The Craft of Writing

Posts Tagged ‘how to write a novel’

Tips on How to Increase the Pace of Your Writing

In The Craft of Writing on December 2, 2009 at 9:39 am

As you learn how to write a novel, you’ll find conflict is the key tool used to develop the readers’ interest. Today, I’ll talk about how to accelerate the pace of your words thus increasing the tension within your novel.

The first writing technique to consider is the amount of white space on the page. Imagine a sheet of paper filled with text, one line after the other without breaks. You can visualize how this would overpower to the reader. Think instead of a page loaded with choppy sentences. This creates a great deal of white space to the right and makes the page read faster. Your reader will feel the faster rhythm if for no reason other than the speed they flip the pages.

I alluded to the next tip in the last paragraph. Write in short, choppy sentences. These should be meaningful, of course, but quick lines make for quick reading. Quick reading makes for a fast tempo. Don’t try to break up long paragraphs with short sentences as it’ll come off as just that, poor paragraph structure. Each line, short or otherwise, must stand on its own. Fragmentary sentences also work well to increase the speed of reading. The judicious use of them can be quite effective. In those nail-biting situations you create, fragments will increase the excitement. Always. Every time. As here. I urge caution, however, for overuse of fragments can get out of control if you’re not careful.

Use shorter words to increase the tempo of your story. Anything that slows your reader will slow the pace of your scene. For example, must you use the word, “unsympathetically?” These six syllables read slower than its synonym, “cruelly,” which has only two.

Be cautious of argot your middling might not twig. That is to say don’t use terminology your average reader might not understand. When you force them to take their mind off the story and focus on individual words, their reading slows in dramatic fashion.

Use strong, specific verbs and nouns. (How many times have we heard this one?) Consider someone who dreams in nightmares in contrast to someone who is haunted by nightmares. I think you can see the power in the word, “haunted” when compared to, “dreams.” As to verbs, consider the difference between someone who “falls” to someone who “collapses”. “Collapse” is a much stronger verb, assuming it fits the scene, as it implies a more precise action. This precision with your words is what you seek.

Don’t retell information. Just get to it. Your reader already knows what happened in prior chapters. To loop back to an earlier point in your story will simply slow things.

Use active voice. “He was going to fight it out,” reads slower and with less strength than, “He determined to fight it out.” You may wish to read my earlier post on the verb, “to be.”

Look to the pace of your novel and your audience will find it a more interesting read. Might you have any tips to share?

As always, I wish you best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Character Types in Fiction – Part 2

In The Craft of Writing on November 20, 2009 at 9:11 am

In my most recent post I introduced two types of characters, The Hero, (protagonist), and the Mentor, (Wizard, Wise Old Man / Wise Old Woman). Today, we’ll continue in the same vein and introduce additional character types for your novels.

Next in line of our universal characters is the Threshold Guardian.

As we know, our protagonist must traverse many obstacles while on his quest and in many instances some of those hurdles are watched over by Threshold Guardians. Its goal is to keep the unworthy from entering. The common placement of the Guardian, as you might expect, is as a gatekeeper, most often for the Big Enchilada. It is not necessary for these people to have an evil demeanor and attitude, but most authors seem to portray them in that light. In unusual circumstances they can even be secret helpers to your hero.

These sentinels can take most any form you wish. They can be fierce creatures ready to devour your hero or something as nonthreatening as a child who withholds a secret. When your hero encounters the various kinds of guardians, they can be overcome, bypassed or even turned into allies. They represent the hero’s inner demons or serve as training for more difficult tasks he has yet to face.

How is your hero supposed to deal with these impediments? The answer lies in the guardian’s unique nature or personality. Your protagonist must find a way to get under the beast’s skin. In some instances, they do so literally, as when Sam and Frodo dressed like the Eye’s warriors to traverse the badlands. With luck, your hero may simply ignore or bypass him. In most stories, however, the Threshold Guardian must be fought, bribed, educated, turned, appeased, convinced or killed.

Despite the looks of it, a Threshold Guardian is often a positive thing to your hero. After all, doesn’t he warn everyone the Big Bad Wolf is near? They can also help your hero in another fashion for as they test the good guy, your hero grows in strength and knowledge. The good guy might even pick up a weapon or two.

Our next key character is The Herald.

In studying how to write a book, you’ll find this guy brings two things to your hero. The first is an announcement of major change your hero is about to face. The other is motivation.

In the early telling of the typical story, the hero muddles through his life by way of current knowledge or dumb luck. All of a sudden, some new problem crops up that is beyond his skills and he can no longer get by on his own. This new imbalance, called The Call to Adventure, is delivered by none other than The Herald. This guy gets your hero’s great quest moving along.

