes wild, waving gestures and screaming, “Come on in! The water is fine! Jeannie, Frankie! Marianne, bring the kids in!” I see my mother give him a tight-lipped smile and a tiny shake of the head. Neither I nor my brother are wearing bathing suits, and my mother is wearing sheer white capri pants.

Of course, my brother – devoted to his father and namesake – strips off his sailor suit and runs in a streak of pink skin and white underpants, straight into the tide. I smile and start to follow, trying to tear away my yellow sundress so that I can plunge headlong into the surf, but one look at my mother’s now-frowning face and I am unsure.

But I am still a child, and her disapproval isn’t enough against the tantalizing view of the waves breaking against the formidable mountain of my father’s back as he bounces my brother in the water. They are laughing, and I desperately want to join them. After a minute of indecision, I plow through the mound of sand that my brother has built up around me and head toward the water, fully dressed. I am not a delicate child, but neither am I fat or clumsy. In photographs that I will find later, when I am going through my mother’s effects in the back of her closet, I am surprised to find that I look not like the golden cherub that my mother had always described, but rather like a sturdy little boy in girl’s clothing. One of the pictures in that musty old box must have been taken the day of this memory, since we’re standing in the living room of the cottage where we had stayed – happy vacationers, or so it seems – bright yellow sundress, crisp clean sailor suit, lipstick and curled hair, and the guileless grin of the man who would someday shatter our lives forever.

Monday, April 11, 2011

PubSpeak Contest Winner!

A huge thanks to everyone who participated in the PubSpeak Definition Contest over the weekend. You all came up with some amazing (and fairly spot-on) definitions, and it was very hard to pick just one winner.

So we picked two!

Yes, Tracy "PubSpeak" Marchini and I decided on a tie, and the winners are (drumroll)....

Rachel Wilkerson and Chris Karem! Congrats to you both!

Rachel's winning entry: Novelette: a published work by any woman who is called "the female version" of a prominent male author.
PubSpeak definition:  A complete work of fiction that is generally between 7,500 and 17,500 words in length.

Chris' winning entry: Advance: Something so small even the IRS wonders why you claim it as income.
PubSpeak definition: A payment made to an author or other party by a publisher, most often divided into two to four smaller payments that are due at certain benchmarks in the publishing process. An advance is a payment against forthcoming royalties.

Rachel and Chris should contact Tracy Marchini through her website at http://tmarchini.wordpress.com/aboutme/ to find out how to obtain their copy of PubSpeak.

For those of you who didn't win, you still had awesome submissions, trust us. And we hope that even though you won't be getting a free copy of PubSpeak from Tracy, you will still purchase this educational tool yourself from the following retailers: Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Amazon UK.

Thanks again everyone!

Friday, April 08, 2011

Guest Blogger: Tracy Marchini

Tracy's new e-book, PubSpeak: A Writer's Dictionary of Publishing Terms is now on sale through the following retailers: Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Amazon UK. Tracy writes: 

Hello readers and writers of Glass Cases!

I’m very excited to be here today and host a contest for my new ebook, Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms. When I wrote the book, I was envisioning an author who may have received their first contract using it to look up terms, or perhaps someone who wanted to get into the industry reading it to get a jump on the numerous other graduates competing for the same internships. I think there is a lexicon in publishing, and like many businesses, those that speak the language tend to do better than those that don’t!

Today though, we build a new lexicon – one of wit, and snark, and hopefully, pants-peeing.

It’s a Pub Speak Definition Contest and the winner will receive an electronic copy of the book, as well as my eternal admiration and probably some embarrassing congratulatory tweets. (You know you want it.)

I’ve listed six terms out of the 400 plus in the book. Choose one term - or all six - and come up with a definition in the comments section. Keep the comments limited to one definition only, but feel free to comment again choosing a different word. Only use each term once - no multiple definitions please from the same commenter, please.

Example: So if one of the terms was “advance,” your definition could be, “Advance: A figment of the writer’s imagination” or, as a second comment, “Advance: Half what you made that year at McDonalds.”

Here are the terms, good luck!

1) cheap edition
2) offer
3) work
4) novelette
5) shelf life
6) advance

Sarah and I will pick the winner and announce on Monday.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Nepenthe

Sorry Story Time is a day late this week. The blogging schedule got a bit shifted. 

I'm pretty excited to present this novel excerpt today for two reasons. One: it has ghosts! And two: it is an example of what happens when your awesome, amazing, omgeverywordofmynovelrocks, writing just has to go. I'm a big fan of killing your darlings, as anyone who's experienced being edited by me knows. No matter how good a piece of writing is, sometimes it doesn't fit in the story you are trying to tell. 

