Agent Monday: Finding the Time to Write

MP900302970Happy Agent Monday to you all! Today, as we enjoy an extra hour of sunlight (you did turn your clock forward, right?), it’s a perfect time to talk about, well, time!  Specifically, finding the time to write. I’m thrilled today to have a guest post by my client and wonderful author Erin Teagan. Erin, though busy over the years with work and raising a family, has managed to write a number of manuscripts and to work hard at perfecting her craft. She got my attention and offer of representation with a sharp and touching middle grade novel called STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES about Madeline Little, genius scientist in the making, who keeps her life in control by creating SOP’s like “How to Fake a Bubonic Plague to get out of a Party.” But when her life flip-flops at the start of middle school, and the SOPs no longer do the trick, it’s up to Madeline to discover a new cure for her newly messed up life.

Here’s a look into how Erin finds the time…

 

FINDING TIME TO WRITE

Guest post by Erin Teagan

 

Finding the time to write is a universal struggle for writers. Day jobs, kids, pets, snowmageddons, to-do lists, books to read…there are a million things that require our time and attention before we can give anything to writing.

When I was in college I wrote a terrible YA novel. I worked on it during holiday breaks and in the summer. I pictured what writing would look like when I graduated, churning out book after book with all the time I’d have. A 9 to 5 job? No studying? What else did adults do with their time? Ha!

It took that first year of working to realize that if I wanted to be a writer I had to make it a priority. Because even though I chose a career that rarely required take-home work, it sometimes meant working late. And sometimes it meant traveling and giving up my weekends. It also meant going back to school for a graduate degree. I fantasized about my old college days. What did I do with those huge chunks of time between classes? Why hadn’t I worked on my novel more?

I researched how other writers fit it all in (I’m a scientist. I research EVERYTHING). Lots of articles talked about the time suck of the Internet and TV. But I loved those kind of time-sucks! After working nine or ten hours, sometimes it was all I could do to just sit on a couch with my roommate or husband or 90 lb lap dog and stare at the TV like a zombie. And if you didn’t surf the Internet for at least a little bit, imagine how far behind you’d get on surprise attack kitten videos or dogs romping in the snow? Sometimes you just had to be part of society, you know?

Other articles talked about writing in the wee hours of the morning or into the dark of night. Some of the most successful authors wrote while the rest of the world was sleeping. And I thought, I should give it a try. I was a night person. I used to study into the midnights, I should surely be able to churn out a book or two that way. Except I found that I just couldn’t turn off my to-do list. Those unchecked boxes that remained from my day haunted me, my brain chatter too loud. Was I even meant to be a writer if I couldn’t find any time to write?

I pictured myself fifteen years older, with kids, a mortgage, real-life problems and complications. If I was going to get writing into my schedule, it had to be now. So I tallied my excuses. Why I couldn’t write at night. Why I couldn’t give up my time-sucks. Why I couldn’t possibly write in the early morning. And what I found was I had far less excuses (though they were good ones, I tell you) about writing in the morning.

I remember the first time I tried it. I set my alarm fifteen minutes early. I was on a business trip which meant long, tiring hours. But there were no more excuses. I knew my brain would resist this new schedule so I treated myself to some new books. Plot workbooks. Writing exercises. Books on writing. The first day was a struggle, but I made myself do one writing exercise. I was groggy, the hotel coffee was pretty terrible, but once I got the writer juices flowing, it wasn’t as horrific as I had feared.

This was a big change for me so it took me months. Each week I set my alarm fifteen minutes earlier. By the end of it, I was waking up at 4:45 in the morning and my brain was forgetting that I was a night-person. I felt so successful! At the end of that first year I had revised my terrible young adult novel (and then put it in a locked drawer) and managed to write a somewhat decent draft of a new middle grade. I felt so accomplished! I had managed to trick my night-person brain to be something that could function and focus in the wee hours of the day.

Nearly fifteen years later, with real-life complications, kids and a mortgage, I’m so thankful I took the plunge and made writing a priority in my schedule. It took some trial and error and brain training to figure out what worked best for me, but now I can be sure to check off that one ‘writing’ box on my to-do list every day.

Now if I could just apply that to the rest of my life like going through my overstuffed filing cabinet, resolving that toll violation, or exercising. But really, who runs on a snow day? And is that filing cabinet really hurting anyone? So I’ll leave those tasks unchecked on my list for today. At least I got some writing in.