Herald’s represent coming change. In “Star Wars – A New Hope,” who is The Herald? Who is it that brings Luke Skywalker an announcement of some great change that gets the story moving forward? It’s R2D2. He is the character that shows Luke the message from the princess, thus announcing the coming transformation in Luke’s life. Remember how Luke gets excited by the message? There’s his motivation.

What form does The Herald take? Like every character in your story, it takes whatever shape you wish. It can be a person, a note, a feeling, a telegraph, an animal. It matters not. Just know as you learn how to write a story, a herald is necessary.

As with every character in your story, The Herald may be good, evil or neutral. In most stories, The Herald is brought in early to get your hero moving toward his quest, but his appearance depends on when and how you decide to have your hero’s quest started.

Now for one of my favorite characters, The Shapeshifter.

This powerful archetype is shifty, two-faced. You see him for the first time and he’s helping. Yet, the next time you cross his path he’s trying to destroy you. (Every see this type in real life?) The classic example of The Shapeshifter is found in the opposite sex, though this in not necessary.

The function of this creature is to confuse the hero and the reader. It is the bringer of doubt and the propagator of confusion. In our earlier example of “Star Wars,” a Shapeshifter is Lando Calrissian. Remember him? The boos on the cloud mining operation, he first comes out to meet Han Solo with a grimace and a complaint. He then hugs him, betrays him, then saves Solo and finally joined the Rebellion and is given the rank of general for the climactic battle scene. Boy does this guy alter his appearance – four times. He kept you guessing throughout most of the movie.

Shapeshifters may change in any way imaginable. They may alter their personality, form, allegiance, or just their clothes. Regardless, all these changes bring uncertainty and apprehension to your hero and your readers. Consider if you will, the Wicked Witch in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” She shifted from a queen, to a witch, to a dragon to a pile of ash as we progressed through that story. Wow!

Next comes The Shadow.

This guy is often your villain, though he need not be so. The Shadow represents your hero’s doubt. This character might not be a character at all, but a force, of sorts, that rises and falls within any or all characters as needed in your novel. It can shift from character to character but always plays the same role – one of slipping out of normalcy and into doubt.

Remember in the hobbit story when Frodo is about to drop the ring into the eternal fires of Mount Doom? He hesitates. He considers the power his is relinquishing and doubts if he can or even should toss the ring into oblivion. In that same series, doubt rears its ugly head in the good guys at the time when the Eye’s multitudes surround the king and his meager band of warriors just prior to the Eye’s ultimate end. If you remember, as soon as those massive gates open and the good guys see the number of bad guys they face, the good guys shy back a step, brows high and eyes wide in doubt.

Can The Shadow also be a formal character? Sure, and in fact he often is. In the movie, “Independence Day,” the president fires one of his advisors, (can’t remember his name), and the other characters as well as the viewing crowd almost cheer. Doubt has been erased and the president has risen to the role of confident hero in that instant. (Fanfare here.)

Shadows need not be of absolute evil. In fact, a secret to creating Shadows is they often make better characters if they hold some element of goodness. Think of a villain who, just as the hero is about to slay him, exhibits some level of goodness as with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In this case, we see evil incarnate surrounded by a very real, and good person.

The Shadow may be internal or external. External Shadows are easy to spot, the Emperor in “Star Wars,” for example. Internal Shadows may be more difficult to visualize but you need only to look to Darth Vader to view internal shadow. After all, this once good, then evil creature turns against his puppet master to save Luke and transforms into something good again. (In this case, the Shadow is also a Shapeshifter.)

Our final character is The Trickster.

The typical Trickster is the comical sidekick. They are utilized to bring your hero down to earth, often by way of comic relief. They also like to stir up trouble for no reason other than to do so. They are what’s called “catalyst characters.” They that change others, but rarely change themselves.

Without them, the conflict in your story may lead to reader exhaustion. An old saw in drama tells us to “Make ‘em cry a lot; let ‘em laugh a little.” This “laugh a little” is the job of your Trickster. Tricksters can be cohorts of the hero, as with Giordano in “Sahara”, or may even be the villain. They also might not be related to either of them.

One of my favorites is the aforementioned Giordano. The hero is given a coin minted in limited quantity by the Confederate Government. He’s all excited about the implications of his find. Giordano’s response? “My father has a coin collection.” Giordano’s meaning, of course, is that coins travel the world all by themselves and the hero needs to get his head on straight as to the significance of this single coin he’s found.

