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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fighting Those “This-Manuscript-Sucks” Demons: Advice from Two Bestselling Novelists: Ruth Harris and Michael Brandman.

Today Ruth brings us a great pep talk from screenwriter and mystery novelist Michael Brandman, who this year was asked to take over the Jesse Stone novels of the legendary mystery writer, the late Robert B. Parker.

How would you feel if you were suddenly asked to be the “continuator” of a book series written by your idol? Turns out we face the same fears no matter where we are on our writing journeys--and even award-winning screenwriters suffer moments of doubt

As Ruth tells us, the publishing business is full of more zigs and zags than any of us imagine. Certainly my own career has been zigzagging so fast recently I’m getting whiplash.

A year ago, I was almost ready to give up. I had two out-of-print books and five years’ worth of rejections on all my new novels. I’d had dozens of close-but-no-cigar reads from agents, but no offers. I seemed to be moving farther and farther from my dream of becoming a successful novelist. I had a little blog with less than a hundred followers and a fast-fading dream.

But this week, the revised edition of my comic thriller FOOD OF LOVE debuted in ebook, with paper to follow, and my romantic comedy THE BEST REVENGE will follow soon after.

And next week I’ll be announcing some more seriously awesome news about my own career. Blind-sided is the perfect word for it.

So here’s some great advice from a couple of pros:

by Ruth Harris

The writer is all-too-often the last to know. Sometimes that applies to the ending of a novel which comes as a complete surprise—especially to the author. Other times, it’s the astonishing zigs and zags an entire career can take.

I’m known for my bestselling women’s fiction. My DH, Michael is known for his bestselling non-fiction. So, of course, we decided to do the next logical thing and write a thriller—a form both of us love whether in book or movie form, but neither of us had ever written before.

We wanted the challenge of trying something new and thought since we are both pros, we would know pretty soon if our thriller was working or not. Michael is an excellent editor with special strengths in organizing and outlining. I shine when it comes to manuscript editing, revising and rewriting. Depending on who felt more strongly about which scene, we both wrote first draft and the further we got into our thriller, the more convinced we became that we were on the right track.

We had surprised ourselves and become thriller writers.

And now HOOKED, a medical-political thriller, is on TWO Kindle best seller lists.

For my friend, Michael Brandman, a television writer and producer, the surprise he never saw coming was the chance to sub for his long-time friend and colleague, and mystery writing superstar, Robert B. Parker. Here’s Michael’s story:

by Michael Brandman

 Robert B. Parker died suddenly in January, 2010.

Bob was an Edgar winner, a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, a prolific practitioner in the genre which he helped define. He was enormously skilled, a minimalist, whose simplicity of style and economy of language appeared effortless. 

I was a huge fan, gulping down his every offering, anxiously awaiting the next. Years ago, when I was offered the opportunity to meet him, I grabbed it. Thus began a decades long friendship and professional collaboration. 

We made twelve films together. We worked on two westerns, the first of which, “Louis L’Amour’s Crossfire Trail,” we revised, unbilled. The second, the re-make of Jack Schaefer’s “Monte Walsh,” we wrote together and were afforded credit.

We filmed adaptations of three of his Spenser novels. Bob wrote ‘em. I produced ‘em.

He lived to see seven of the Jesse Stone series of movies which Tom Selleck and I continue to write and produce for CBS. 

Bob and I talked constantly and over time, he shared many of his writerly stories and secrets with me. I listened avidly and learned a great deal. His work ethic was astonishing and he left behind a prodigious body of work to show for it. 

Late in April, 2010, I was hanging around, minding my own business, when I received a call from Helen Brann, Bob’s long time literary agent. She explained to me that the Parker estate was interested in continuing the Jesse Stone franchise of novels and they, along with Putnam’s, Bob’s publisher, were wondering if I might be interested in writing them. In becoming a “continuator.”

What????  Excuse me????  Continuing the franchise????  Writing Robert B. Parker novels????   Has someone out there lost his or her mind????

Of course I immediately agreed. I mean, what the hell. Why not?  The worst I could do would be to fall  on my face.

I told them I would do it on spec. I’d submit pages as I went along and they would read them and either encourage me or fire me. Fair enough, they said.

So I started. At first it became clear that I was no where near Bob’s voice.  Despite the fact that I had read everything he had ever written and had even briefly been his writing partner.