 

Erin TeaganErin Teagan has a master’s degree in science and worked in biochemistry labs for more than ten years where she wrote endless Standard Operating Procedures.  She’s an avid reader and has reviewed middle grade and young adult books for Children’s Literature Database and Washington Independent Review of Books.  She’s active in SCBWI and this will be her eighth year co-chairing the Mid-Atlantic fall conference. STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES will be her debut middle grade novel. Erin is represented by Marie Lamba of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.

Agent Monday: Getting Historical

Antique pocket watch - closeup on very old pocket watchHappy Agent Monday, gang!  With this weekend involving turning back clocks, I thought this would be a great time to talk a bit about historical novels (clever, huh?).  So here are some thoughts about getting historical.

I spent last weekend at the wonderful SCBWI Eastern PA Critique Fest, where I sat down with many authors critiquing manuscripts ranging from picture book through YA.  What a great experience! I did have a number of historical manuscripts to crit there, and I’ve also gotten many queries and sample chapters in my agent inbox recently that were historical middle grade, YA or adult.  Some intriguing stories, and fascinating time periods!  But also I found some familiar issues popping up, too. Things that held the story back or got in the way of the plot.

The biggest problem? The author felt challenged about providing historical context and facts – all having to do with world-building, really.  So we ended up with spending a lot of time in those opening pages explaining what was going on in the world at that time – something the characters would never do if they lived way back then.  Imagine you the writer lived 100 years from now and were writing a story about 2013.  Would you have your character thinking, wow, here I am taking off my shoes at an airport because a few years back this horrific act of terrorism happened…and let me just go over all that happened on that horrible day politically and terror-wise so you know why I’m taking off my shoes now?

Yeah, that wouldn’t happen. It would be clunky and unrealistic. Instead, in a story set in a world of hyper-security and scrutiny, the character in our current time would just move forward with the story, and details would present themselves as things progressed, providing context for the reader as relevant. They would notice the cameras trained on them in the parking lot perhaps as they rushed toward the airport, dealing with their own issues, goals, conflicts. The airport PA system would make those “watch out for stuff” announcements, and officers would stand by with bomb sniffing dogs. Our character would remove his shoes, even as he’s thinking about the personal plot challenge that is set in front of him…perhaps he needs to get something from point A to point B without being seen by authorities for something that has nothing to do with terrorism, but everything to do with his family’s well-being.  And voila! The reader will understand the context and the history of that time AS IT RELATES TO THE STORY.

It’s all in the details and how history actually intersects at that moment with the character’s world. Give us what’s relevant. When characters spend paragraphs at the outset detailing for the reader all that research the writer’s done about that time, I check out of the story, honestly. But give me a character I believe in and care about, give me an obstacle with high stakes that they must face, and I’ll follow you for pages and pages as you take them through their world. And I’ll absorb the details of the time and figure out how the era really is and impacts the characters. And yes, here and there as you move along, you could drop in some facts as they become relevant to that character’s world. It’s not about giving the reader a lecture, though. It’s about serving the story and plot. In the end, the reader will have learned a ton about that time and its history. That’s one of the joys of reading historical novels, right?  But it’s all in how you do it.

I’m extremely proud to represent some truly kick-ass historical authors, including Harmony Verna and M.P. Barker. Harmony’s debut manuscript is an adult historical titled FROM ROOTS TO WINGS. She has us immediately worry and care about an orphan abandoned in the Australian desert in the late 1800s, and about a crippled miner who discovers her and saves her. And over the course of this engrossing novel we need to know that somehow they will end up okay. That’s the heart of the story.  But we learn so much as we follow the tale. About harsh living. About the mines. About farming in the Australian wheat belt. About WWI, about Australia’s sacrifices during the war. And about the wealthy Pittsburgh elite. About the Aborigines. Oh, the knowledge we gain feels endless. Yet not once do we feel lectured to.

M.P. Barker’s novels A DIFFICULT BOY (Holiday House 2008) and MENDING HORSES (Holiday House, coming out this spring!) are fabulous examples of historical novels done right for the upper middle grade and YA audiences, and I highly recommend you grab one of these and see how deftly she creates that character, makes us love him, and then throws him into peril so that we simply must know he’ll survive and thrive some day. And the lush details of New England life in the 1800s are simply stunning. Again, she never loads the readers with facts and figures — just has her characters live their lives in this time. And we learn a ton about rural life back then, bigotry against the Irish, the horrors of indentured servitude, the world of both the privileged and the poor.  It truly is an education. But first of all, these are fabulous novels, and the story always holds center stage.

