1/17/05: Novel Weekend

Just back from the novel workshop at Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s house on the Oregon Coast. I haven’t posted anything here for the last two weeks because I was exceptionally busy at work (I think I had a total of two working hours last week that weren’t consumed by meetings) and I had to critique two full novels and four partials before the workshop. So not only didn’t I have any progress to report on my own writing, I didn’t have any time to report it. But I’m back now, and things should be a bit less hectic for the near future. Travel to and from the workshop was interesting, in the Chinese sense. On the way out of Portland on Thursday night, I took a wrong turn and didn’t realize my mistake until I’d gone 15 miles in the wrong direction and was thoroughly lost; it took me over two hours to get all the way out of town. Then on Saturday Portland was slammed by an ice storm that made the streets impassible, but I hung out at the workshop house until mid-day Sunday and it had all thawed out by the time I got home. But we had lovely weather at the coast all weekend. The workshop itself was a lot of fun, with the seven of us and Dean (plus Kris and local writer Steven York in the evenings) talking about writing stuff in the mornings and evenings and between crits. We ate exceptionally good Thai food and far too many M&Ms and potato chips (Karen Abrahamson kept pushing junk food, which proves that Canadians are not nearly as nice as they are made out to be), and got way too little sleep. We walked on the beach and visited the bookstore down the hill and made friends with Galahad the cat. Some of us even got some writing done (I didn’t). I got very useful feedback on my novel. Reactions from the other workshop participants were mixed but Dean and New York editor John Douglas (who sent comments by fax) said that it would most likely sell if I made some changes: add a prologue showing the Cedar Point disaster; increase the emotion and sensory detail throughout, especially in the opening chapter; clear out the table of contents and the time map and date at the top of each chapter, and replace them with solid scene setting to ground the reader in time (if readers get lost between the two timelines, don’t try to paper over the problem with graphics and typographical tricks, fix the underlying problem!); watch for places where a chapter ending that’s supposed to be a cliffhanger goes past its emotional peak and cut it right at that peak; use more varied paragraphing; replace the detailed outline with a shorter, more focused proposal (in proper manuscript format!). These changes are actually not that large, especially by comparison with the major surgery Dean suggested to some of the other participants. I should be able to get this puppy in the mail in a few weeks. Dean gave several long talks on the business and craft of writing, some planned and some impromptu and all exceptionally valuable (if sometimes a bit discouraging). I took about 14 pages of notes, which I will attempt to summarize here as a public service. (Disclaimer: What you see here is my summary of Dean’s advice and opinions. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it; on the other hand, I may have gotten some of it wrong.) The workshop was largely focused on presentation, because it doesn’t matter how good your novel is if you can’t present it in a marketable way. We did talk a lot about the novels themselves, especially their structure and double especially their openings (because the first chapter or two determines whether the remaining chapters will be read at all), but the most interesting and useful information in the workshop was about the proposal. A novel proposal (also called an outline or synopsis — the words are completely interchangeable) is a sales tool for your novel. I’ll repeat that, because Dean did: the proposal is a sales tool. It is used throughout the publishing process to represent your novel, so if it fails to intrigue and excite the reader it almost doesn’t matter how good the novel itself is. Fundamentally, the proposal has to capture the essential elements of the novel in miniature. Dean brought out a bottle of shampoo and a tiny sample-sized bottle of the same shampoo. The big bottle is your novel, the small bottle is your proposal. The shampoo in the small bottle is the same color, smells the same, and tastes the same, and the bottle has approximately the same shape — but the cap is proportionally bigger because otherwise you couldn’t get the shampoo out, and there are fewer words on the label because if you just made the same text smaller you couldn’t read it. The purpose of the small bottle is to get you to buy the big bottle, not to be a perfect copy of the big bottle. Similarly, the proposal has to say what the novel is about, not just recount the plot. It has to capture the novel’s emotions, not just list its characters. It should have the same voice, style, and stance as the novel. It can be long or short — as little as a few pages, or over a hundred pages for a complex best-seller — but it has to be as exciting and intriguing as the novel itself, if not more so. It is usually written in third person present tense, no matter what person and tense is used for the novel itself, and it must use standard manuscript format (12-point Courier, double spaced, 1″ margins, with your name and address on the first page and your name in the header of every subsequent page). Non-standard formats make it harder for the editor to read and give them an excuse to reject the novel — and they receive so many proposals they are looking for any excuse at all to toss the current one and move on to the next. It used to be that the science fiction field was based on reputation and personal relationships, and novels were sold over dinner at the Worldcon. That’s no longer the case. Computerized sales tracking and corporate attention to the bottom line mean that the only thing that counts today is how you sell, which is determined by quality more than publicity or anything