A variation of the Trickster is the Trickster Hero. In fact, our very same Giordano is such a character. Not only does her provide the comic relief, but he is also a minor hero in his own right. He is, after all, the guy who finds and dismantles the bomb, is he not?

Well, there you have it, an outline of the various and interesting characters with which you may populate your novels. If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

In the mean time, I wish you all best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Character Types in Fiction

In The Craft of Writing on November 19, 2009 at 10:01 am

As we travel together down the road of how to write a novel, I’ve talked about the steps your protagonist must take while on his journey through your novel. Today I’m going to introduce you to those various characters he’ll meet along the way.  In this post, we’ll meet the Hero and the Mentor. Soon, we’ll meet many more.

Before we meet these all-important and archetypal helpers, hinderers and others, let’s review who it is these many creatures represent. I like to think of them as the assorted types of people I meet in real life. When I populate my manuscripts with characters, I infuse them with human characteristics, typically from people I’ve met, know or know of. After all, the best stories are little more than metaphors for the human condition, are they not? This idea works for creatures, too. Regardless the species of your characters, they will assume human qualities.

Consider your novel’s champion, or protagonist, for example. He lives, struggles, overcomes, succumbs, grows, learns and maybe even dies. He loves, he hates, he suffers, he surpasses and so on. These are all aspects of the human condition, so it’s quite obvious your characters will exhibit the qualities of existent humans.

These guys to whom I’ll introduce you are universal. They can be employed in whatever genre you write. In a war story, is there a hero? Yep. How about a love story? It’s the same. What if you wish to write about talking birds? You’ll have the same characters in there somewhere.

Armed with that knowledge, let’s introduce the major character types in fiction.

First, and of most importance, is The Hero.

In my research for this article I learned the word, “hero” is Greek in origin and means “one who protects or one who serves.” Think of him as a shepherd of sorts, someone who will sacrifice for the good of his flock. This concept of sacrificing one’s self is at the heart of the hero’s meaning.

It is his fate to leave the comfortable confines of his world and venture into the place where he is, in effect, lost. He, like us, must learn to cope, to grow and to overcome. During his journey, he will face tests, meet teachers and guides, come across those who wish him harm and maybe even meet his love. Hum… sounds sort of like our own lives, doesn’t it? (Do you see a secret to writing a successful novel in that last sentence?)

His purpose in your story is to give your readers a window into not only the story, but life itself. You must find a way to make your protagonist relate to as many potential readers as possible. This is done by instilling in your hero those universal characteristics that your readers will appreciate. That is, qualities we find within ourselves.

Think about some of those universal aspects of the human animal and give those qualities to your hero. You can consider among others, fear, revenge, love, lust, patriotism, desperation, freedom, survival, understanding or idealism. If you can convey these qualities into your hero, the reader will have an easier time identifying with him. This is one of the many secrets to having your manuscript accepted. If you notice, I mention some unsavory qualities, too. Yes, give your hero some of those. Not too many, mind you, but an interesting flaw or two will humanize your hero. Are real life heroes perfect? Neither are your novel based ones.

Keep in mind your hero may be a willing accomplice to his fate or not. It’s unimportant as to his enthusiasm for his quest. Also remember these ideas apply regardless the form your hero takes, be it animal, alien, or even a vegetable.

Another aspect to his fate is action. This does not need be explosive in nature, but rather in the aspect the hero is in control of his personal fate.

The most terrifying scene for your hero is his coming face-to-face with Death. It can be in a metaphorical sense, but he must fact the greatest of losses in your climactic scene. In this part of your novel, your protagonist must present his truly heroic side by willingly sacrificing himself for the good of others if needs be.

Our next character is the ever-popular Mentor.

This character goes by many names and among them is the Wise Old Man or Wizard. He is usually a positive figure, though he need not be so. The archetype is of a lesser hero, if you will. In simple terms, he’s a guide for your premier character.

He represents the best person within us all. He insures the hero is made aware of right from wrong and is provided with all the necessary knowledge or skills to complete his quest. He is a gift-giver of sorts. Think of the Fairy-Godmother in “Cinderella” or Merlin in “King Arthur.”

His main purpose lies in teaching. Your hero comes into this new world of his without many, if not most, of the skills he’ll need to complete his quest. It matters not if he is to drive a silver stake into the heart of Dracula or if she is to find a new love. Regardless the journey, the hero lacks something and the Mentor is there to take care of that nasty little inconvenience.

There is typically a catch involved with these wonderful gifts the Mentor offers. And that is they should be earned by your hero. Think of Snow White in her fairy tale. Who later comes to her aid? All the creatures of the forest do. And why do they do this for her? It’s because Snow White showed them kindness earlier in the tale.