So if you are interested in querying me about your historical novel, I’d love to see it! But be sure that you don’t fall into the trap of historical info dumping and killing the reality you want to build. Take me into another time in a believable way with a character I’ll care about. I’m looking forward to the trip!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

 

Agent Monday: Back to School for Writers!

Colorful CrayonsHappy Agent Monday, gang!  By now all the kiddies are back to school. If your kids are young, that means back to routines, and hopefully more time for you to write and to query, etc.  If you’re newly an empty-nester (like somebody I know), that means you’ve got time to rearrange your priorities around yourself and your writing.  And if you yourself are out of school, then this is the time for those unsettling nightmares where you find yourself rushing down your old high school hallways madly searching for the right classroom because you have a test on something that you definitely didn’t know about five minutes before.  Either way you look at it, September is all about back to school, and I think this is the perfect time for back to school…for writers!

So in today’s post I want to talk about the writer’s learning curve a bit. I’m not talking about MFA programs, here, I’m talking about you developing your skills in a conscious way. As an agent, too often I see the results of an undeveloped author. That idea that wasn’t fully worked out. That writer who can’t get beyond telling their own “what I did” personal story and into a larger fictional tale. The person who hasn’t taken the time to learn how to handle dialogue or grammar. And there are those folks who show promise, but just aren’t there yet. Maybe this novel isn’t good enough for publication, but in the future, if that writer were to work harder at their craft, they could be brilliant.

So writer, teach thyself!

Not a one of us, no, not even J.K. Rowling or whoever you think of as the most successful writer in the world, ever stops learning new ways to get better.  If you just sit yourself down in a small room and write that one book and then spend the next three years marketing it before writing anything else, then YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.

There. I said it. Writing is a process and you, the writer, will continue to learn things and to change for the better. So one way you can continue to learn and improve is simply by continuing to write. The next book. The next article. The next short story or poem. Journal. Write letters to friends. Consider it all your homework! Writer’s write. And successful writers write a lot.

But of course it’s not enough to just dash words on a page. You must read them over, have others read them, open your mind to other opinions about your work, and see if you can improve. Don’t have anyone to share your work with? Time to find people. Join a local writer’s group or form your own. Meet other aspiring writers at conferences, swap emails and critique each other’s works. Or swap critiques with folks online through online writing organizations that you join.  Sometimes you can clearly see errors in another’s writing that you initially can’t see in your own stuff, but then it’s like a light bulb goes on and you notice a new way to bring your own words to a better level.

Other ways to stay in school? Read a ton of books in general. Take a writing course. Read books on the craft. Study them.  Pour over the craft magazines like Writer’s Digest and The Writer, etc. Writing is your calling, right? Why wouldn’t you want to develop your “A” game in it?

And one of the best ways to learn how to write better is on your bookshelves right now: your favorite books by beloved authors.  Open one up and read it not as a reader, but as a writer.  Analyze how the author creates the character, describes scenery, manipulates you into caring or feeling certain things, demonstrates voice. Take that work apart. How much dialogue is on a page versus narrative? How long are sentences – do they vary?  Take a chapter and physically type it out on the computer to really look closely at the words, then highlight the crap out of it and write all over it noting different elements of craft at work. Can you use any of these tricks of the trade to improve your own writing? Learn from the masters.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????So there you go. Homework assigned. Back to school you go.

Now pack your lunch in your paper bag and hustle on out there before you miss that bus!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

 

 

 

Agent Monday: Much More than an Idea

Pitcher of Red BeverageHappy Agent Monday, folks!  If you’re like me, you are sitting there blinking, saying, “AUGUST? Already???”  But we are already getting slightly shorter days, cooler nights and those cicadas are buzzing as if to say “hur-ry hur-ry hur-ry.”  So now’s the time to squeeze in your summer moments, and to revisit those writerly goals. Like many writers, you may have set aside summer to finish up work on a book and get it ready for subbing to an agent. And in writer world, September seems to be the time for submission ACTION. Inboxes explode with query letters, agents quicken their steps, editors perk up in their chairs ready to find the next “one.”  Is it your book?  Truthfully, I see a lot of pretty cool ideas in my own agent inbox, but I also send out a ton of rejections.  So today, as you ready yourself for your own submission adventures, I’d like to talk a bit about how a great book is much more than an idea.

