Trusting the Reader

The other day, I was talking with a friend (who is not a writer, but IS an avid reader) about the problems I’m having with one of the novels I’m working on. He’d asked me about my goals for the summer, and I told him I wanted to finish at least one novel draft.

“Your rumrunner?” he asked.

“No. It’s got too many problems,” I said. “I don’t know where it’s going or what to do with it anymore.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

So I told him that one of the main issues I’m having is trying to figure out why my antagonist – who has already killed three people in cold blood – doesn’t just shoot my 14-year old rumrunner one night. Or burn down his house while he’s out on a run. “It makes no sense,” I said.

“Maybe he’s not as bad as you think he is,” my friend said.

“No, he is,” I said. “Every time I try to write from his POV, all I get is how much he hates Nicky and wants him dead. So why doesn’t he just shoot him one night? I can’t answer that question, and I feel like it’s a big plot hole.”

“Why do you have to answer it?”

“Because! It’s  . . . I can’t just leave this hole there. Hargrove is bad. Really, really bad. He was a soldier in World War I. He kills people. He doesn’t blink an eye. So why not Nicky? I know he hates Nicky. Why doesn’t he just get him out of the way?”

“Well, maybe that’s something you need to let your readers decide for themselves.”

There was about a fifteen-second pause while my brain attempted to process this information. “WHAT?!”

“Let them decide that reason for themselves,” my friend said. “Every time your antagonist has a chance to kill Nicky, he doesn’t. Let the readers wonder why. Let them draw their own conclusions about it.”

“But . . . it’s a plot hole!” 

He laughed. “Does the antagonist have a reason not to kill Nicky?”

“Well  . . . he does have PTSD from the war. Shell shock. So he doesn’t carry a gun; he carries a knife, because he can’t take loud noises.” (There’s a couple of others, too, that we didn’t get into.)

“So that could be a reason. Remember, antagonists aren’t all bad. Maybe it’s just that Nicky IS fourteen, and he can’t bring himself to kill a kid.”

I had my doubts about that. I know Hargrove, and I know he wants Nicky dead. But my friend’s thoughts have made me think about things a bit differently. Because honestly, this was one of the things holding me back from continuing with Nicky – I could not figure out how to get around the fact that Hargrove should just kill Nicky and get him out of the way. And no matter how I tried to move forward with the story, that was the thought standing in my way.

Or . . . Is it possible that I’ve been standing in my own way here? I’m still not quite convinced of this, but . . . if I can make myself trust the readers, if I can make myself ignore the voices in my head that tell me I have to sew up what I still consider a giant plot hole, could this be the answer to my problem? Could it be that I don’t need to explain absolutely everything?

Trusting the reader is something that we kind of skirt around as writers. We’re not really sure that we’re getting our point across, so we tend to beat it to death. We tend to not let our descriptions, or our characters’ actions, speak for themselves. We tend to feel we have to explain everything. But do we?

Last year, on a message forum, some of were discussing favorite authors. Several of us chose Diana Gabaldon, and I’ll never forget what one person – who disagreed – said:  “I know there are sex scenes, but she never describes what’s going on! I don’t KNOW what’s happening!” And I remember thinking, WHAT?! Diana’s sex scenes are some of the hottest around – in large part because she doesn’t do that annoying A-tab-into-B-slot stuff. She lets the reader figure out what’s going on for themselves. She lets our imaginations take over. She lets us become involved in the story.

And as writers, shouldn’t that be our end goal? To let the readers become part of the story? 

In a blog post, writer Michael J. Sullivan gives us another example:

In the novel “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris provides a simple example of this technique where he speaks of a young boy thinking of all the things he did that he might be in trouble for and one of those items listed is: “…altering the word hit on a list of rules posted on the gymnasium door…” Mr. Sedaris never says how he altered it. He leaves this for the reader to figure out. The result is like a perfectly delivered punch line.