I wrote five chapters and threw five chapters away. A number of times.  They all stank.  So I decided to do an exercise in dialogue writing.  Having written and/or supervised the writing of all seven of the Jesse Stone movies, I figured that gave me a leg up on understanding each of the characters and how they spoke.

It started to work. I wrote numbers of conversations and began to get the feel of writing them as prose as opposed to script dialogue. 

Using the movies as a guide, I reasoned that at the start of the novel, Jesse should have nothing on his plate. He’s a small town police chief and he’s been reduced to writing parking tickets.  From that standing start, I filled his plate. Suddenly a spate of crime broke out. A killing. The infiltration of mob activity. His personal life also became enlivened. He met someone to whom he was attracted. He moved from his condo to a house, redolent of the house in which he lives in the movies. He adopted a cat.

As I trucked on, Bob’s voice became clear in my mind. Maybe because he was sitting on my shoulder, with a sharp stick in his hand. I found I was able to replicate his rhythms. Every sentence I wrote, I re-wrote several times...ridding it of gobbledygook, excessive verbiage, irrelevancies. It was an exercise in economy.  For the most part, it passed muster.

Bob’s long time editor, Christine C. Pepe, was assigned the book and both she and Ivan Held, the publisher, read the work in progress. As did Helen Brann. Although Chris would later come to dog me with much more detailed comments and notes, at the earliest stages, she was encouraging and immeasurably helpful.  

When I reached the mid-way point, approximately a hundred and fifty pages, Putnam’s gave me their official blessing. I blithely finished my first draft, submitted it and thought, hey, I’m a novelist.

For the next four months I worked avidly with Chris Pepe, making comprehensive revisions. Each time I thought I was done, there came another set of notes. And when Chris was done and I was once again in self-congratulatory mode, I encountered the copy editor.

By the end, however, each revision made the book better. Chris’s unerring ear for Bob’s rhythms and style brought me closer to what I had originally hoped to achieve.

I still shudder when I read it. My biggest fear is that I’ll bring the entire franchise crashing down around me.  Although Joan Parker, Bob’s widow, continues to encourage me by suggesting that somewhere Bob is smiling, I interpret that to mean that he’s somewhere snarling, questioning the logic of why the escutcheon was handed over to a blithering idiot.

Yet, somehow, Putnam’s agreed to publish it. And although I learned from my years as a filmmaker never to read reviews, I did sneak a peek at some of the early notices and in the immortal words of Sally Field, “They like it. They really like it.”

Putnam’s has rewarded me with a two book contract and I’ve already completed the draft of my second Jesse Stone novel, FOOL ME TWICE, which will be published in 2012. 

It’s been a great adventure. It taught me that after years of finding ways of convincing myself not to write fiction, I should have “taken the bull between my teeth,” as Sam Goldwyn was fond of saying, and done it a whole lot sooner.

For those of you out there sitting on your hands and convincing yourself not to write that novel you’ve always dreamed of writing, quit it. Do it. Full speed ahead. You have nothing to lose. And everything to gain.

And as Bob Parker was fond of saying, “Please buy my book.”
Michael Brandman is the television and film producer who, along with Tom Selleck, wrote and produced Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone movies for CBS. Production was recently completed on an eighth Jesse Stone CBS movie, "Benefit of the Doubt.". After Mr. Parker's death, Michael who had a long association with the author, wrote a new Jesse Stone novel, KILLING THE BLUES, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in September, 2011.

Michael is right: Full speed ahead. You all know the famous story of Stephen King’s wife rescuing his manuscript of CARRIE from the trash, the novel that started his spectacular career. SK got discouraged and dumped it. His wife—as wives often do—knew better.

Do you ever think of giving up? Don’t. Ass to chair. Nose to grindstone (aka computer screen). Keep slogging away. Deal with your demons—the insecurity demons, the I-can’t-do-this demons, the lousy-review demons, the this-manuscript-sucks demons—because, if you’re a writer, you just never know what’s going to happen next. After all, what have you got to lose—except the completely unanticipated surprise that can turn your life and career round?

Have you ever had a moment when you were about to give up the writing dream, only to have some unexpected opportunity come at you from nowhere and get you back on track? We’d love to hear your stories.

Ruth has some very nice cyberink at Kindle Nation Daily this week along with an excerpt from her newly re-released novel DECADES, first of her 20th Century Trilogy.

Today Anne is blogging over at Mark Williams International http://markwilliamsinternational.com/ with more advice about riding the roller coaster that is 21st century publishing.


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Friday, September 23, 2011

FOOD OF LOVE is available on Amazon!