So here’s the thing.  A great idea will make me nod and read on, hoping upon hope that you can pull it off. But all too often, writers don’t pull it off. Here are some things that get in the way and quickly yield a rejection:

1. Unprofessional

Reaching out to an agent is, in fact, applying for a professional position in a business relationship.  If you label yourself as unprofessional, I’m not going to work with you no matter how cool your idea is.  Sending out mass email queries where you don’t even have the courtesy of addressing me by name? How would that go down if you were applying for a job? Not good. Query letter and manuscript riddled with poor punctuation, spelling, grammar? This is a WRITING JOB, so also not good. Acting like an a-hole in your query? (Saying things like, “You’d be lucky to have me,” or “I know all you agents aren’t going to answer me and only take on people who pay you off, but…” etc.)  I’m not going to work with you. The end.

2. Poor Writing

The greatest idea in the world can’t overcome poor writing. Clunky dialogue. Awkward word choices. Amateur mistakes such as info dumping in the beginning pages or starting the book at a point long before the real story kicks in. Going off on irrelevant tangents. And the worst crime of all: being boring. Again: the end.

3. Good Writing, But…

Sometimes the idea is great and writing is smooth and clean in those first 20 pages that come with the query letter.  Okay, I’ll bite and ask for the full manuscript.  BUT, here’s where, once again, you need to deliver more than that great idea. Much more.  More than adequate writing.  Over the course of the novel, I frequently see serious structure problems.  The story drags or veers seriously off course, leaving the reader far behind.  The book needs to get even better, more interesting, more intense as I read.  Somehow writers often drop the ball after that great start. Things get predictable, or repetitive, or the elements that drew me in at the start are forgotten. These are the manuscripts that I fail to finish. And it’s a shame. The idea and the start looked so promising…

Boy and Girl Running in Tall GrassYou need to bring your A-game if you are intent on getting an agent and cracking those top publishing markets.  So remember that a book is an investment in time, not just for you the writer, but, more importantly, for your readers. You need so much more than just a cool idea.

Give your manuscript and query letter a really close look and tight edit. Bring me your very best. Draw me in and keep me enthralled till that very last word.

And hur-ry hur-ry hur-ry. September is on its way!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: Poor Mom

MP900446418Hi gang!  Happy Agent Monday to you all.  With Mother’s Day approaching this upcoming weekend (a big happy Mom’s Day to each of you!), I thought I’d pose this question to writers submitting to me: What do you have against moms?  Or dads?  You seem to have an obsession with killing them off.  Poor mom and dad.

It’s one of those weird things I see in numerous queries every day – the protagonist is an orphan. The parents died in an accident (sometimes the protagonist feels at fault), or from an illness, or one died and the other had already left the family years before.  So many orphans.  We’re talking about middle grade and YA novel submissions here.

If it’s a contemporary novel, then this orphan has been shuffled off to live with a weird relative – an eccentric, usually.  Perhaps they return to their mom’s home town to live with an estranged grandparent and begin to learn more and more about their mom’s past – full of surprises and secrets.

If the novel has any sort of fantastical element to it, the child – who lives with an eccentric relative now – discovers that mom didn’t just die from a disease, it was actually all a coverup for something bigger – an epic war is at hand and mom died fighting the good fight with whatever powers she had (magic, was a mythical being, could shoot lightning bolts out of her eyes – you get the idea).  Said orphan learns that he or she has those powers too, was left some talisman that will help with the fight, must figure out what’s happened/will happen or the entire world will come to an end, or something along those lines. Cough cough, Harry Potter, cough, cough.

And sometimes, in the fantasy scenario, mom isn’t dead for good and the child’s actions can bring them back.

Now hold up.  I can almost feel you folks ready to comment with a whole “It’s a fairy tale motif,” “It’s a classic fantasy trope,” “It’s a way for a child to embark on their own autonomous story,” “It’s how classic stories for kids have been shaped forever!”

I know, gang.  I’ve read those stories. Studied ‘em.  Even took several courses on the fairy tale when I was at Penn.

But here’s the thing: how many orphans did you know growing up?  How many do your kids know right now at this moment? Maybe it does tap into some dark fantasy in a resentful child’s mind or some “I’m on my own” desire ala My Side of the Mountain… But (and this is a big but, I can not lie!) it is done and done and done again and again.

Sometimes finding this all too familiar scenario makes me sigh aloud and I just can’t read yet another word.  Do you think editors might feel that way too?  Can you recast your novel to play out differently and thereby make it stand out in a fresh way?

And, couldn’t a parent, sometimes, be a part of the story?  Part of the humor? Part of the heart? Part of the conflict (without it going straight to abuse, which I see a lot of as well)?

I’m just putting this out into the stratosphere, because it just might result in more realistic reads, even in the fantasy genre. And it just might make your story stand out.