So the question becomes . . . how far can we, as writers, trust our readers? And maybe more importantly, can our readers trust us? This is the hallmark of every good mystery novel – the writer needs to leave the breadcrumbs of clues that a savvy reader will pick up on. This makes the reader invested. They’ll read on to the end to see if they’ve come to the same conclusion as the detective.

But even if we’re not writing a mystery novel, doesn’t the same hold true? Don’t we have to trust our readers to get our descriptions, understand our characters’ actions, figure out what’s going on?  

That is, if we give them the means to do so.

A tricky balancing act, that.

So this week, as I mull over my friend’s words and wonder if I can pull this off, I encourage you to pick up some books and see how – or if – the authors have been able to make it work.

Trust me. You’ll know it when you read it.

 

Michael J. Sullivan’s blog post on trusting the reader:  http://riyria.blogspot.com/2011/09/writing-advice-12-trusting-reader.html

OWFI 2016: Great Query Letters for Great Agents

A few weeks ago, my friend Debra Dockter and I went to the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (OWFI) conference. It’s one of two that I get to attend every year – well, almost every year. We get to meet other writers, hear from great agents and editors, and have fun. And we also get to learn something.

This year, I was able to attend several sessions. The first was with agent Sam Morgan (“If I am your agent, I am your friend, your parent, your sibling, your coach, your cheerleader, your lover – well, maybe not your lover! – but I will be whatever you need me to be!”), who is with Foundry Media.

As an agent, Sam gets hundreds of queries in a month. Some can be tossed in the first sentence. Some lead him to new clients. What makes a good query letter stand out? Sam wanted us to know.

  • While there are some rules Sam has seen broken, there are some you can’t ignore, such as:
    1. Get his name right!
    2. Know what genres he represents! And don’t send him something else.
  • In the query, he wants to learn a few things about your book. Top of that list is: Who is the main character? Get this across – not just their name, but who they are, and especially what’s your MC’s problem?
  • Give a taste or a hint of what’s to come. Put yourself on the page. Your voice will come through. Is the novel humorous? Your query should give us a taste of that humor.
  • Having said that, don’t write your query letter in the voice of your MC. Just don’t.
  • Get him to want to read the book, by any means necessary. Ask others to read your query. Do they want to read the book? If not, keep revising. Sam generally wants to see authors follow the basic rules of querying, but noted that a couple of his current clients broke every single rule imaginable in theirs – but that’s what it took to get him to want to read their books. Not to say that you should, however.
  • In the query letter, show why you wrote the book. Show what made you stay with it and finish it. Show him why you gave up time with your family and friends, why you had to DVR the last season of Game of Thrones, why you got up an hour early or went to bed an hour later, to finish this book. (I know, I know! A tall order!)
  • If you’ve published in the past, you can put that in – it means someone else has read your work, and liked it enough to publish it. However, if you don’t, it’s not a deal-breaker for him.
  • Likewise with social media – if you have a large social media following on Facebook or Twitter, great, include that in the query if you can, but it’s not necessary.

(This is querying, as in sending a letter or email to an agent, not pitching. While similar, they employ totally different methods, so keep that in mind.)

But Sam wanted to be sure we understood that it’s not all about him choosing a new client – it’s also about you choosing an agent. Believe it or not, it’s your choice, and you are in charge! Just because the agent makes an offer to represent doesn’t mean it’s the right person for your book, or you should accept without hesitation. You need to ask questions. You need to be sure this is exactly the right person for you and your novel. You need to make sure you can work with this person for the next 6 – 24 months. So Sam gave us some questions you need to ask potential agents:

  • Editorial work? How hands-on is this person in that process?
  • How many other clients do they have? How many books have they sold? To which houses? (And, although he didn’t say it, for how much did they sell?)
  • What does the agency do in terms of advocating for TV/foreign/audio rights? What about e-book rights?
  • Then decide: is this person worth 15% of your profits? If you have any doubts at all, you need to keep looking.