Even though the paper version won't be available until next month, the ebook of my comic thriller, FOOD OF LOVE is available on Amazon! And it's also available at Amazon in the UK.

NEWSFLASH: The paper version of FOOD OF LOVE is available in the US and the UK !

This is the book they said couldn't be published. It breaks pretty much all the rules ever invented by corporate publishing.  I wrote what I wanted to read–but couldn’t find on the shelves: a can’t-put-it-down, laugh-out-loud mystery/thriller about women. I loved Carl Hiassen and Chris Moore and wanted to write that kind of socially conscious, but funny novel, dealing with women’s issues.

I didn't know you're not allowed to be funny about women's issues.

Newbie that I was, I wrote FOOD OF LOVE anyway. It’s about the one thing that unites women of all races and backgrounds: the urge to diminish ourselves by dieting. (And the subsequent craving for chocolate.) I added a hot KGB agent, a sexy two-hundred pound rapper girl, a couple of Elvis impersonators and a small nuclear bomb. All my beta readers loved it.

One reader said: "Imagine Tom Robbins, Fannie Flagg, and Armistead Maupin collaborating on a novel. They start by squeezing into a bathroom stall at a posh drug rehab center. Throw in a conservative talk show hostess, a model-turned princess, a reformed porn star, and of course, Elvis, and you've got a pile of laughs and a fantastic read.”

But it got rejection after rejection. Some agents were kind enough to send personal notes to say they loved it but there was no way it could ever be published. Then two agents actually took it on. But one subsequently quit agenting, then another shopped it around for a year and had to give up. Finally I found a small publisher in England willing to take a chance. (It was the height of the chick lit craze and they thought the idea of chick lit that appealed to men as well as women was great.) But the company soon went out of business and the title has been languishing in out-of-print limbo for 6 years. 

But today, it’s been re-released by a fantastic, super-supportive micropublisher called Popcorn Press. (My editor said he laughed and cried all the way through the edits and again during the coding.) And he just emailed me that the book is live on Amazon.com.   

If you want a funny read for a relaxing Indian summer weekend, I hope you'll check it out.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why Chasing a Big Six Contract is Like Crushing on a Bad Boyfriend

While I’m teaching at the Central Coast Writers Conference this weekend, we have a guest post from the awesome Michelle Davidson Argyle, Literary Labster and author of the thriller, Monarch, which debuts this week from Rhemalda Publishing. Michelle did an  in-depth study on her blog last year on small presses. That study helped me make my decision to go with a small publisher myself. It’s an alternative most writers don’t consider, but in this era of upheaval, the small press is a strong choice for writers who don’t feel they have the time or skills to run their own self-publishing business.

Right now, corporate "Big Six" publishing can be a dangerous place for writers. Advances are shrinking, contracts are going draconian, and corporations are acting out their collective fears on unsuspecting debut authors. 

A horrific story emerged this week from a debut author who was “fired” by a Big Six publisher just before her novel’s launch, because she self-epubbed a collection of previously published short stories. She’d intended for the ebook of stories to promote her debut novel, but the corporation doesn't seem to care about motives or results. What they care about is that authors to know their place. Which is under a very big thumb. Big Six authors are currently considered corporate property. They are not allowed to write, publish, or distribute one word—even a word written and published before the book contract—without express permission from their corporate owners.

This author’s editor called and screamed at her and demanded the return of her advance. The book is now being held hostage while she goes through an expensive lawsuit. (And she’s been “muzzled” so she’s not allowed to give us any more information on this.) 

The corporate overlords are trying to destroy an author's budding career because of something she did at her own expense for the purpose of promoting their book. (If you want to help, you can buy the ebook of Kiana Davenport's short stories here.)  

I don’t know where the author’s agent was during all this, but AAR's response to the situation has been less than supportive. It seems some agents are more concerned with pleasing publishers than in  protecting their clients' interests. I’ve read about this phenomenon on more than one blog this week. I suppose it makes sense. Fewer editors are buying fewer titles as bookstores close and print fades, but 1000's of potential clients are still showing up in agents' slush piles every week We are expendable.
So what’s the alternative to this kind of horror, other than self-publishing?

The small press.

Small-to-medium independent presses are an increasingly attractive alternative.