So go honor your mother!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: Looking for Memorable Memoirs

Businesswoman standing on a ladder looking through binocularsHappy Agent Monday!  I know. I’ve been “away” for a while. That’s what the holidays plus a family round of the flu (wash your hands, people!), in addition to a heavy work load can do. Anyways…today I thought I’d chat about memoirs. And about why, though I’m interested in representing memoirs, I haven’t yet found one I want to champion.  The reason? I’m looking for memorable memoirs. And it seems they are a bit hard to find.

There are definitely different types of memoirs. There’s the famous person memoir, and plenty of war-hero memoirs. I group that as one sort. The interest in the market is high for this sort of project, for obvious reasons. Still, they need some meat to them. Something revealing or scandalous or whatever…

Then there’s the “gone through something extreme” memoir. Drug abuse, debilitating illness, horrific accidents, true tragedy. It’s heartbreaking some of the things I read about, and sometimes it’s plain old heartbreaking to tell that writer “no thanks.” But this isn’t the same thing as saying that the writer isn’t an amazing human being for overcoming terrible stuff. What the “no thanks” does mean is that the writing skills aren’t strong, or that the memoir isn’t laid out in an interesting way, or that the voice doesn’t draw the reader in. It means that, basically, I don’t feel it is at the level where I can sell it to a publisher. As tough as it sounds, an agent must view the memoir as a product to be sold.

Lastly, there’s the slice of life sort of memoir. This is the type that I get all the time. Too often I see people trying to sell me their memoirs about common things such as having a baby, or studying abroad, or going through a divorce, or parenting a surly child. These may have been monumental for the writer, but not exceptional for the average reader, and if nothing unusual is brought out in the book, the memoir isn’t of interest to the public. It needs something to distinguish itself from common experiences.

So what can make this slice of life sort of memoir soar? Incredible voice, amazing humor, sharp writing, gripping page turning pacing, unusual settings if possible, things like that…  How ’bout a memoir about a boy and his dog? Yawn, right?  Oh yeah? Perhaps you haven’t read Marley & Me. Here’s a slice of life memoir that could have been a serious yawn, but the writing and voice and pacing and emotions are spot on – something to keep in mind as you progress with your own memoir.

It’s important when plotting it out (yes, I said plotting :) ) to give the memoir a tight structure and to keep away from the trap that telling a real story presents – that of plodding along chronologically without regard to what’s most interesting. Keep a strong narrative thread throughout, even if it’s with interlocking essays. And in the process, if I learn something – bonus! Make the reader wonder “will she ever be able to finally xyz?” Like in the memoir Season to Taste, where an aspiring chef gets in an accident and loses her ability to smell and taste…will she ever get it back? Will she ever be able to realize her dream of being a chef? This question keeps you turning the pages.

So what am I looking for, exactly?  Something compelling. Something GREAT.  An example of a great memoir?: Angela’s Ashes. It has incredible voice, gripping hardship, unusual setting, heartbreak – the whole enchilada. Send me something on that level, and I’ll be VERY interested.

My inbox awaits…

 

Writer Wednesday: Not All Bad

*This originally appeared as a guest post over at IB Book Blogging during my Drawn Blog Ghost Tour
MC910215955Bad guys can be seriously tough characters for an author to write.  But every story needs them.  What would Star Wars be without Darth Vadar? Or Harry Potter without He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?  But writing these characters in a way that makes them believable is tricky.

You want to create huge problems for your hero, and that requires a villain and some true evil.  But write about a person who is all bad and you have a cardboard character.  Like those villains in the silent flicks who twirled their moustaches while tying the damsel to the train tracks.

In my novel Drawn I had to create several baddies. The book is about teen artist Michelle De Freccio, who moves to England hoping for a more normal life.  Almost immediately she starts drawing a guy from the 1400’s. When she meets him (Christopher) at the town’s castle, things really get strange…and when she follows Christopher into the Middle Ages, well, stranger still.  The novel needed villains in the present AND in the past, so I had my bad-guy work cut out for me.

The secret, I found, is to show another side to your villain. Even if it’s just for a moment, you want a glimpse of someone who means well at times, or who is wounded in some way, or who truly believes they are doing the right thing.  If I can get the reader for just a moment to see this side of the bad person, then I know they’ll have a different view of things.  That they may even understand how the bad person went so wrong.

Here’s a moment from Drawn when I try to do just that… In the following scene Michelle discovers that her visits into the past have seriously begun to alter history and to wound Christopher’s fate. At this point, she’s started to really fall for him, so seeing history books that accuse him of terrible things is frightening indeed. Michelle has pulled book after book off the Academy’s shelf, searching for answers. Her modern-day nemesis Constance takes this opportunity to get Michelle into trouble with Constance’s mother who is the Academy’s Headmistress:

I blink and see Headmistress Hunter looming over me. Constance peers smugly from behind her.