Today's story is one of these darlings. After the writer, Kaleen Harding, edited over 12,000 words out of her novel, one of her favorite sections had to get cut. Luckily, it gets to be pasted here! Kaleen is a writer living in Alberta, Canada who is a Registered Nurse by day and paranormal romance writer by night. She's preserving her lost excerpt from her first novel, Nepenthe, about a woman in a small mountain town who is on the run from a ghost who becomes obsessed with her.

Enjoy! And please feel free to send me any of your darlings you want to see preserved.

Nepenthe
By Kaleen Harding

We hit the highway. The trees on both sides continued in their muffled blanket of black, towering over us in a wall that sucked the feeble moonlight from everywhere but the weak reflection off the dull pavement. The only distinction between them and an abyss was the subtle movement of their tips against the night sky when a breeze caught them.

Ethan silently drove like a maniac with the gas pedal glued to the floor, despite the turns in the road. It was a good thing that the rest of the town was at the fair—if anyone else had been on the road, we would’ve creamed them.

“Slow down!” I yelled over the wind flapping in my ears, but Ethan ignored me. I turned towards him and reached out to place my hand on his forearm to get his attention. Ethan slammed on the breaks again. I flew into the dash, my side pinned against it from the force. The Jeep jerked to a stop, and I landed back in my seat with an ungraceful “hmph!”

“What the hell, Ethan? Are you trying to kill us both?” I yelled.

Ethan wouldn’t look at me. He was staring blankly at the road in front of us, the dim green lights from the dash casting a sickly glow on his face. He was probably the same shade of green in reality, though.

“Hey, I know that everything tonight has been a shock. Why don’t I drive?” I tried again, remembering how hard this must be for him to process. It had been hard enough for me, and Michael hadn’t been going psycho at the time.

He peeled a tightly gripped hand off the steering wheel, and slowly brought his shaking hand up to point at the road in front of us. I followed with my eyes to see that Michael had appeared again, fully tuned in, and was standing in the middle of the road ahead of us. He was facing us with his feet shoulder width apart, his hands at his sides, and reeking of daring apathy in the washed out gleam of the headlights.

Michael was getting more dangerous, and right now I had the suspicion that talking to him wasn’t going to get us anywhere. If Ethan made him jealous, then I had to talk to Michael alone so that his emotions didn’t set everything off. Ending this was not going to happen tonight.

I reached back to strap on my seat belt. “Drive through him,” I instructed Ethan firmly. He whipped around to give me a questioning look, but still didn’t say anything. “Do it!” I repeated, getting angrier with Michael by the second.

Ethan swallowed hard and put the Jeep into first gear. He started crawling towards Michael at a snail’s pace, as though he was hoping Michael would get the hint and step to the side.

“Punch it!” I demanded.

Ethan shook his head. “But...” he croaked.

“You can’t hurt him, he’s already dead. Now come on.”

He didn’t look convinced. “You sure?”

Michael started sauntering towards us.

“If you can’t do it, then let me drive. Quick,” I said, reaching to undo my seat belt and switch with him. I’d crawl right on top of his lap if I had to.

Before I could move, Ethan hit the gas and tore forward, shifting frantically to keep up our pace. Michael saw us coming and stood his ground, turning sideways so that when we went through him, he would be facing me.

Ethan let out a surprised yelp as Michael’s seemingly solid body went through the front of the Jeep as though he was made of air. His torso stuck up above the hood, and then for a split second he was between Ethan and me, with his chest and shoulders barely visible above the middle consol. In that same second, Michael put out his hand to brush my cheek, his voice calling my name in a whisper that drew out and swirled around us as his body flew through the back of the Jeep. Finally, he was standing on the road, his body illuminated for a brief moment in the red tail lights before being swallowed into the night.

Ethan continued on at a lower speed, but was still going at least twenty over the limit. He pulled up to the curb in front of my house, put the Jeep in neutral, and slowly turned off the engine. He didn’t move any further.

“Are you okay?” he asked cautiously, like I was about to flip out or something.

“I’m fine,” I sighed. “But we need to get into the house so I can banish him if he comes back again.” I took off my seat belt and turned to look down the road behind us, but it was ghost-free.

Ethan didn’t move a muscle. He was looking at me like I was some kind of terrorist that he didn’t want to make any sudden moves around. I didn’t blame him.

“Kate, you just came face to face with a powerful, evil spirit. You should’ve been scared out of your mind, but you were so calm.” It was like he was trying to explain something to a little kid. Did he think I was in shock?

I checked the street in front of us, still no ghost. “That thing is a ghost, and his name is Michael.”