  • Small presses usually price their ebooks more reasonably than the Big Six. (The Kindle version of my new novel FOOD OF LOVE will cost $2.99--shameless plug there--as opposed to $11+ for Big Six ebooks.) This allows new writers to make more sales and establish a fan base.
  • Small presses usually pay higher royalties. They don't often pay advances, but Big Six advances now only average in the four figures. (I heard from agent Laurie McLean this weekend that offers of advances of $1000 are not uncommon these days.)
  • Small presses usually use POD technology. That means book can stay in print for years. Big Six books often are pulled from shelves within weeks if they aren't meeting sales expectations.
There are drawbacks, of course:

  • Small presses ask you to do a lot of your own promotion. But so do the Big Six. In fact, in my experience, small presses actually offer more promotion than big corporations give to non-superstars.
  • It's tough to get small press books into big chain bookstores. But the chains are dying.
  • Small presses come in all shapes and sizes. Lots are in precarious financial health. So do some research and check them out, preferably with one of their authors, before you sign. Run all contracts by a lawyer. Check Writer Beware and other watchdog sites before you query them.
And remember: a struggling young writer named J. K. Rowling, who’d been rejected by all the biggies, was first published by a smallish, independent press.

by Michelle Davidson Argyle

I’ve noticed a trend in the writing world lately. Maybe it’s not even lately. Maybe it has been happening forever, but within my own circles it's popping up everywhere. The trend is to make it big as fast as you possibly can. Right out of the gate. Bam. You’ve got it made. Money, fame, a career where you can write books at your own pleasure and not worry much about anything except enjoying respect and validation that the world will give you.

The reality is, however, that most authors do not make it big right out of the gate. Most authors don’t sell millions or hundreds of thousands of copies of their first book (or second, or third, etc.) Many of them don’t even sell thousands. Some not even hundreds. As sad as that is, it’s a fact. Some of my favorite authors have been around for over ten years, and most of them have a huge backlist of books. Get this. Most of them started out small. Their debut novel was not a smashing success according to industry standards. They simply sold well enough to keep writing books and eventually they became more well-known and widely-read. They climbed that ladder nice and slow. They were patient.

The Hook

When you’re an author and you start to look at the publishing world, something changes inside you…like a seductive man or woman eyeing you from across the room, it reels you in. You want to be published. You want it so badly you’ll do anything to get it, and just like that you’re hooked. You dream about it. Eat it. Drink it. For some authors it kind of consumes everything they do. They start molding their books to specific boxes so they can sell easier, bigger, faster. Authors might not mold their books on purpose; they do it because it’s nailed into their heads that if you don’t write X, Y, or Z and you don’t write them a certain way you might as well kiss Big-6 Bestseller Huge-Career Publishing goodbye. So many authors stand up and start twirling around the room with that hot love affair and they don’t look back. They start writing for the wrong reasons—and like any hot love affair it is all-consuming.

Ok, so maybe that’s not you and you write what you want how you want it. There are alternatives to big publishing. Or you can get lucky and someone big takes a chance on you and your work. Maybe what you write just happens to fall into the nice little box the big guys want. Yay!

The Alternatives?

So there are alternatives! There is self-publishing and small presses. Those are hot-ticket items, too, right? We’ve seen small guys go big this way. You can, too. You don’t have to waste years of your life querying agents and piling up hundreds of rejections. Wow, an easier way into the career you want. Sounds pretty great, huh? Just skip the gatekeeper and do it yourself or find a small press. Right?

I’m here to tell you I’ve done both. I haven’t gone the Big Route yet into the huge publishing arena, but like I talked about above, I’m starting small and I’m exercising my patience in this career that I’ve been working toward since I was ten years old. Last year in 2010 I self-published my fairy-tale themed novella, Cinders, about Cinderella after she gets married. It is a tight, dark literary piece that I knew would not sell big. It was small and didn’t fit anywhere. In fact, I wrote it to self-publish it because I wanted to learn all about that arena. So glad I did. Through some twists and turns it landed me with my current publisher, Rhemalda Publishing—a place where I am valued and I’m extremely happy because of it.

So I’ve found a good spot for me, but let me tell you that I haven’t avoided the hot love affair of publishing. I want you to know that it exists no matter which route you take.

No author can avoid the politics, the stress, the nightmare, the beauty and excitement of publishing a book. It really is an intense, amazing process no matter which route you go. It’s personal. It will probably change your life and it’s up to you to decide if you want it to turn into more than a quick affair or if you’re in it for the long haul.

The Illusion

I think the most frustrating thing I’ve seen happen in the publishing world is new, young writers looking at authors who have “made it” and not seeing how hard it was for them to get there. It’s an illusion that they made it big out of the gate.