else. One downside of this tracking is that if your sales are disappointing you may not be able to sell your next book at all. The upside is that a new author, or a new name for an existing author, gets a fair shake based solely on the quality of the novel — as represented by the proposal and sample chapters. It’s a great time to break in. If your sales record is dragging you down, don’t hesitate to adopt a new pen name. Even an author who is doing reasonably well can benefit from changing their name — if you are selling at the $5K advance level and you write a true breakout novel, you can sell it under your own name for $5K (with corresponding publicity), but a really great book from a fresh name with no track record will be judged on its own merits and can sell for $100K (with corresponding publicity). Here’s how the publishing field works today: first off, there is no slush pile any more. Hardly any publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts. Instead, publishers receive query letters. The assistant editor sits at her desk in the hall outside the editor’s door and goes through the pile of queries received each day, passing only the most intriguing ones on to the editor. The editor then picks the most interesting queries out of that reduced set and requests a package (sample chapters and proposal) from them. The received packages then receive a further winnowing, with editors or assistant editors reading them and rejecting as many as possible, retaining only those that demand recognition — for these they request the whole manuscript. If the manuscript bears out the package’s promise, the editor presents the proposal to other editors, management, and the sales force. If these people all agree, based on the proposal and the editor’s passion for the novel, that this is something that will make money for the publisher, they extend an offer to the author. So your job is to create a query letter and a proposal package that are so compelling that no one anywhere in that process will be able to say no. This process takes months and months. These days you have to treat novels exactly the same as short stories: write one, submit it, and move on to the next one. If one comes back, resubmit it right away. Don’t track rejection times, don’t bite your fingernails waiting for a response; you have no idea whether it’s taking a long time because it’s being seriously considered or because it’s sitting at the bottom of a huge pile. Just work on the next novel and make sure it’s as good as it can be. If you keep the pipeline full of quality work, eventually one will land in front of the right editor at the right time and will “click.” And once you’ve sold one novel, the game changes and you have an entirely different set of problems (one of the main ones is the temptation to overcommit yourself). Can an agent get you around this process? No — not the kind of agent you can get as an unknown. Good agents don’t have to take on writers with no sales, there are plenty of writers who have just made their first sale and need an agent. And even with a good agent, the process still takes enormous amounts of time. The main thing an agent can do that you can’t do for yourself is to submit to multiple publishers at once. Do not be discouraged by the length and complexity of the process. The system is more in the writer’s control than ever before. If you can write a good query and package you can sell even if you don’t have an agent, never go to conventions, and don’t know anyone in the business. (You still need an agent to negotiate the contract, though.) The reader’s initial reaction is the most important, because editors and assistant editors don’t spend a lot of time deciding if a novel is marketable. The opening has to grab the reader’s attention and the remainder of the sample chapters have to hold it. Use pacing, cliffhangers, etc. to pull the reader along. Setting and sensory details are critical; a novel (especially in its early chapters) has to be even thicker and richer in detail than any short story — after all, in a novel you have much more room for this sort of detail and you should make effective use of that. The manuscript must be clean and free of “scabs” — typos, grammatical errors, punctuation problems, etc. — which can make the editor think that the copy edit might be more trouble than it’s worth. It’s especially important to kill typos and other glitches in the early pages. Your goal is zero defects. The title is an important element, because it represents the novel when people are talking about it (within the publisher, and then in the market). If you can’t come up with a memorable title that summarizes the book in some way, work with a friend who’s good at it. Good novel titles tend to be shorter than good short story titles; most best-sellers have two-word titles. The secrets of a successful proposal are clarity and focus on character. It must be welcoming to read (standard manuscript format!) and the novel’s structure must be clear from the proposal. But it needs to convey what the book is about — from the character’s perspective — rather than summarizing the plot. It should explain how the book opens, how it ends up, and how the character gets from point A to point Z, but avoid the details. “What the book is about” is bigger than the plot. The query letter is the postal version of the elevator pitch. It must be brief. Typically it has one paragraph of what the book is about, one paragraph listing your qualifications (previous publishing credits and relevant life experience), one paragraph citing similar successful novels, and one paragraph to ask for the sale (e.g. “The novel is finished and I would be glad to send it to you, thank you for your time”). The query letter should use standard business letter format — this is a job interview, and you wouldn’t show up for a job interview wearing a sweat suit. Don’t explicitly state your novel’s theme in a query or cover letter; that tends to make it appear preachy. When you send in your package it should be assembled in this order: 