The Mentor can have other functions, too. He might act as conscience to your hero. Might your hero rebel against this conscience? Uh, do real people? The Mentor may also serve to motivate him or even introduce him to the physical pleasures of love. (Now we see why this guy is so popular!)

There are many types of Mentors. He may be what’s called a Dark Mentor, where the good qualities of the human being are turned inside out. Think Joan Wilder’s agent in “Romancing the Stone.” At some point, Joan’s agent turns against advising Joan to succeed and begins to plant doubts in Joan Wilder’s mind. This type of Mentor can be interesting as they typically change from a force of good to one of doubt. They can also be presented as first a bringer of doubt and later transform into a source of power.

There are Fallen Mentors like Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own.” There are Continuing Mentors, those that carry over into sequels, such as “M” in the James Bond series. There can be Multiple Mentors. Think Obi Wan and Yoda in “Star Wars.” However, if you use Multiple Mentors, insure one is premier while the multiples are minor in comparison, bringing lesser gifts.

This list of Mentor types goes on and on, but they all serve the same purpose. They teach and are givers of gifts. These guys bring inspiration, guidance, training, weapons, hope and all the other tools your hero requires. Without them in your story, at least at an emotional or mental level, your story will be incomplete.

As to placement of Mentors in your manuscript, they show up when they are needed to insure your story moves forward.

In my next post about how to write a book, which may be tomorrow or Monday, I’ll introduce you to other characters such as the Shapeshifter, Threshold Guardians, Heralds, Tricksters and Shadows. Sounds exciting.

Hum… this may turn into a three part post. We’ll see.

Until we meet again, may all your books be best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Historical Dialogue in Fiction

In The Craft of Writing on November 10, 2009 at 8:15 am

A recent post on this blog concerned the technique of bringing forth language from an earlier time and making it understandable and enjoyable for contemporary book lovers. I sat in the audience of a panel recently and the talented author Susann Cokal gave me the secret I’d been seeking. She said, and I paraphrase, to use modern terminology in your historical novels, but present it with the flow of the language from the time in which you write. Susann Cokal writes medieval historical fiction and her example was something of this nature; “Forsooth, verily I am smote!” (“Rats! I’m dying.”) Again, I rephrase, but I’m certain you understand the point. In the meantime, I’ve come to the personal conclusion if a writer also inserts the occasional word from his era of choice, his dialogue will ring true and be enjoyable to read.

As an aspiring author who writes historical fiction, I also read in that same genre. At this time, I’m reading “Shadows and Strongholds” by Elizabeth Chadwick. (@chadwickauthor on Twitter.com) As I read this interesting and entertaining novel, I’ve run across what I think are perfect examples of what Susann Cokal was trying to exemplify. In “Shadows and Strongholds,” a monk has just rescued a boy from other youthful evildoers. In this scene, Elizabeth Chadwick wrote the following dialogue from the monk to the rescued boy:

“If you are not a foundling, which I judge not by the cut of your tunic, someone will be looking for you.”

Let’s take a look at that sentence in a bit more detail. If you note the words Elizabeth Chadwick uses, each of them you might use today on a daily basis, save maybe, “tunic” or “foundling.” Who among us would ever use the word, “foundling?” (Not many, at least if you wish to survive junior high.) Yet, when Elizabeth Chadwick employs the word, it feels as though it’s a perfect utterance for the time. There’s that occasional word from the era inserted into her dialogue as I mentioned earlier.

Looking to the center phrase, would you ever say, “which I judge not by the cut of your tunic?” I suspect not. However, it melds well with your impression of medieval speech patterns, doesn’t it? It sounds like something one from that era might intend, if not formally articulate, which is the very point I’m trying to make.

Consider the final phrase in the sentence, “someone will be looking for you.” I can hear those words coming from the mouth of any modern adult with an child they don’t know in their presence. Can’t you? With ease, Elizabeth Chadwick has taken hold of the thoughts of any adult throughout history and made them work for her readers and her storytelling. You’ll also note there is neither a single apostrophe nor any of the wild contractions writers often use to simulate historical dialogue. Her writing is meaningful to the modern reader, but she’s not lost the story’s medieval tone.

Another example of dialogue I appreciated in “Shadows and Strongholds, follows. FitzWarin, the father of the aforementioned boy, is speaking to one his underlings.

“A moment is all it takes.” FitzWarin made a terse gesture with his clenched fist. “I have no time for this now; I’ll deal with you later. For the nonce, we had better find my son.”