Some other illusions I’ve seen are:

(1) Self-publishing is easier.

If you think starting your own business and making it succeed in a timely manner (while also riding an insane rollercoaster of emotions) is easy, you’re deluding yourself. Sure, it can be easy if you don’t put much into it. Good luck succeeding that way. Self-publishing is just as hard as traditionally publishing, if not harder to succeed. It might feel faster and easier, but in the long run it is not. Everything is just spread out differently.

(2) Publishing with a small press is settling for less.

Actually, publishing with a reputable small press can be a very smart move. As my friend who introduced me to Rhemalda Publishing told me – “A small press can be a really great way to get your feet wet.”

I was impressed that Tinkers, a novella, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Guess what? Tinkers was published by a small press. When I heard that I started thinking about small presses in a different light. All of a sudden they became a little more elite in my mind. Cool. Indie. Smart. And a really great place to start my career.

I happen to write things that don’t fit into any box. They might look like they fit into a box when you see them marketed, but when you read them you see quite quickly that they are in some world just off the mark of anything you’d expect. Quite a challenge to find an agent let alone a publisher for that kind of work. Small press? That’s another story. They fill all those gaps the bigger publishers leave wide open. The gaps where I usually find my favorite type of literature.

Publishing with a small press isn’t settling; it’s simply one step in a ladder going up. I plan to stay with my publisher for many years down the road as I gain more readership and release more books.

The best thing? With a small press you can have a lot more control and say over your work. Less sales? Less money? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Less happiness in your career? No way.

In the end it all depends on what you want as an author. Don’t kid yourself thinking there’s only one way to publish or that any path is easier than another. And don’t jump into that hot love affair with your eyes closed. It’s a wild ride and one that could end really ugly if you don’t research, gain a great amount of patience, and work hard every single day. Luck only happens to those who put themselves in its path.


Michelle Davidson Argyle graduated from Utah Valley University with a BA in English/Creative Writing in the winter of 2002. To date, she has completed five novels, and has published several short stories and the novella Cinders. With her two fellow members of the Literary Lab, she has edited two anthologies, Genre Wars and Notes from Underground. Her novel, Monarch, a contemporary thriller, was released by Rhemalda Publishing this week.

What about you, fellow scriveners? Are you still holding out for the overnight-success, hot Big-Six affair? Have you considered the alternative of a small press? Are you less likely to read a book published by a smaller press than one with a corporate logo?


Next week, on Sept 25th, Ruth Harris will bring us some inspiration from a writing superstar—the man who was chosen to step into the shoes of mystery writing icon, Robert B. Parker. Michael Brandman is the television and film producer who, along with Tom Selleck, wrote and produced Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone movies for CBS. Production was recently completed on an eighth Jesse Stone CBS movie, BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. After Mr. Parker's death, Michael, who had a long association with the author, wrote a new Jesse Stone novel, KILLING THE BLUES, which debuts with Putnam this month.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

14 Do's and Don'ts for Introducing Your Protagonist

I’ll be teaching at California's Central Coast Writers Conference on September 16th-18th  (Yes, there’s still time to sign up!) One of my workshops will be on “Introducing the Protagonist,” so I thought I’d give a little preview here. This is a new! Improved! version of my post “12 Dos and Don’ts for Introducing Your Protagonist” from last year.

Suzannah at Write it Sideways gave that post new life last week by listing it as one of her 101 Best Fiction Writing Tips on the Web. (Thanks Suzannah, for putting THREE of my posts on the top 101 list!)

Introducing your protagonist to your reader may be the single trickiest job for a novelist. You have to let readers get to know your character in a very short time--then entice us go on a journey with this person into a brand new world. If you tell us too much, you’ll bore us, but if you tell us too little, you’ll confuse us.

Remember these are just guidelines. Opinions about what works in an opener can be very subjective. Just last week I had an agent ask me to lop off the first third of a book before she’d consider representation—and on the same day the same opener won first place—and a request for a full ms. read—in a contest judged by an acquisitions editor at fairly big publishing house

No. I didn’t take either offer. More on that soon. Stay tuned to this blog.

But this week an editor suggested I add a new first chapter to another book--which gave me a wonderful "aha" moment. For me, that was the perfect solution to an opener several beta readers had found difficult. We’re always told to start a book “in media res”—but there’s such a thing as starting in the middle of too many things. I was hitting readers with too much at once. And that can confuse and bore at the same time.