One other thing Sam wanted us to know is something that Deb has been dealing with for the past couple of years:  especially if you’re a debut author, assume the publisher will do NO promotion of your book. Plan to do it yourself. It becomes a cyclical thing – the publisher will tell you that they won’t promote your book because it’s not selling. You think, “But how can it sell if you’re not promoting it?!” Their response? “Not our problem. It’s not selling.” So you need to be able to discuss promotion plans with your agent as well.

So if you’re planning to query agents soon, hopefully some of these tips will help you out. And if you write fantasy or science fiction, I would encourage you to query Sam – he’s funny, enthusiastic, and if I wrote in these genres, I would definitely query him!

Here’s Sam’s page on the site Manuscript Wish List:  http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/mswl-post/sam-morgan/

Photo Challenge: Danger!

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This is one of my favorite bridges – the iron bridge east of Blackwell, OK. It was built in the 1920s and has been closed for decades – ever since a new road/bridge was built. The bridge itself still seems in good condition, and I’ve walked it. But lest you miss the point with all the trees and shrubs and the mound of sand and gravel in the way, both ends also have these lovely warning signs.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/danger/

. . . and here’s the pitch! Pitching at writing conferences.

This weekend, I’ll be at the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (OWFI) conference, and I’m supposed to pitch at least one of my novels.

Here’s the thing:  I can’t! 

How many of us can walk into a room and immediately start to talk about ourselves? Some can. Some of us can’t. I can’t. Give me someone else’s book to pitch, and I’d be great. Give me my own novel to pitch, and I sort of dissolve into a dribble of incoherent pudding. You know, like Donald Trump trying to talk about – well, anything.

See, I’ve done this before. Four years ago, to be precise, I pitched at this same conference. And I was lucky enough to not only get a request for the partial, but also (later) for the full. The agent was serious about the book, but . . . I realized it needed far more work than I’d realized when I pitched it, and so I bowed out. It was a hard choice, but I think I made the right one for me at the time.

This time, I’ve got two novels that I could pitch, and agents there who seem like decent fits. It’s just hard because a.) neither novel is really ‘done’ yet, and b.) I HATE TALKING ABOUT MY OWN WORK!

You know how sometimes you have dreams that make absolute sense at the time, and then when you start trying to describe them to someone else, you can’t explain why the polka-dot dog/unicorn things were at a meeting between you and Caligula, or why the Japanese businessmen were all wearing alien suits? Yeah. That’s what I sound like when I try to explain my urban fantasy novel. “There’s ghosts,” is about as coherent as I get.  Nicky’s easier – somehow “My protagonist is a 14-year old rumrunner in the 1920s, trying to save his family and avoid the Klan” rolls off the tongue a bit more easily than “My protagonist sees ghosts and moves to England and then has all these ghosts she has to sort out there, and oh by the way it’s the first in a series.” Right. Who’s going to want to read that? 

In fact, I’ve always had an aversion to pitch sessions. It’s not the end-all, be-all of publishing, in my mind. (Of course, I’m neither an agent nor a published author, so take that as you will.) I think I communicate better in writing. Makes sense. We’re writers. Why wouldn’t we be better in writing than in person?

I also want to point out that in the brief amount of research I did for this post, I ran across some blogs from agents in which they decry the whole pitching process. Yes. That’s right. Some agents don’t like pitch sessions. For various reasons. Andy Ross sums it up like this:

When I get pitched at conferences, too often I find that the attendees have been so over-coached that by the time they get in front of the agent, they act like their heads are going to explode. They read from note cards, they recite  from memory in a sing-songy way, they stare at me with an intensity that spooks me out. A lot of times they are taught that the 10 minutes they get to spend in front of an agent will determine whether their book will get published. AND EVERY SINGLE WORD THEY SAY DURING THE PITCH MUST BE PERFECTLY CRAFTED AND CALIBRATED.