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

When You Should Go Back to the Future

Some of you may have heard me say (via the Twitter) that I don't like historical novels, particular in YA. Then, as if by a miracle (or sheer hypocrisy), I may have tweeted last week that I had requested a historical YA manuscript. I surprised myself with this, and asked myself why this particular query stood out where the many, many others did not. Here's what I came up with. (Editors note: For the purpose of this blog post, "historical novel" will mean any novel that takes place in the past, not necessarily centered on a specific event.)

This Story Can't Be Told in Any Other Time.
The triumphs and struggles of human beings on a personal level transcends any decade. When deciding when to set your story, ask yourself if this story could be told just as easily in present-day. The Diary of Anne Frank, for example, cannot. The Vampire Diaries, however, can. It wouldn't matter if Elena is a young hippie from the '60s, a tech-crazy gamer in the '90s, or (as it stands) fairly popular former cheerleader in present-day Mystic Falls. Likewise, it wouldn't matter if Stefan and Damon were turned into vampires in the 1400s, 1800s, or last week. The plot is independent from personal attributes.

Most historical novels are centered on a historical event, making it so the characters' lives have to be effected by it (i.e. the Nazis are coming, the British are coming, the atomic bomb is coming, etc.) That's not to say that your non-event-focused novel wouldn't still work in a different setting. If your characters are products of their time - say, sexual repression in the '50s, sexual expression in the '60s, or greed and excess in the '80s - then those settings are just as important to the story as the plot or characters.

Too often, however, character-driven novels, or even plot-driven novels, are set in a time period that does not add to the writer's intentions. It is simply there. Because references and technology and general language change from decade to decade (or year to year, if it's this decade), most of the time these other time periods distract from, rather than enrich, the story.

The Novel Was Not Any More or Less Difficult to Write.
I see this more in YA. Or more accurately, when the generation gap between Writer and Intended Audience is wider than ten years. I was wondering why so many YA queries were being set in the '80s and '90s until I realized the pattern - the writers were teens during those decades. It's true that I didn't experience high school through a Facebook lens and that most of us did not even have cell phones in our YA days, let alone MG days. Like most people my age and older, I wouldn't even begin to speculate how strange (and normal) it is now to grow up in world where no one thinks twice about having a "public life."

But, no one said writing was easy.

It's not your job as a writer to recreate your own experience, slap a historical label on it, and think teens will be able to relate. Sometimes they might, but usually they want someone to reflect their experience. YA and MG exists because teens are people too. They get adults telling them about how their generation doesn't understand "real life" all the time. They turn to books to escape all that. And unlike previous generations, they don't have to yawn their way through their parents' bookshelves anymore.

The writer's own experience is not always the reason contemporary stories get thrown to the past. If you're writing a mystery, think of how much more suspense could be sustained if there was no Internet. You don't quite get the same dark intrigue when the answer to "Let's see who you really are!" is just "Oh, I already Googled him." It's true, you lose a little with technology and it is hard to know how to work around it or use it to your advantage. But like in all facets of life - especially in publishing - ignoring technology does not make it go away.

The Year Is Not Overemphasized.
After you've considered the above, and you still decide that your novel needs to be set in a year that is not the current one, remember to let your story speak for itself. Otherwise, your completely necessary setting ends up becoming a gimmick. Nobody wins when something is a gimmick. Even TV shows like That '70s Show ended up abandoning that premise in favor of actual character development. Instead of a parade of bell-bottoms, disco mockery, and vague jokes about oil embargoes, the show ended up being about a group of young people who rarely even mentioned the decade they were living in. They just wore Kiss t-shirts and bad hairstyles.

Once you've established what year your novel is taking place, trust your reader to know that. Overemphasis happens more - at least when I see it - when it's recent history, things the author has lived through. Avoid sentences like "Tiffany spilled her Crystal Pepsi all over her new L.A. Gear high-tops, making her late for her jazzercise class." If your story takes place in the '50s, your character doesn't necessarily need to try on a poodle skirt or swoon over Bobby Rydell. Over-referencing a decade will only take your reader out of your story, which is the last thing any writer, agent, or editor wants.

Another sentence that makes me want to get out my proverbial red pen often happens in nonfiction or in 1st person. It'll go something like "Back then, we didn't have [insert technological advancement here]." These sentences are always awkward to read and they are detrimental to the story for two reasons:
1) They abruptly speak directly to the reader, who may or may not have been spoken to before this moment.
2) They remind the reader they are being told a story, rather than have them experience it for themselves.

On the whole, I suppose I do have to admit I enjoy historical fiction. Sure it's not my favorite, but when it's done well and done for a specific purpose, it can be really great. Personally, I like stories to be told in the present if only because I prefer stories that are character-driven and those are the stories that are timeless.