Writing the perfect opener is a balancing act. Not for the faint-hearted.

Thing is--when you’re first diving into a novel, you’re not introducing your characters to readers; you’re introducing them to yourself.

All kinds of information about your MC will come up. Maybe she lives in a noisy apartment building. Or her mom is a gung-ho Amway dealer. Or her next door neighbor is recuperating from a terrible accident. Or she feels a deep hatred for Smurfs. This stuff will spill out in your first chapters. Let it. That’s the fun part.

But be aware you’ll want to cut most of the information or move it to another part of the book when you edit, if you’re writing for publication.

It helps to remember this formula: first drafts are for the writer; revisions are for the reader.

Even if you’re not going the agent/publisher route, you need to keep your reader in mind. Self-publishers are judged, too, and reviewers and readers can be snarkier than any agent.

Here are some do’s and don’ts that should help in the revision process.

1) DON’T start with a Robinson Crusoe opening
. That’s when your character is alone and musing. Robinson Crusoe is boring until Friday shows up. So don’t snoozify the reader with a character:

  • driving alone in a car
  • sitting on an airplane
  • waking up and getting ready for the day
  • out on her morning jog
  • looking in the mirror

Especially looking in the mirror. It’s not wrong, but it’s a seriously overdone cliché.

2) DO open with the protagonist in a scene with other characters
—showing how he interacts with the world. Two or three is ideal: not too many or the reader will be overwhelmed.

3) DON’T give a lot of physical description, especially of the police report variety. All we know about Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice is that she has “fine eyes.” We don’t have to be told the color of Sam Spade’s hair, or Inspector Morse’s weight. The reader’s imagination fills in the blanks.

4) DO give us a few unusual physical markers that indicate personality. Interesting characteristics like Nero Wolfe’s size, Hercule Poirot’s mustache, and Miss Marple’s age show who these characters are and make them memorable. But if all you say is they have green eyes and curly red hair—you’ve only told us they’re identical to the MCs of 90% of all YA novels, according to one agent. We don’t need to know the hair/eye thing unless it's important to the story—like Anne of Green Gables hating her hair and dying it green.

5) Don’t present your MC as a flawless Mary Sue. A Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) is the author’s idealized fantasy self—an ordinary person who always saves the day and is inexplicably the object of everyone’s affection. A Mary Sue will make your whole story phony, because a too-perfect character isn’t believable (and is seriously annoying.).

6) DO give your MC strong emotions we can identify with in the opening scene. We don’t have to identify with the situation, but with the emotion: If the character is furious because his roommate keeps watching that DVD of the Smurfs—even if you’ve never heard of a Smurf, you’ll identify with the anger, because everybody’s been angry.

7) DON’T start with a POV character about to be killed or otherwise eliminated from the storyline. (Ditto DREAMS, or putting the MC in a play or videogame.) If you get us intrigued and then say “never mind”, the reader will feel his time and sympathy have been wasted.

8) DO introduce the MC as close to page one as possible. Don’t waste time on weather reports or long descriptions of setting. (I did note in the thread last week that a large number of you are extremely fond of weather reports, but make sure you’re doing something emotional and original with them.)

Remember that modern readers want to jump into the story and get emotionally involved. Also, a modern reader doesn’t need the kind of long descriptions of far-off lands that Victorians loved.  Even if we’ve never been there, we all know what London, or the Alps, or rain forests look like because we’ve seen them in films and on TV. 

9) Don't start with a prologue.                   

Don't take my word for it. Listen to the experts:

From former agent Colleen Lindsay:
“In pages that accompany queries, I have only once found an attached prologue to be necessary to the story.” 

From agent Jenny Bent:
 At least 50% of prologues that I see in sample material don't work and aren't necessary. Make sure there's a real reason to use one.” 

From agent Ginger Clark:
Prologues: I am, personally, not a fan. I think they either give away too much, or ramp up tension in a kind of "cheating" manner.”

From agent Andrea Brown::
 “Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.” 

From agent Laurie McLean:
 “Prologues are usually a lazy way to give backstory chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”

Even usually ultra-tactful publishing guru Nathan Bransford says:
 “A prologue is 3-5 pages of introductory material that is written while the author is procrastinating from writing a more difficult section of the book.”


I know you’re all wailing. But try removing the prologue. Read chapter one. Does it make sense? Could you dribble in that backstory from the prologue into the story later—while the actual plot is going on?

