The Realities of Getting Real

Fair readers, sometimes I love things that are not good for me. We’ve all been guilty of this, I know, but it’s something I needed to say. You see, I’m not just talking about my obsession with The Vampire Diaries or my desire to wrap all foods in bacon. No, I’m talking about something far more detrimental: Contemporary Fiction.

(I’ll wait for your gasps to die down and the thunder and lightning to stop.)

I know what you’re thinking, “You seem so intelligent, Sarah! Why would you devote yourself to something that will never bring you happiness or wealth?”

It’s true. I’ve often wondered this about myself too, but friends… I just can’t stop. I love contemporary fiction and I need to continue my quest of saving it from the vampires, demons, and shapeshifters, even if it means starving to death or wearing clothes from last season.

Contemporary fiction (also known as realistic fiction) is a tough sell, made tougher by a surge of paranormal hits and a lousy economy. (Yes, the economy, and publishing, have both recovered significantly since 2008, but, well… you know publishing. Slow, slow, slow.) Publishers just aren’t taking as many chances with real life anymore. I’m specifically talking about contemporary YA here, but it’s true on the adult side as well. Real life just isn’t exciting enough… or something. Well wait – we all know that isn’t true. So what is it about contemporary life that makes publishers back away?

Well, for starters, there’s usually very little “wow” factor in real life, and when money is tight (as it’s been in publishing, particularly in the last three years), you don’t waste your time and funds on something that won’t draw a massive crowd. Remember that authors need to earn back their advances before anyone sees any real profit, so choosing who to give those advances to is a much more difficult decision than it used to be.

Does this mean you should make your main character have super powers instead of athletic ability? Or make the love interest a demon hunter from another dimension? No! Absolutely not.

Contemporary fiction, even in YA, is on its way back to the mainstream. Debut authors like Steph Bowe (Girl Saves Boy), Kody Keplinger (The Duff and the upcoming Shut Out), and Kirsten Hubbard (Like Mandarin) are all examples of really great realistic fiction for teens. And yes, I said debut! And yes they received real advances for their first novels! There are others like them too. This gives me hope for the genre, but these novels are not yet the standard. Rather than taking their place beside the wide selection of similar titles on bookshelves, these books still fall under the category of “defying the odds.”

So how can you defy the odds? I’ve written before about how to reap all the benefits of a paranormal bestseller without actually writing one. But there are other ways to make your realistic novel stand out just by focusing on the way you write it.

1. Boil your plot down to one sentence. Maybe two.
Plot answers the question “What is your book about? Be able to answer this question in one sentence. Ideas, themes, character development, and even narrative are not plot. Plot is just what happens. Keeping your one-sentence plot in mind, build a story around it. This is where you can be as commercial or as literary as you like. Want to throw around $100 words and write lavish nature scenes in which the rain is a mirror for the main character’s soul? Do it! It will probably be beautiful. Just remember to stay on point and not stray too far from that one magic sentence – your plot. (The magic part of the sentence is also called your “hook,” a word I hate, but one that is very necessary in regards to how your novel is perceived.)

Note: Ideas, themes, and character development might not be considered part of the plot, but they can be used in your 1-3 sentence pitch to give it a little pizazz 🙂

2. Have an original concept.
This sounds like the type of advice that should go without saying, but “coming-of-age” stories (for example) tend to center around very similar topics: loss of a parent, going on a “life-changing” trip, losing one’s virginity, growing out of your former BFF and meeting a new BFF… these have all been done and done and done. This doesn’t mean they can’t still be done. But it does mean you’re going to have to find a really fresh angle from which to tell this story. Sometimes this means an inventive writing style or unique settling. Most other times it means having a truly memorable character that literature cannot live without, no matter how “common” his or her story is.

Remember when I told you it’s OK to not be so original? Think of the above-mentioned plot scenarios as outlines. Your main character attempts self-discovery by going against a shy, quiet nature and heads to the Australian outback for spring break. He or she meets someone amazing [friend or love interest]. What else happens? Give your character an amazing adventure/purpose that highlights what this experience means.

3. Kill your darlings.
You wrote amazingly realistic scenes involving your main character and people who are less important to the plot. Your dialogue between characters is funny, moving, and real in a way that makes Aaron Sorkin himself weep with jealousy. Your settings are eloquently presented, your subplot can stand on its own, and your seemingly tangential character quirks rival the likes of David Foster Wallace and his footnotes.

But does any of that gorgeous writing slow down the pace? Make character development get lost in a sea of words? Create a subplot that never connects to the main plot?

Tightening up your narrative is the best way to make your story come through, but tightening language in this particular way can be hard, especially when you know you wrote something that’s really, really good. (I hate when I have to do this to my clients!) Making your manuscript stand out in a largely ignored genre means making sacrifices.

