Agent Monday: New Agent Savannah Brooks!

SavannahHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  Did you miss me? 😉  It HAS been a busy time here, with lots of exciting goings on.  Part of that excitement? The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency has welcomed some terrific new agents. Today, let’s get to know more about new Associate Agent Savannah Brooks…

Q: Hi Savannah! Thanks so much for taking the time to visit.  How did you get into agenting?

A: When I started my MFA program back in 2015, I wanted to get as much experience in as many avenues of publishing as possible. So when I heard about the opportunity to intern for JD Lit, I jumped on it. I interned with Damian McNicholl for a year and a half before officially coming on board. I loved (and still love) the way agenting blends manuscript editing with author and editor facetime. It’s the perfect mix.

Q: Can you share some details about yourself, and how these have shaped who you are as an agent and as someone working with authors?

A: This isn’t anything new, but I’ll say it anyway: being a writer myself really informs the processes I create with my authors. I write creative nonfiction, mostly personal essays pretty heavily influenced by research (though I dabble in fiction as well). The last essay I had published I started writing two years prior. It’s an essay I wrote a few drafts of then had to put away for a while. I worked on other pieces, I grew as a writer, and I made it better with time. So when I look at an author’s career, I’m not just considering this one book; I’m considering the ways that writing and revising this one book can inform all the books that are to come.

Q: What types of projects are you representing? Anything you are especially hoping to find in your inbox?

A: I didn’t exactly mean for this to happen, but I’ve found myself focusing pretty heavily on YA fiction. By its nature, YA is extremely voice driven, and I’m most intrigued by characters. Weird, obsessive, smart, unforgettable characters. That being said, I’ve been keeping an eye out for funny, voice-driven adult fiction that isn’t afraid to tackle big topics but knows how to do it and entertain at the same time. Think An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.

Q: Can you give us an example of one of your favorite books in each category that you represent, and why it’s your favorite?

A: I’ll do some category bending here. Starting with one of the main players in the “what the heck is YA anyway” category: the His Dark Materials series. I’ve read this series countless times over the years, and each time, I’m floored by three things: how much I adore Lyra as a character, how real the worlds feel despite jumping around in them so frequently, and how layered the narrative is. As I grew up, the main focus of the story bounced around: adventure, love, religion, quantum physics, war. This is a book accessible and intriguing to readers of practically any age, which is, to put it simply, a feat.

For very similar reasons, I’ve also always gravitated to the Chronicles of Narnia series. I remember being crying-level devastated as a child by the fact that I could never actually get to Narnia. The world felt that real to me. Again, a feat, especially in children’s and middle grade writing. (That the film producers cast Ben Barnes as Prince Caspian certainly didn’t hurt my continued obsession into my teenage years, though I think I would’ve stuck with the series regardless.) I’m not a religious or spiritual person, but I’ve always been fascinated by Lewis’s allusions to Christianity. You can either read to be entertained or read to solve a puzzle. That level of engagement is powerful.

Q: To help folks understand your point of view, what are some of your favorite TV shows and Movies?

A: I don’t actually watch a ton of TV/movies, but this seems like a good opportunity for some psychoanalyzing, so why not? The shows I tend to turn to are Criminal Minds (again), America’s Next Top Model (again), Rick and Morty (again), Riverdale, and Planet Earth II. (Now that I think about it, I’m not sure I want anyone to read too deeply into that selection, but here we are.) As far as movies go, I’m always a sucker for Pixar and Marvel. I’ve seen Moana more times than I’d like to admit. I would say listening to “How Far I’ll Go” doesn’t still make me tear up (yes! girl power!), but that would be a lie. Continue reading

The Ultimate Writer’s Group

Marie's article about her Rebel Writers group is in this issue of Writer's Digest Magazine

What would be your perfect writer’s group?

For me it’s all about having a small bunch of talented people who I also happen to like and respect.  The level of ability should be close to mine or better.  And we should all be working on novels.  I’m so fortunate to belong to The Rebel Writers, a group of 6 amazing people who have been meeting once a month for 10 years now!

How did I end up so fortunate? Well, sometimes you have to lend your fortune a hand.  It started out when a number of us were in a very large writing group. Folks in that group met every other week, and up to 4 submissions were read each time.  This meant a lot of short stories.  It also meant a long delay between when you would be read next.  And if you were subbing chapters for a novel, well you’d have to wait months for your next chapter to come up.  No way were people going to able to comment on things like arc or character development, etc.