Oh, puh – lease!

And I’ve listed those blogs at the bottom of the page for your enjoyment later.

But if you’re hell-bent on it anyway, here’s a few tips I’ve picked up:

1.) KNOW YOUR BOOK INSIDE AND OUT. And I don’t just mean the plot – know your characters, too, including your antagonist. What do they want? Who’s trying to stop them from getting it, and why? What motivates them? What’s their main problem?

2.) WRITE YOUR PITCH. You will not read from this, unless you are so nervous that reading your script is better than bolting from the room. But this helps you solidify what you want to say. You get only a few minutes – anywhere from 5-10 minutes – to get an agent interested enough to say “send me the first 50 pages.” So your pitch needs to be . . .

3.) BOLD, CONCISE, INTERESTING, ENGAGING.  I KNOW. That’s a huge order! I hear your gears grinding in agony already. Don’t start with your setting. Start with your main character and his/her main problem. Why is it interesting enough that this agent should spend time reading about it – and then, hopefully, spend time selling it? Remember, your time is short. Your pitch should be, too. Why? Because . . .

4.) THE AGENT WILL WANT TO ASK QUESTIONS. If they’re interested, they’re going to ask questions. Mine did. It might be about the setting, the plot, the characters. They might ask if the novel is complete. Maybe they’re curious about you – what led you to write this, what research you’ve done. Take deep breaths. Answer them. Remember that the more questions they ask, the more interested they are. As ‘Miss Snark,’ Literary Agent, says, the well-prepared author will win the day if they have the following answers ready:

  • genre
  • word count
  • plot line
  • hook
  • who would read this?
  • is it like any books I’ve sold?
  • what’s interesting to you about the characters and story ?

In fact, one of the questions they might ask is “Why did you choose me? Why do you think I’m a good fit for this project?” You’d better be ready with a killer answer, based on . . .

5.) YOUR RESEARCH INTO THE AGENT. Never, ever, unless it’s one of those last-minute, hey-we’ve-got-a-free-agent things, go into a pitch session without researching the agent first. Why do you want them to represent your book? What makes them a good fit? It can’t be their resemblance to George Clooney, sorry. It needs to be a real answer. They represent your genre, for one thing, They’re looking for X fiction or X nonfiction projects. They recently sold X, which is similar to your book because __. One thing that caught the eye of the agent that requested my manuscript was that I knew she’d graduated from Harvard with a degree in Early American History; that gave us common ground and since my book dealt in part with history, she knew chances were good that my research was sound.

I still don’t know if I’ll pitch. I know there are a couple of agents at OWFI that would be a good fit for Nicky, but he’s nowhere near done. And I do not want a repeat of the last time – a whirlwind of rewrites that ultimately left me feeling hollow and browbeaten. (Not by the agent:  by myself!) But at least if I decide to, I can walk in there knowing a bit more about what agents want.

 

Here’s a few articles and blogs about pitching to agents at conferences:

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/7-tips-for-pitching-to-an-agent-or-editor-at-a-conference

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/how-to-pitch-agents-at-a-writers-conference

https://www.thebalance.com/how-to-pitch-your-novel-at-a-pitch-conference-1277304

http://www.writing-world.com/publish/pitch.shtml

http://www.writing-world.com/publish/pitch2.shtml

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/4-questions-agents-ask-at-pitch-sessions

http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2014/01/rant-pitch-sessions-are-spawn-of-satan.html (From an agent who actually despises pitches – and wants to revamp the entire process.)

https://andyrossagency.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/how-to-pitch-to-an-agent/ (Tips from an agent on what he’s looking for in a good pitch.)

http://misssnark.blogspot.com/2007/02/pitch-sessions-at-writing-conferences.html (THIS one is fantastic – both funny and insightful.)

http://nelsonagency.com/category/query-letters/pitch-sessions/

https://carlywatters.com/2013/05/06/how-to-pitch-an-agent/