Here, Elizabeth Chadwick speaks in the fashion any irate father today might speak when looking for a child he knows is not really lost, but only misplaced. The one exception is the word, “nonce,” though its meaning is clear by its use. Here again are modern words, punctuated by a single medieval term, with the lilt of a fourteenth century speaker. What she has done to bring her dialogue into our time was to alter the phraseology.

By studying how Elizabeth Chadwick incorporates past times into her historical conversations, we see how to give our dialogue life while still having it appeal to the contemporary reader.

So, kind readers, the task of creating captivating dialogue in your historical fiction novels is not as mysterious or onerous as you might think. It does take a bit of practice, but the mixing of a past parlance with a modern manner of speaking is not such a daunting task. Learn from the successful and you’ll do well.

I wish you all success and best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

The Hidden Secret to Dialogue

In The Craft of Writing on November 2, 2009 at 7:50 am

Dialogue may be one of the toughest lessons a successful writer must learn and is often the difference between a novel and a best-selling novel. How then, does one go about mastering written dialogue? This week, I’ll take an in-depth look at the subject.

Some say this skill called dialogue cannot be taught. It is an inane quality one has or has not. I disagree. In fact, I feel writing is one of the few arts most can master. Successful writing is another story, but writing, is limited only by ones perseverance.

Dialogue is nothing more than conversation. The trick is how to deliver that conversation within your novel’s setting to make it effective and interesting. Though the individual words an author chooses are of utmost importance, the music within the words makes the characters come alive. In fact, it is a large part of that nebulous “voice” each author must develop.

I’ve struggled with how to explain effective dialogue so I think I’ll simply say it’s the flow, the cadence, or better yet, the music within your words. Look for the lilt, the way the words “fit” together to create a natural flow.

Let’s consider two simple examples. Close your eyes and without rushing, recite these two sentences aloud, one after the other. Do that a few times but don’t listen to the words. Listen for your inflection. Listen to the way one syllable glides toward the next. Listen to the way the words tumble from your mouth and how they form on your lips. Listen to the flow of the words, the music within them.

“What time is it?’”

“What time of day is it?”

I think you’ll find the second sentence to have a much more formal lilting or cadence to it. Though I did not plan it this way, the second reads as if one’s butler might have asked the question.

If you “saw” the way the words in the two sentences worked together and how the sentences differed from each other, you already have the foundation of effective dialogue. Do that same exercise with every word, every sentence, every paragraph and every scene you write and soon it will become second nature.

If you cannot find your own sense of music, I suggest you read books written by authors you appreciate. Read their dialogue as outlined above to find their music. A cadence is in there and you will see it if you work at it. It may not come easily to you, but come it will. Once you’ve found it, read your own work aloud as you look for your own music. And as with all success, you must then practice until it becomes a natural part of the way you write.

This music, once you develop your own, is also  key to creating effective dialogue for different characters. We’ll use the same two sentences as our example with this.

As I mentioned, the second sentence sounded as if one’s butler might have used that terminology. This is a perfect example of how you use dialogue for characterizations. How might a bored teenager ask that same question? How would an engineer or a prostitute? Each character within your novel will have a different music of his own. Your music will be the basis for which to create characters, but the music within their dialogue will make them real to your readers.

Drop a line if you have any questions.

May all your books be best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Authors’ Positioning in the Emerging Publishing Paradigm

In Marketing Your Book on November 1, 2009 at 8:26 am

A a number of aspiring authors have spoken to me relative to their fears concerning the current price wars in the marketplace, and their concerns authors will be the ones to absorb the price reductions spreading over the publishing landscape. If you are fortunate enough to already have an established position in the industry, you’re fine for now, but you still should look to the future and how best to put it to your advantage.

My advice to aspiring authors? Fear not.

Yes, the authors’ landscape is changing in an unprecedented manor, fueled by price wars and technology for the most part. It is these price wars that seem to have everyone in the greatest state of furor.

First, let’s consider the changing publishing topography. In the past, publishers have had domain over three major aspects of the writer’s life. They controlled distribution, payouts and production. Their powers are under dramatic assault by authors with business sense, the Internet and POD. Technology is changing everything in its path.

Let’s focus on authors getting paid. How is that going to happen in the future?

In one word, “eBooks.”

Here’s what I see happening.

Wally World and others are now selling first run, major names well below the wholesale price. For now they are absorbing the financial disparity and using books as a loss leader. So far, so good. But mark my word on this, Wally will soon knock on a publisher’s door and demand, not request, deep discounting at the wholesale level. How is the publisher going to make money? He cuts his expenses or increases his sales. He has already relinquished his hold over marketing to individual authors and so does not control sales. Therefore, the publisher’s only avenue is to cuts expenses. What part of the P&L is going to take that bite? Since he’s already cut marketing expenses, he’ll slash payout to authors. He has little choice but to do so.