So I and a few hand-picked writers from that group who were all working on novels formed a secret group (hence the name The Rebel Writers) and we met secretly for about 2 years!  The reason? Honestly, we didn’t want to hurt feelings, because we didn’t open it to everyone.  The joy of our group is that it’s limited to six, that we meet once a month, and that we cover novels. Huge chunks of novels.  We only read two authors a meeting, and sometimes only one…we can have an entire novel read in a month and discussed for a full two hours.  Beyond excellent!

If you’re interested in forming your own version of The Rebel Writers, I’ve written an article that shows how we run this and what our guidelines for critiquing are, which you can find in Writer’s Digest Magazine’s Feb. ’08 issue and in its 2009 Yearbook issue…click here to order a copy through them.

(Photo by Caitlin Doherty) Launch at Doylestown Books of Jeanne Denault's SUCKING UP YELLOW JACKETS. (front, left to right) Marie Lamba, Jeanne Denault, Chris Bauer, (back) David Jarret, Damian McNicholl, John Wirebach. (Not pictured - Russ Allen)

Our group of unpublished novelists now has four who are published!  Our most recent is Jeanne Denault, who has just launched her stunning memoir Sucking Up Yellow Jackets (O Books). It’s about what it was like to raise an Asperger’s son before Asperger’s was a known condition.  Add in her son’s obsession with explosives and mix this with Jeanne’s wry sense of humor, and you can see why this book is a winner!

We’re thrilled for Jeanne, and can’t wait to see who’s going to have the next book launch.

Other Rebs who have been published?  Well, our first one out of the gate is the wonderful literary author Damian McNicholl.

Damian’s moving novel A Son Called Gabriel (CDS Books) is a coming of age story about a boy discovering he’s gay while growing up in Catholic Ireland.  We knew Damian’s book would be a smash when we’d critiqued it, and weren’t at all surprised when Publisher’s Weekly said, “McNicholl is a graceful writer, and his is a worthy debut.”

After Damian’s success, I broke out of the gates with my YA novel What I Meant…, and I owe so much to the Rebs for their wonderful manuscript critiques and continuing support for my writing.

The next one up was Chris Bauer with his hair-raising novel Scars on the Face of God (Drollerie Press).  It involves the Devil’s Bible, some truly haunting supernatural elements, and, best of all, Chris’ amazing twist of phrase. He adds a literary feel to the most terrifying of tales.  Bestselling author Scott Nicholson says it’s “hotter than the flames of hell,” and he’s right!

So, happy 10th anniversary to The Rebel Writers!  I’m sure much more success is coming to them all soon.

The Plot Sickens

Plot. Ugh! We writers need it to make our great ideas flow. Readers crave it…it’s what makes them turn pages, what creates tension, what makes them CARE about a book. But here’s a dirty little secret: many writers have a love-hate relationship with plotting. Mostly hate, really.

The Rebel Writers are (left to right) Damian McNicholl, Russ Allen, C.G. Bauer, Jeanne Denault, John Wirebach, David Jarret and Marie Lamba

I belong to an amazing novel critique group called The Rebel Writers.  (If you want to learn more about this group and our unique methods of critiquing long manuscripts, you can check out my article Plotting a Novel Group in Writer’s Digest Magazine by clicking here.) This month, our meeting was devoted to discussing plot. Our personal struggles with it, how it tends to bite us in the ass mid-way through our novels, how uncomfortable we are with artificially manufacturing it, and what the hell we can do to make sure our novels are tightly written starting right at the first draft. We came up with some interesting thoughts that I’d like to share…

All 6 of us were on hand for this meeting, offering a variety of perspectives. I’m a young adult author; Damian McNicholl is author of the critically acclaimed literary novel A Son Called Gabriel; C.G. (Chris) Bauer is author of the stunning debut horror novel Scars on the Face of God; Jeanne Denault is author of an amazing memoir about raising a son with Aspergers titled Sucking up Yellow Jackets – soon to be published by the UK publisher O Books; David Jarret writes historical novels and hysterical short stories, John Wirebach writes gritty crime and mystery novels, and Russ Allen writes literary novels.