1) cover letter, 2) sample chapters, 3) proposal (labeled as such). Be sure to include your full contact information at the top of each, since the three pieces often are separated from each other during the process. Include exactly the amount of sample material requested by this particular agent or editor. If they ask for 50 pages, give them exactly 50 pages — cut off in the middle of a word if need be. For the novel’s opening, many successful writers pick one detail of setting or character and focus on it for several pages. The description needs to be thick and rich in sensory detail, and focus on what the detail means to the viewpoint character. What about it catches her attention and why? Similarly, if you have multiple viewpoints they can be made distinct by giving each one a “walking motif.” For example, one character could notice smells, while another notices noises, or the temperature. What is each character’s reason for being? That should be the most powerful element of the character’s first appearance and should color their every perception. Most wannabe writers stop at about page 100 or 150 (1/3 of the way through the novel), the point at which the excitement of the opening is past and only the long slog of the middle is visible ahead. You must keep going past this point. Resist the urge to go back and revise, or even read, the first part — you have to trust the process and “eat the elephant one bite at a time.” Deadlines are useful to keep you going. It’s important to get feedback on your work, because the writer’s job is to create an impression in the reader’s mind — to transfer thoughts and feelings and images from your mind to the reader’s. Because you already have these images in your own mind, you cannot judge whether or not your writing is effective. But you should complete the entire novel before sending it for critique. Very few writers can accept critique on individual novel chapters without allowing it to warp the novel into “art by committee.” Science fiction, per se, is a dying genre; even Western outsells it. But there are enormous quantities of science fiction and fantasy being published outside the “science fiction” publishing field — they are just labeled as romances (romance is 55% of the market, vs. 5% for SF) or mysteries or thrillers or just “fiction.” SF writers who have escaped the SF ghetto include Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, Robin Cook, Neal Stephenson, Jonathan Lethem, Neil Gaiman, and Karen Joy Fowler. Take a look at some recent SF and fantasy best-sellers and see if you see the words “science fiction” or “fantasy” anywhere on them. The science fiction ghetto is superficially welcoming to new talent, but in the long run is harmful to them because it locks them into a tiny market. Don’t think of Asimov’s as the best possible place to sell your short SF story, take it to the New Yorker or Playboy first. Part of your job as a professional writer is to stay abreast of the markets, even those you don’t plan to write for. If a major romance publisher has a line of supernatural romances, and you have a fantasy book with a strong romantic element, you may be able to sell that same exact book to the romance publisher for a hell of a lot more money than you’d get from a fantasy publisher. You may have to change the query letter and proposal to stress the romantic element. Publisher’s Marketplace (www.publishersmarketplace.com) costs $15 a month and is well worth it. It includes a database of recent deals (editor, agent, type of book, and size of advance) that is invaluable in researching agents and markets, and an email newsletter called Publisher’s Lunch that helps you keep abreast of the news in the field. An agent who isn’t sending news of their deals to Publisher’s Marketplace is missing out on how business is done today. Most agents you see at the Worldcon these days are not the agent you want. The good ones are too busy to leave New York for more than a day. An exception is agents who have a client up for a Hugo, who may fly in just for the day to hold the client’s hand (and help them with deals if they win the Best Novel Hugo). Mainstream writer’s conferences such as Surrey are better, but watch out for scammers. An extensive website for an individual agent is a warning sign: good agents don’t have the time, or any reason, to maintain one. When you hear an opinion about an agent, consider the source: is this a multi-published author, or a wannabe? A good agent can’t save your career, but a bad agent can hurt it. The agent is your employee and you need to be aware of what they are and aren’t doing for you. You also need to keep up with the market so you know what the alternatives are. Your agent could retire or flake out without warning, and you may need to change agents suddenly or if a better alternative emerges. Be willing to fire your agent if they aren’t working to your satisfaction, or if you find that you are turning into a type of writer who is no longer well represented by your current agent. You are responsible for your own career. You need an agent you can work with, but the agent you like the best personally might not be the one who’ll do the best job. “Big Books” are an entirely different genre, with their own structure: an incredible setting, vividly realized; everyday characters doing extraordinary things; multiple viewpoints (generally), often two characters with their own problems who collide mid-book to produce an even bigger problem. Most authors should never even attempt a Big Book. The author of a Big Book must have incredible control of the reader’s thoughts and feelings. It takes a lot of practice and reading, study of best-sellers, millions of words written. Styles of best-seller change with the decades; read Making the List by Korda for insights. Big Books can fail in big ways if you get the small stuff wrong. Your hero can get hurt, he can get damaged, he can be in pain, he can be frightened, desperate, frustrated, but he can never whine. He has to keep moving forward even when he can’t.

Comments are closed.