“Such disorder,” the Headmistress says between tight lips, taking in the jumble of books at my feet. She’s almost trembling with anger. “Horrific. We do not treat reading material so shabbily, Miss De Freccio.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”

“The Academy expects appropriate behavior both in school and out. We pride ourselves on being the best.” She sniffs as if I clearly don’t qualify.

Constance grins.

“Clean this at once,” the Headmistress is saying. “Understand, this will go on your record. And on your father’s. This doesn’t bode well for his future here.”

Constance’s grin fades.

“But this isn’t his fault,” I say and hate the pleading tone in my voice. “Please don’t let it affect my dad, Headmistress.”

Constance whispers, “Mother, I don’t think—”

“Are you criticizing me?”

“No, of course not.” Constance looks at the floor.

In that brief scene the reader knows that Constance didn’t mean to endanger Michelle’s father’s position at the Academy. We see Constance has some sort of a soul and some limits, and that she is terrified of her own mother.

As for the villains in the medieval part of the book? This was a tough one because there is a mystery intertwined in the plot.  Who is the traitor? Who murders the Earl? And who is killing off all the courtiers? What if all signs point to Christopher, the young man (er, ghost?) Michelle has now come to love?  I had to spread doubts and clues in a way that gave info but also made the reader (and Michelle) wonder who can really be trusted. I can’t tell you who the real villains are without spoiling the book for you, but when all is revealed, you can bet the reader understands why the bad ’uns are doing what they do.

Balancing good and bad in a way that’s convincing can be a real challenge for any writer.  Put in too much good, and the villain is not a real threat. Put in too much bad, and you’ve created someone that’s ridiculous and unbelievable. I tried very hard to balance my villains for just the right feel… I hope readers will find it all works.

Actually, a review about Drawn that popped up on the site Author Chronicles says: “not a single character is one-dimensional—each one has flaws, strengths, and depths to them. Even the snotty ‘Queen Bee’ girl, Constance, who could easily have been a stereotype, has flashes of a soul at war with the front she puts up.”

Not all bad! ;)

Writer Wednesday: On Writing Magic

*This post originally appeared on my DRAWN Blog Ghost Tour earlier this year at the wonderful blog site The Cozy Reader

MP900414028We writers have the best job in the world.  We get to perform magic, to make things mysteriously appear out of nowhere.  All writers do this when they write fiction, but when we are writing actual fantasy scenes, well, that’s more magical than ever.

The trick, as with all magic, is making the audience believe. In my paranormal novel Drawn, the main character Michelle De Freccio is an artist that draws and then meets Christopher, a hot medieval ghost with a sketchy past.  Okay, so you have to suspend some disbelief when you read books like this, but my job is to make everything as credible as possible.  I didn’t want to create something goofy, but a novel that is gripping and that feels very real. A story that truly draws you in. To do this, I grounded as much as I could in a gritty reality, and only put in a few spare touches of magic.

On the reality front, it helps to have a character like Michelle who is a born skeptic, and a cynical Jersey-girl to boot. She’s hoping to start over in England and have a more normal life (back in New Jersey everyone called the De Freccio’s the De Freakos…her family has an odd background and she was labeled a freak).

Even Christopher, who is technically a ghost to Michelle, is a realist living in his own world in the 1400s. Convincing both of them that they are linked in a time traveling relationship isn’t easy. People who are skeptics need some undeniable proof…and a touch of magic, like in this scene from the book, narrated by Michelle, when she realizes she’s truly in another time and invisible, among other things:

But Thomas Haston’s vision remains barely focused on Christopher. “Yes, master.” He bows his head. “I shall grab the reins.”

He hurries toward us. Straight toward me. He must be completely blind, because he’s going to walk right into me.

“Watch it,” I say.

He doesn’t walk into me. He walks through me. Like I’m a stream to be waded through. My skin feels itchy and a nasty saltiness fills my mouth. Christopher releases me and looks at me with horror. I look at my hands, expecting them to be see-through, but they’re solid. “What the hell?” I say.

“What in hell,” he says, his voice barely a whisper.

 

So who is the ghost here, and what, exactly is going on?  Here’s the end to that scene:

Christopher takes both my hands, gingerly, as if he’s afraid they’ll burst into flames. “What are you? A sprite? A spirit? A phantom?”