C.G. Bauer's debut horror novel is "hotter than the flames of hell," says horror master Scott Nicholson

One thing we all acknowledged: we are uncomfortable with following plotting formulas and using step-by-step advice to plot novels. Here’s the thing: writing is an art. At least we writers hope so.  Art should flow, should be organic and original. Should be something new and exciting and enlightening.  We authors want to get to that spot of artistic originality in our completed works with every single bit of fiction that we create.

So imagine how a bunch of artists (put your nose in the air when you say that word) feel when they consider planning out their work of art on 3×5 cards or with post-its. When they think about following formulas in designing their novels… It feels so, so…artificial.

And herein lies the problem. Novels ARE artificial. And, as cheesy as it sounds, writers are manipulators. We use technique to create suspense, tricks to make cliff-hangers, melodrama to induce tears…if we are doing it well, then no one will even notice we are pulling the strings. And we need to be aware of these plotting techniques and embrace them on some level, don’t we?

So we Rebel Writers decided to take our noses out of the air and look around.  Pulp fiction writers use formulas. Soap opera writers use formulas. Many romance authors use formulas. So do television script writers. So do film writers. So, in fact, do many novelists. Maybe its time we face the facts: we can learn something from these folks!

Damian McNicholl's celebrated novel was a Book Sense Pick of the Year

Okay, so once we packed away our collective artistic snobbery, the info sharing really began to flow.  It was like a confessional of sorts, with each of us sharing our own secret plotting cheats.

Russ introduced us to a text called Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D., which outlines just over 50 plots, and argues that every story ever told was one of these plots.  We Rebels quickly found our own novels’ plots in the listings.  Humbling. Forget originality, right? All we have to do is pick one of these plots, and write a story…

We discussed our discomfort with this, but soon admitted that, yeah, it would be convenient to know the sort of story we were writing before we embarked on months to years worth of actually writing it and uncovering our direction. And we all reassured ourselves that whatever we wrote would be distinct if we were true to our own voice and our own view of the world.  That’s the clincher, isn’t it?

Many of us swore by Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, which has exercises that ensure your novel has a sound structure, a strong subplot, tension on every page, etc. etc. etc.  John pointed out how focused movie script writers are in plotting, and how most scripts have a climactic moment on a certain page according to an understood formula. He recommended we look at books about treatments, including a book I have on my own shelf: Writing Treatments that Sell by Kenneth Atchity and Chi-Li Wong. Another favorite of the group is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It follows myth and archetypes culled by folklorist Joseph Campbell in his incredible The Power of Myth, and applies the hero’s journey to plotting and structure. It’s phenomenal, and I used parts of this while plotting my newest young adult novel, Drawn. Jeanne shared how she used index cards to decipher the plot of one of her murder mysteries and to reorganize the plotting to fix a problem in its pacing.

I know, right about now you’re thinking: So if everyone has been secretly using all of these plot theories, what’s the big deal? What did the Rebel Writers actually learn here?  Well, every one of us have used these tools AFTER we wrote our novels. First we spent forever writing our monster works, then we sat down with our drafts and thought, hm, the middle is really slow, or huh, the ending just doesn’t do it, and we spent forever dissecting our works and fixing them by applying all of these plotting theories.

Jeanne Denault's stunning memoir about Aspergers

But wouldn’t it be nice to start out with a better sense of the structure and plot at the start? Wouldn’t that cut down on the length of time it would take to write a novel? Imagine how wonderful it would be to be able to create two novels a year vs. one every two years. And wouldn’t we enjoy our writing more if we didn’t have to agonize over our edits, going over the plotting and structure again and again and again? Wouldn’t our final work benefit?

We are all nodding now.  But still scepticism rears its ugly head. Can you really sit down and plan out a novel, plotting its structure, its twists, its climax and conclusion, and still come out with a work of art?  I’m about to find out. See, I’m also a member of the Bucks County Romance Writers, and will soon attend my very first plot party with them. They ask that each member bring a brand new novel idea not worked on yet, a pen, and a stack of stickees. At the end of the 6 (!) hour event, each person is supposed to leave with a completely plotted out novel, and all we’ll have to do is simply write it. Easy, right?

Can this possibly work? Can I come up with something fresh and original, yet plotted, with only stickee notes, my imagination and some strong plotting traditions? Can I then save time writing my novel, with my first draft being close to a final draft? Will I end up writing more novels and being more productive because of this? God, I hope so. Stay tuned…