What do authors do to protect their paycheck? They sell their books elsewhere. It’s all fundamental action vs. reaction. Everybody in this chain protects their paycheck.

At some point, the publisher starts to lose his best authors and faces the peril of going out of business. In response, he’ll move toward selling via the web where his costs more rationally match his pricing structure. What is it the publisher will sell on the web? EBooks.

In the mean time, the author has had his payouts cut to the bone, so he either stops writing or moves somewhere else. Where does he go to make the most money? EBooks and the Internet.

Why do I say this? Let’s look at two comparatives. Let’s say a publishing house pays you three dollars for each of your books it sells. He soon cuts this to $.50 per book to cover his discounts to Wally. You’re already a self-marketer, and as self-publisher, you might make $2.50 per book sold. Would you rather sell a book for $.50 and do your own marketing or $2.50 and do your own marketing and production? To each his own, of course, but many of the best and brightest among writers will go for the bucks.

So, with the changing paradigm and price wars, an author under contract to a publishing house moves toward eBooks where the publisher can reduce his costs and payout more to attract first rate writers. If he’s self-published, he moves toward eBooks, for cost, marketing and distribution reasons.

Fear not, kind readers, embrace the future and you’ll be fine.

May all your books be best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

12 Ways an Agent Considers Your Query

In Marketing Your Book on October 29, 2009 at 9:55 am

I am not an agent, I’ve never had an agent, nor have I ever personally known an agent. Why then, am I the one to write this article? Well, I’m probably not. Still, I’ve been walking this path for a while now and I have learned to use those senses located around my face. This article is what I’ve learned as I’ve traversed my chosen trail.

An agent is in the business of selling books to publishers. They are business people like every other business person out there. They contend with P&L’s, customers, contacts, inventory control, and all the rest. They are looking for authors, even aspiring authors, for without us they are unemployed.

We, the authors clacking away at our keyboards until the dawn lights the morning sky, are their inventory. It is their job and profession to see their inventory put into the hands of their clients, the publishers. The secret, as with any business, is to choose the correct inventory to sell to the correct client. The query letter is one method they use to locate that inventory.

Though not necessarily presented in the order of their thought processes, this is my understanding of  when they receive your query, how they look at it.

Is the story within one they can sell? If their contacts weigh heavily toward romance publishers, sending a query touting a nonfiction book on the weaknesses in the Theory of Relativity is wasted on them. They may have no background in selling this type of book and they’ll most likely pass.

If they’ve just sold a similar book, they’ll probably not try to do it again as they’ve already pitched their contacts on the storyline.

If the story within is not interesting, they’ll pass. If this is your storyline is dull, overused, out of date, etc., the agent knows none of their contacts will buy the book from them.

If the story within is not unique. If your hero is named Luke and he’s an orphan living on a farm in some far, far away galaxy and he will soon discover he has the power to summon the forces of nature to his aid and… Well, it’s been done. You may have a slight chance if your work has a unique aspect to it, but save yourself the trouble and write a new story.

If your query is not professional in nature, it tells them you are not a professional. These guys are pros, and they want to surround themselves with like-minded individuals. Learn what each agents wishes to receive and give them that.

Their time is valuable and limited. Assuming your query even reaches their desk, you have maybe twenty seconds of their time available to you. If your query starts with, “I am so important to you,” or some such nonsense, you don’t even get the twenty. However, if you start with a good hook that catches their interest, you’ll get the extra ten seconds that previous blowhard squandered.

They look to the quality of your writing. They consider your query a sample of your writing skills and seek those who are well versed in the craft. Why would they try to sell inferior inventory? That is what you are if you have yet to learn how to write.

They do consider your provenance, if you will. Why are you the one to write this work? If you’ve not stepped into a classroom since you quit school in the seventh grade, they will not consider you the best source for recommending how to alter the educational landscape. If you write spy novels but have never seen the thin end of a pair of binoculars, you’ve probably chosen an incorrect genre. Write what you know. No, you need not have a writer’s pedigree, but you do need to exhibit knowledge of your subject matter, be it fiction or nonfiction.

They want to know why you chose them. If you’re querying every agent in the known universe, that’s fine from your perspective, but to them it’s a sure sign of your lack of professionalism. Query them for a reason and tell them why you did.

They do respect the recommendations from within their sphere. Wouldn’t you? They have clients and contacts they trust to know their desires and markets, and a confidant is their most efficient method of finding a new author. Try to get a recommendation. As difficult as that may be, it is your truest path to publication.