My broken-record advice on this blog though is always to write the story you want to write. You're the only who can decide the most necessary way to tell your story. But forcing a setting on your readers might end up being a fruitless attempt. What your readers take from your story is out of your hands, so you might as well focus your efforts on telling it in the best possible way.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Once More Upon A Time

You may have noticed that fairytales are hot right now (putting the "Hansel" in Hansel & Gretel, if you will). Hollywood, after dabbling in Wonderland and red riding hoods, is currently fighting over who will release versions of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty first, fall TV line-ups are including several magically realized dramas, and the buzz around Bologna was fairytale, fairytale, fairytale.

Personally, I am thrilled over this. I've always been a huge fan of fairytales, the more fractured the better. They are strange and fantastic and wonderful, and the real, folklore kind are dark. Why we ever decided children would love them is a strange, sadistic mystery.

But now they are back, and thank goodness for that. There is a downside though. Fairytales are now that dreaded word: trend. With trends comes lots and lots of competition, and if you haven't noticed, it's already pretty rough out there.

I would never, ever, ever recommend to any writer that they jump on a trend bandwagon. But, if you have a story that wasn't right at a certain time, or one that you've been putting off writing for whatever reason, then now might be the time to put it back on your priority list.

With great competition comes great responsibility. How will you stand out in a sea of thousands? Well, the short answer is simply to have an amazing story. But like all good followers of the publishing industry, we know there is always more to it than just that. So before deciding to marry the prince, walk into the woods, or whisk your characters off to lands far, far away, consider the following.

Pick a fairytale you love and know well.
Like with any topic, if you write about something you are passionate about, you are more likely to get others passionate about it too. Choosing a favorite fairytale will have the same effect. Knowing a story inside and out means you are more likely to find whatever specific element is necessary to make it stand out.

For example, lots of little girls take away one of two things from Cinderella - feeling like an outcast who wants a different life or wishing for fancy gowns and becoming a princess. The average reader would take away those same things. The unaverage reader, the one who knows and loves Cinderella and continues to revisit it is able to find something deeper in the story that's worth exploring. Maybe ol' Cindy isn't even the real star. Maybe the evil stepsisters are misunderstood. Maybe they need someone to tell their story and  the "average" reader just isn't qualified.

Decide why that fairytale is still relevant today.
Fairytales originated in ancient folklore and were the science fiction and fantasy novels of their time. And like all good sci-fi and fantasy, they are rooted in either social commentary or cautionary tale. Fables are there to teach lessons and fairytales like Snow White and The Little Mermaid, when not in the hands of Disney, reveal the exploitation of women and the compromises they make (even if those morals weren't even intended at the time).

Given the tragedies of the world lately, it wouldn't be hard to reimagine natural disaster, war, oppression, and the stripping of civil liberties in a fantastic setting. Making these realities as fictional as possible not only softens the blow, but it also allows you the artistic freedom to make your own outcome. Will we have a happily ever after? Or will our rabbit hole be dug so deep that we never get out?

Choosing a fairytale because it was popular, or even choosing one because no one else has thought of it yet, can be dangerous if you're querying during Trend Season. In terms of catching the industry's attention, the "what" ends up becoming far less important than the "why." Sure, agents and editors will want to see something other than Little Red Riding Hood because that's already been done, but if your Red reveals something new and reveals it in an inventive way, then she will still have a place on the bookshelves.

Will your book be a fantasy or a contemporary one?
One of my favorite recent retellings is Malinda Lo's Ash (yet to read Huntress, but can't wait!). She twisted the Cinderella story and made her damsel, well... not a damsel at all. Her story wasn't set in modern times and it still employed uses of magic, but she managed to make it her own.

Before writing your fairytale, decide what yours will be. Do you need it to be fantasy-based? Do you want to create your own, completely new fairy tale without "retelling" anything? Or do you want to take a classic story and set it in modern, realistic times? There is no right answer here; only the answer that will allow you to tell your story in the best possible way.

If you decide to go the contemporary route, consider the MacGuffin. That is, decide what the original characters wanted (love, acceptance, freedom, or something more tangible like, say, a poison apple). None of these things are pertinent to the plot, but they help drive the plot. Without these things, the characters would have no purpose. Rapunzel wanting to flee the tower is really no different than a disgruntled teenager wanting to graduate from high school. Or a woman in an abusive relationship wanting to run away.

Fairytales are fun and exciting, but boiled down, they are all just metaphors. And metaphors can translate to any genre and to any time period. They just need to be used in the right way. Trends can be overwhelming and scary, and you may feel like it's hopeless to even try. There is always the right time for the right story, no matter how overloaded the market becomes. Just remember that getting someone to notice that "right story" gets a lot harder, so choose wisely, write well, and get ready to kiss lots and lots of frogs.