“I’m a freak,” I say. And burst into tears.

 

MP900444287While much of Drawn is based in realistic scenes, whether in the present or in the distant past, there are a few times when I really get to flex my magic muscles. One of my favorite moments happens when Michelle brings a book with her into the past, a book that reveals all the battle outcomes in the 1400s.  While Christopher would be able to use this information to his advantage, this will clearly mess with destiny.  Some things are just not meant to happen, so:

I run my finger over the text to where I left off. “The Duke, misreading his opponent, brought his forces for the Christmastime to the castle of…” Suddenly the page looks different. More white space. Less words.

“The castle of?” Christopher prompts.

I try to focus on the words. “…for the Christmastime to the castle of Sandall, but…” Something seems to move across the paper. My skin crawls, as I slide my eyes downward. I watch with horror as the letters at the bottom of the page disappear one by one.

I flip the page. Letters disappear from the bottom here, too. The white of the paper grows, eating away at the words. Frantic, I flip back to the page I was just reading. Completely blank. “Oh God.”

“What is wrong?” Christopher tries to sit up.

I flip ahead a few pages. Two paragraphs are left. I quickly read, “Henry’s forces had been gathering throughout the area for some time and the land was heavily for—” The rest of that word is gone, as is the rest of the writing on that page.

“Why did you stop?” Christopher says and peers at the book. He draws in his breath as the words I’d just read vanish like a fabric unwound by a pulled thread.

 

Every novel with a fantasy element must have its own set of rules.  In Drawn, messing with destiny can be killer, literally. The history book with its unraveling writing sends up a warning to Michelle, but she disturbs destiny anyway, and winds up putting Christopher’s fate in horrific danger…  Okay, I can’t say anything more about that without spilling too much about the story.

But I can say one other thing about writing magic: If you put a very real moment right up against a magical one, the contrasts can create a seriously strong scene. In this scene from Drawn, Michelle is in her own time being attacked by a bunch of thugs from “the wrong side of Castle Road”:

Drawn-ebook cover final borderAs rough hands drag me off the sidewalk, I shriek “Christopher!”

They laugh. “Calling your posh boyfriend?” Bobby says. “Guess he can have you when we’re through.”

I close my eyes and hear a scream. It’s not me.

My eyes fly open. Bobby cradles his arm. Blood seeps through his fingers. “Who did that?” He looks around wildly.

I back away and another guy tries to grab at me. He shrieks as his thumb is sliced off, seemingly by nothing. It lands bloody beside me. I catch a glimpse of a rusty truck in the street before I close my eyes and curl up in a ball. Tears streak my face.

There’s more terrified screaming, then I hear them run away.

“Michelle. Michelle?” someone says and touches me. I whimper. “It is okay. I came. They will not hurt you now.” I feel the hand rub my arm and he says, “Shh now. Shh.”

I dare to open my eyes and there is Christopher kneeling beside me, a blood-smeared sword in his right hand. He drops the sword and gathers me into his arms.

 

For some reason, this scene always gives me the shivers.  I guess I’ve always been a sucker for a brave hero in tall boots.  Now that’s magic!

Agent Monday: Know Your Genre

As both a writer and an Associate Literary Agent, I completely get it.  As a writer you have an idea, you fall in love with that idea, and you obsess over that idea as you write and write and write until that idea is a book, and as perfect as it can be. Then you approach an agent at a pitch session. Suddenly they are asking you how long is it (in word count, not pages)? What genre is it? What is it similar to? Who is the readership for this novel? Um, huh?  You know your characters and your plot, but what agents are trying to find out is: Do you know your genre? And where does your book belong in the marketplace?

At many pitch sessions I’ve attended as an agent at various conferences, I’ve found myself trying to pin an author down on her book’s genre. And I’ve gotten blank stares, blinking eyes, sometimes downright terror in response. Folks, I’m not trying to put you on the spot when I ask you stuff about your genre. Instead, I’m trying to position this book and see if it fits with a certain readership.

If you’ve done your writerly job beyond the writing part, then you’ll know what other books in your genre look like, what your competition and audience is, and you’ll already know you’ve created something just right for those readers.  I’m actually pretty amazed at how few writers take this extra step. Ideally, you as the writer should have this market info in your brain right as you begin to develop your novel.

I’ve seen novels that are far too short or far too long for their genre. I’ve seen subject matter that was inappropriate for a middle grade reader, characters that are too young for a YA novel, books that are copying what is already on the shelf.  All these really hurt your chances of getting your novel to print. Sure, you can argue that artists break rules and that there are exceptions all over the place, but if you don’t even know what the rules are and don’t have a solid reason for breaking them, then you are surely shooting yourself in the literary foot. Just sayin’.