They want to know you’re in this as a career. They don’t earn as much money off a single book as they do a number of books. If they have your book published and twenty thousand copies are sold, how man dollars get into their pocket? How much do they earn if they sell twenty of your books at twenty thousand copies per? This is a business for them, even if it is not for you.

This is a subjective business and they will often pass on a manuscript for a reason as simple as it does not “call” to them. Sorry, guys, but life is unfair and so is the publishing world. That is why you query multiple agents.

If your query does not exemplify these qualities, I recommend you keep trying to improve your writing and querying skills.

I’d love for an agent to comment on this as to any errors in my thinking or omission in the list.

Until my next posting, kind readers, may all your books be best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

The Query Letter Made Simple

In General Information, The Craft of Writing, Working with Agents on October 28, 2009 at 9:06 am

I read a tweet the other day that say something like, if you’re overly worried about your query, you’re probably over thinking the thing. (I’m paraphrasing as I’m too lazy busy to hunt down the quote. Despite the rewording, it struck me how we authors need to rethink the query and make that proverbial molehill out of the mountain.

Take a deep breath and you’ll be just fine. Trust me. I was a doctor in my dreams once.

Regardless the potential of this frightening piece of paper, a query is nothing more than a short story.

To start, we’ll identify the components of a query letter is.

  1. It’s a business letter. (This is important.)
  2. It’s your novel made into a short story of two to three paragraphs.
  3. It’s a listing of your writer’s credentials, whatever they may or may not be.

Present these three parts in the order shown. Doesn’t sound so bad, now does it?

Have you ever written a business letter? If so, item one is under your belt. If you’ve not, it’s an easy task to master. Formatting is really about it. If you’re unsure, look it up on the Internet. You’ll conquer that skill in a single sitting. (Don’t forget to include all your contact information.)

The short story is not as tough as you imagine. You wrote the book, now make a short story out of it and you’re done. Focus here on the major conflicts in your story and how your primary characters respond to that conflict.  After your salutation, get right to the story. Here’s an example of what I mean by that.

Dear Ms. Agent,

Sam was an exceptional student at John Q. Public High School until Max came into his life.

See how that works? No embellishments, no howdy-dos, none of that. Get to the story right away.

In these two or three paragraphs, simply tell the agent who your, (no more than three), major characters are and the high points of their conflict. They don’t need descriptions of these people, just names and the plot points. Tell how your protagonist and your antagonist fought it out, as it were. Get to the meat of this issue and ignore, for now, all the side steps to the story. Here is your example.

Sam was an exceptional student at John Q. Public High School until Max came into his life. One night, Max convinced Sam to use a fake ID to get into the local pub. The boys got drunk and, with Sam a bystander, Max killed a drifter.

After Sam helped Max dispose of the body, Sam had second thoughts and wanted to report the incident to the police. Max was furious about the idea and tried a number of times to kill Sam.

Sam survived Max’s attempts and in the process, killed Max. Sam then got a job as an assassin’s assistant and, after time, morphs into a world renowned assassin.

There you go. The major characters and the chief conflict points are discussed in three short paragraphs. (I know they’re not well written but, hey, this is an example) This short story should be in the range of two hundred fifty words.

The method I use to craft this short story is easy. After completing at least a first draft of my manuscript, I condense each chapter into a single sentence such as “Boy meets girl.” I string them together to create my query short story. I then edit this short story as I do any manuscript. This process takes me a few hours, maybe half a day.

Don’t forget, these resulting paragraphs must be as well written as your manuscript. However, that shouldn’t be too difficult as you’re a writer, and that’s what writers do. Right?

Finally, the last paragraph lists your writer’s accomplishments in paragraph form. Don’t have any? Not to worry. Agents don’t really care if you’re an aspiring author. They just want to know you’re good at your chosen craft.

In my next posting, I’ll discuss how agents look at your query to make their decisions in asking for partials.

Until then, my all your books be best-sellers.

Patrick

THE Cardinal Rule of Writing

In The Craft of Writing on October 27, 2009 at 9:12 am

We all know the cardinal rule in writing is “Show. Don’t tell.” It sounds simple, but what does it really signify? It can be defined in two words, “action” and “dialogue.”

To build this article I did a bit of Internet research and everything I found could have been condensed into those two words. I was also truly surprised at the lack of definitions or explanations for this most important of rules. Then, when I attempted to put this article on paper, I found how difficult it was to explain. So, I thought I ‘d give you a couple of examples as a way to “show” you what it means.

Consider this “telling.”