A prologue is like a first draft—it’s for the writer, not the reader. It isn’t the overture: it’s the tuning-up. Like a character sketch, a prologue usually belongs in your book journal—not the finished project.

Go ahead and write one to get your writing juices flowing. Use it to get to know your book’s basic elements. It can be mined later for character sketches, backstory and world building, but try to cut it in your final revision.

10) DO put the MC in a place and time right away.  If the MC is thinking or talking to someone—where is he? As I said, we don’t want a long description of the scenery or the weather, but do give us a few sensory details and let us know what planet we’re on.

11) DON’T start with dialogue. Readers want to know who’s speaking before they’ll pay much attention to what they say. It’s just like real life: if strangers are shouting in the hallway, it’s noise. If you recognize the shouters as your boss and the hooker from 12B—you’re all ears

12) DO dribble in your MC’s backstory in thoughts, conversations and mini-flashbacks—AFTER you’ve got us hooked by your MC and her story.

13) DON’T plunge into action before introducing the characters. The introductions can be minimal, but they have to make us feel connected enough to these people to care

Example: If you hear some stranger got hit by a car—it’s sad, but you don’t have much curiosity about it. If you hear your neighbor got hit by a car, you want to know when, where, how badly she’s injured, etc.

14) DO give your MC a goal. All characters need goals in each scene. But the protagonist needs a compelling, over-arching goal for the whole book. He can’t be easily satisfied. He must want something very badly. This especially important for memoir writers: “I was born and then some stuff happened and I met some people and then I had a catastrophe but I pulled myself out of my misery and now I love life and God and multilevel marketing”—is not going to keep readers turning the pages.

A novel or memoir needs to be about one big thing, and the character has to have one big goal. Too many goals? You may have a series. That’s good, too.

So what about you, scriveners? What do you want to read about a character first off? What makes you want to go on a journey with this character? What do you find difficult about introducing a character?

Exciting things coming up on the blog. Next week, when I’m at the CC Writers Conference, we’ll have a guest post from the wonderful Michelle Davidson Argyle, one-third of the Literary Lab triumvirate and author of the novella CINDERS and the new thriller, MONARCH, which debuts this week. She’ll give us the skinny on the small publisher alternative. It’s an increasingly attractive route for writers who don’t want to get squashed in the Big Six machine and don’t want to spend the time and upfront cash it takes to be a self-publisher.

The following week, on Sept 25th, Ruth Harris will bring us some inspiration from a writing superstar—the man who was chosen to step into the shoes of mystery writing icon, Robert B. Parker. Michael Brandman is the television and film producer who, along with Tom Selleck, wrote and produced Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone movies for CBS. Production was recently completed on an eighth Jesse Stone CBS movie, BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. After Mr. Parker's death, Michael, who had a long association with the author, wrote a new Jesse Stone novel, KILLING THE BLUES, which debuts with Putnam this month.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Agent Jenny Bent Says the Ebook is the New Query

I don't usually post mid-week, but I had to share this quote from agent Jenny Bent's blog, Bent on Books today.

"Unpublished authors, do you have a great book but can't find an agent? There's no excuse not to get that book out there independently and prove to yourself and to the world that there is an audience for your writing." --Agent Jenny Bent

So when I said the ebook is the new query last May, I guess my crystal ball was working pretty well.

But don't just jump in without a lot of prep. For some words to the wise on the subject, read  Meghan Ward's blog, Writerland, today. She tells you how to be a successful ebook publisher.  It involves having INVENTORY.

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

13 Ways Not to Start a Novel

by Anne R. Allen

Starting the first chapter of a new novel is usually pretty easy for me. My muse has uploaded a shiny new story into my head and I’m all revved and ready to go, so I get those words down as fast as I can. (Then I usually bog down around page 100, but that’s another post…)

But all that first draft scribbling usually doesn’t have much to do with the final product. When we’re first diving into a novel, we’re not thinking about our readers; we’re telling the story to ourselves. All kinds of information will come up, but be aware you’ll want to cut most of it or move it to another part of the book when you edit.

And when it comes to that editing—the first chapter presents your biggest challenge. I’ve often spent more time on a first chapter than the entire remainder of the book.

On that first page, we have only a few lines to grab the reader and keep her from putting the book back on the shelf. We have to present an exciting hook and fascinating characters that will suck readers in immediately—but not overwhelm them with too much information.

We also want to promise something unique—not the same/old same/old they’ve got on the shelf at home.

But when we start writing fiction or memoir, some of the ideas that come most readily have unfortunately come readily to a whole lot of writers before us, so they’ve become clichés.