So you’ve got to read in your genre, not only as a fan, but as a writer doing market research. Figure out where your book would really sit on a bookstore shelf and see how it compares to the other books beside it on that shelf.  If you can tell me what it has in common with those popular titles, plus what it brings to the marketplace that is new, then you are going to raise my interest level. And don’t use books from 50 years ago, use new stuff please. Sure, you can say “in the gothic style of Poe,” but also show some savvy about today’s market by referencing today’s books too.

Sometimes I get writers who say “there has been nothing like this ever before! It’s a brand new genre!” As my buddy, author Jonathan Maberry likes to point out in his informative talks to writers, last we looked, there is no “Brand New Genre” shelf at the local bookstore. That’s not a selling point.  But if you were to say something like, “This book will appeal to readers of Anne Tyler who are also looking for a dash of fantasy…” Well, then maybe I’ve got the beginnings of a pitch to an editor.

When I pitch projects to editors, they too are trying to figure out where a book will fit on their list as well as on bookstore shelves. It is the business end of writing, after all.

So I encourage writers to do a bit of homework while they are shaping their novels. And again when they begin their querying process, so they can refine their book description and pinpoint their genre and pitch. Because after all that hard work, you do want to sell.

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.

Agent Monday: Yes, We Google You

Happy Monday, all.  Recently I’ve been at a few conferences where I’ve spoken with writers about author marketing, or rather, marketing for writers BEFORE you are even published. From my point of view as an Associate Literary Agent, yes, it’s important that all writers  have a positive presence online even before querying agents. Why? Because, yes, we agents do Google you.

The question you should be asking yourself is this: What will the agents find? So do a little experiment right now. Go to Google, type in your name between quotes (“firstname lastname”), and press that search button. What comes up?

Is it nothing at all? Hm. That makes me wonder where ya been and what ya been doing. And, it also makes me wonder if you’ll be able to handle promotion of your own work if you do get a book deal. In case you haven’t noticed (and since you haven’t been online much, maybe you have missed it!), writers are now expected to help out quite a lot with promotion. That means reaching readers. Being found by folks trying to learn more. And so forth.

Does your Google search yield too much? Have you been all over the Internet badmouthing other writers, other books (and by extension their editors), other agents? Do you wax poetic about your dream agent, even though it isn’t me?… Just sayin!  In short, do you have an online image that will actually hurt your image as an author in my eyes? Be honest with yourself and see if your presence is professional and in keeping with what you want agents to know about you. And remember, the Internet is forever. Conduct yourself accordingly.

These days Google searches have also been revealing that a manuscript sent to me is already self-published and on sale, yet the writer was not upfront with me and failed to reveal this.  Not cool.

Sometimes, though, I do find the writer online in a way that adds to their image in my eyes. I’ll see that they have their own website in their author name (always easy to find by future readers…bonus points!), and that the website is clean, easy to navigate and personable. The site will have a nice author photo, a feel for what this writer does, perhaps some blogging about their field or reviews of books that they enjoy, and the tone of the page is in keeping with the author’s overall image I’d hope to find in relation to the work he or she is subbing to me. Having a website needn’t be a costly and intimidating thing. You buy your domain in your name, and then you can easily set things up. You don’t have to spend big bucks to set up a zippy-do site, instead you can use a free site to create and maintain your web page yourself, and have your domain redirect people to that location. That’s what I do. The page you are reading now is a free WordPress page and it does everything I need it to, plus I can update it easily at any time. Works for me!

More bonus points for the writer who has a twitter account with a decent picture (not that boiled egg thing) and a brief bio plus link back to their website.  Cool, too, if the author is following the people in her sphere. Like people who review her sort of book, associations who have links to her subjects, etc. And a facebook page that isn’t too too personal (posts like what my toes look like should be set to private so not everyone searching can see it) but that isn’t all spammy and look at me! I write stuff! I’m amazing!

In short, a demonstration that you have a clue when it comes to presenting yourself well and in dealing with the public in a positive way will be a positive for you.

And if you’re not sure how to do that, Google some people you admire and see what they are up to online. Look at other folks on Twitter and Facebook. Who do you enjoy reading stuff from and who do you roll your eyes at?

Now I encourage you to again Google your name and look over what pops up, keeping all of this stuff in mind. It’s your image — your online business card — so make sure it’s what you want to hand over to me and other agents when we virtually meet.

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.