Jackson rode into town with the top down on his convertible, waving to his many friends as he passed. He acknowledged his neighbor, the grocer, the post master, his teacher and the police officer who had threatened a youthful Jackson with arrest when he was caught pilfering apples.

I’ll bet you can see this happening. However, in contrast, let’s “show” this same scene with action and dialogue.

Jackson backed his antique convertible from the garage, taking time to lower the top. Entering the vehicle again, he paused to savor the warmth of the sun as it kissed the back of his neck.

Pulling out of the driveway, his waved to Bill, his poker buddy who lived in the house beside his.

“Hey, Bill. How they hanging?”

Bill throttled down his mower and returned Jackson’s gesture with a single toss of his hand. “Uptight, as always. Love that car, Jack.”

“Especially on days like today.” Jackson flourished his hand in a wide arc to encompass the cerulean sky overhead. With a parting nod in Bill’s direction, Jackson pointed his cherry-apple ’57 Chevy into the emerald overhand of the tree-lined road.

As Jackson rounded the corner, Michael, the town’s only postman, tossed a greeting in his direction. “What’s up, Jack?”

Jak responded in his normal fashion. “Same ol’, same ol’.” He then added, “Great day to have your job!”

Michael nodded and smiled. “Beautiful day, it is.”

Jak continued down the road until he was forced to break at the elementary school crosswalk. Miss Jenkins, the town spinster and his long-past kindergarten teacher, waddled past in front of his car.

“Good day, young Jackson. You still minding your manners?”

“Of course, Miss Jenkins.” Jackson waved over his windshield. “You taught me well.”

She nodded as if she was proud of her accomplishments in his regard, then passed from sight.

As Jackson reached his office and parked his vehicle, he raised the black fabric top for the local news warned of a coming weather front.

Just then, a burly officer dressed all in blue called out. “Hey, Jackson! Straight and narrow, are we?”

Jackson laughed at the running joke and answered in his habitual way. “Yeah, Sam, until I’m caught!”

Officer Samson O’Rilley chuckled as he bounded up the police station steps two at a time to cram his large body behind the too-small desk in the office he shared with Jackson.

You should notice these two scenes tell the exact same tale. Yet, which of them pulls you, as a reader, into the story? Which introduces you to the characters in such a way as to make them come alive?

I think it’s obvious. In the first scene, there were only five verbs and zero dialogue. In the second there were so many I didn’t bother to count.

In the first we met six characters, none of whom showed any personality or life. The second, in contrast, introduce those same six and we learned something about each of them. That is what draws people into your work.

The lesson here? I hate to say it, but it’s “Show. Don’t tell.”

I hope this helps a bit and may all your books are best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Tips from the Masters

In The Craft of Writing on October 24, 2009 at 9:13 am

We’ve all heard to emulate the successful should we seek success. Well, here’s what the successful say of writing.

One of my favorite writing tips comes from Mark Twain. He said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Can you say, “Find Feature?”

Mr. Twain also spoke to me with this one, “Write without pay until somebody offers to pay.” Amen to that! Or, as my wife says, “Follow your muse, Patrick. Write for the love of it.”

We’ve all heard authors are supposed to prune their writing to say more with less. Elmore Leonard found a way to say this in such a way as to eliminate all possibility of argument. “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” To that end, William Strunk Jr. told us, “Vigorous writing is concise.”

Another maxim with which authors are familiar is to write with emotion. It’s a simple idea put into great words by William Wordsworth. I like this one. “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” Sounds like there’s a good title for a blog or romance novel hidden in those words, doesn’t it?

Anton Chekhov, I think he was on Star Trek, spoke of how we should paint pictures with our words when he said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Have you read articles about how to accept and learn from whatever criticism you receive? Ray Bradbury, advises us to, “…accept rejection and reject acceptance.” Tough, but good advice.

Mr. Bradbury also tells us we should write as much as we can for, “If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.” Clever guy, Ray is.

As authors we write about what we have experienced within our own lives. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said it best. “If any man wish to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul.”

How much of our lives should we put into our craft? John Irving suggests, The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything.”

Something I learned from my mother and apply to my writing is to trust my instincts. (Smart woman that Margaret!) AS G. K. Chesterton put it, “I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.” A related quote I found is again from our friend, Ray Bradbury. “Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.”

Has a writing mentor ever told you to write in a fashion the rest of the world has not? Try Oscar Wilde’s though on for size. “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

Whew! That’s a lot to master. If you’re successful what do you reap? (Besides that elusive book deal?)  One will, “Learn as much by writing as by reading.” So says Lord Acton.

Best of luck in making these ideas a part of your writing life.

May all your books be best-sellers.

Patrick