On top of that, the contemporary writer has an added problem. Because we’ve almost all grown up with television, we have the screenplay or teleplay format hardwired to our brains. But novelists have no cameras or music to convey emotions; no close-ups of a character’s face to show internal conflict. A lot of openings that would be brilliant in a movie are snoozerific on the page.

This stuff is on my mind because I have been working on manuscript evaluations for the Central Coast Writers Conference on September 16th-18th  (Yes, there’s still time to sign up! More info on tech day with Agent Laurie McLean and Smashwords founder Mark Coker here

As I’ve been reading first pages, I’ve been seeing openings that aren’t terrible, but aren’t grabbers, either. This is usually because they’re overdone or they’re copied from another medium where they work better.

Here are a few openings to avoid::
1)     Weather reports: the famous opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night” may keep contemporary audiences aware of Lord Bulwer-Lytton’s otherwise forgettable 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, but not in a good way.

Opening with meteorological events isn’t only a problem with people who’ve read too much Victorian literature. Our television-saturated brains tend to think in terms of the “establishing shot” of a screenplay. But a novel needs more than pictures to connect with the reader. It needs human emotion.  

2)     Morning wake-ups: showing your character waking up or getting ready for work/school hits the snooze button for readers. In a movie or TV show, you can show one character getting ready for work and it’s interesting. In the cable TV series, Dexter, the serial killer/protagonist's morning ablutions open every episode. But in a book, where you couldn't have the creepy-comic music and double-entendre blood orange shots, the same scene would bore us silly.

3)     Dreams: some people call this the “Dallas” opening, because of the TV soap that got written into such a corner the writers had to pretend a whole season was “just a dream.” Writers sometimes try to hook readers by opening with a scene of surreal horror—but if it all turns out to be a dream or a videogame on page three, the reader feels tricked.

4)     The death of the protagonist: This is apparently very, very big with the paranormal/horror crowd. If your MC is a zombie, vampire, or other member of the undead community, think of something else. This has been done, um, to death.

5)     Trains, planes and automobiles: if your character is en route and musing about where he’s been and where he’s going, you’re not into your story yet. Jump ahead to where the story really starts.

6)     Funerals: Slush readers say a huge number of manuscripts—especially memoirs—start with the protagonist in a state of bereavement. But most readers aren’t eager to embark on a literary journey with a miserable MC.

7)     “If I’d known then what I know now…” starting with the conditional perfect may seem clever to you, but unfortunately it does to a lot of other writers, too. This is cliché territory—don’t go there.

8)     Personal introductions: starting with “my name is…” has been way overdone, especially in YA. Again, not a bad idea, but too many people thought of it first.

9)     Minor characters speaking or thinking. The story-telling old man, the child—any detached observer telling the tale will only distance the reader. Whoever/whatever we meet first becomes foremost in our minds, and readers will want to go back to that character. Make the first person you meet an important member of the cast, not a spear-carrier.

10) Reader-Feeder dialogue, also known as “As you Know, Bob.”

“I must retrieve the elusive magical jewelry item,” says Bob. “Without it, I cannot access my rightful powers—and my evil Uncle Murray will usurp my domain.”

“But as you know, Bob,” says Sidekick. “The magical jewelry item is in the hands of the four skanky queens of the Bingo Borogroves and guarded by the Dire Dragoons of Doom. We will be risking our very lives.”

Sidekick is not saying this for Bob’s benefit. He’s saying it for ours. Conversational info-dumps are never a good idea.

11) Group activities: don’t overwhelm your reader with too many characters right off the bat. It’s like meeting a bunch of people at a cocktail party: you don’t remember anybody’s name if you hear too many at once.

12) Internal monologue: Musing is boring. Especially reader-feeder musing. “Back when I was younger, I would have slain the dragoons with my magic sword, but when my parents were killed in that chariot crash on the way to get Borogrovian take-out, and my Uncle Murray had me locked up in the Dark Tower of Doom, the skanky queens stole my magic sword and melted it down to make a necklace and a pair of matching earrings…” We don’t need to know this all on the first page. Bring in backstory later.

13) Too much action: Writing gurus keep telling us to start with action, action, action, but this isn’t actually such good advice. We need to be emotionally engaged with a character before we care how many dragoons of doom he slays.


What about you, scriveners? What openings press your snooze button? What scenes do you see overused in your genre? Is there any opening that automatically makes you put the book back on the shelf?

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