I’ve met several editors who share my love of the contemporary, but even still, it’s not always up to just them. Your manuscript goes through a lot of hoops, and many of those upper-tier rings still have “high concept!” “paranormal!” “dystopian!” on their brains. I fight on the side of realistic fiction, and it makes me, and other lovers of the contemporary, underdogs. I love my paranormal still too, don’t get me wrong. But there’s just something about real life that never stops being compelling, even when it seems mundane. So, no, this quest will never make me rich. And, yes, I’m setting myself up for lots of disappointment down the road. Like I said, sometimes I love things that are not good for me. But whatever, bacon is delicious.

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Good Friday

Today’s post has absolutely nothing to do with religion, but I am taking advantaging of the title (and ignoring that it represents crucifixion) in order to say THANK YOU to my readers.

I know this sounds sort of hokey coming from me, but seriously – I’ve been meaning to say this for the past month. Every time I open up Blogger and they tell me 500+ people are following my little blog, I do a double take. It reminds me of a very, very early blog post from September 2009 – Do Androids Dream of Me? – in which I want nothing more than to have 7 followers. I started this blog before I was an agent and before I understood the point of Twitter, and no one really knew I existed. But I kept posting anyway.

Anyway, I know 500 readers is small potatoes compared to other industry blogs, but I’ve never called myself an industry blog or tried to be, so I am still pretty happy. Actually, I’d still be happy with 7. You guys are just awesome. And if there are any writers out there who don’t blog, but are thinking about it, do it. Even if no one reads it or you think you have nothing to say. If you keep at it, eventually people will respond.

That’s about as sentimental as I get (online), friends! But I really, truly mean it when I say THANK YOU. Your stories and comments are what keep this blog going. I’m just the messenger.

No post on Monday, as I will be on a train somewhere along the Hudson. Enjoy your weekend!

Ultimate Query Tips (No Really This Time…)

This morning, after a fairly Internet-free weekend, I opened my Google Reader to 1000+ unread items. After “reading” everything on The Huffington Post without actually opening anything, my Reader was boiled down to all the publishing news/blog posts I missed (OK, and some Cute Overload pictures). Since you also follow these agent, editor, and writer blogs (probably way more intently than I do), I don’t have to tell you that we publishing folk love to give advice. Like, a lot of it. Today was no different.

I searched on Twitter and in my Reader for “query tips” and the number of posts featuring those words were so many that there was no way I could link them all here. We all know there are tons of them. So much so that some writers have taken to mocking people who still don’t know the “rules.”

For sanity’s sake, I will focus on the two items I clicked today back-to-back – one from BookEnds and one from Rachelle Gardner. (By the way, both of these blogs are must-reads. Go follow them right now if you aren’t already.) Both posts offer query tips. Both posts are absolutely correct. And both posts should be largely ignored.

Explanation:

Every blog post or tweet offering query tips is useful. I do this on a regular basis via Twitter and offered a few blog posts myself in the past (here and here). However, every post you read about query tips, no matter who writes it, can be boiled down to one sentence: JUST TELL ME WHAT YOUR BOOK IS ABOUT.

Maybe it’s not in all-caps, since we’re all professionals here, but that is basically the sentiment. All agents ever want are a few succinct sentences that give a plot overview and an interesting character detail. No need to over-share or be overly coy. Just give us something that won’t make us ask any question other than “what happens next?”

The reason agents sometimes need to write posts detailing the more specific “don’ts” of querying are because sometimes writers need to be reminded that the story is 99% of what matters. We do not write them so you can analyze each one individually and obsess over whether you’ve committed that particular crime. We want you to stay sane! We just want to let you know when we keep seeing the same mistakes and try to prevent them.

Remember the one and only real query rule, which is presenting your book in an effective and direct way. Agents will always have different preferences when it comes to the “other stuff” in queries (grammar, personal info, novel comparisons, etc.), so take what we have to say and put it through your individual filter. If it doesn’t apply to you, move on. If it does, then take it under consideration. Note I said “largely” ignore us, but don’t discount us completely. We never open a query thinking “I can’t wait to reject this.” And if it becomes too hard to see why we shouldn’t, then we’ll write a blog post for you.

Commander in Chief

I don’t know about you all, but I am very, very tired of hearing about who the GOP will nominate in 2012. Speculation about speculation is exhausting, and it doesn’t get any more tiresome than Donald Trump. No matter what your political affiliation, let’s all agree that the country probably does not need someone with the catchphrase “You’re fired” to bring them out of a recession.

Anyway, while Obama begins his re-election campaign and the other side tries desperately to get their shit together, let’s go into the weekend thinking about a much more pleasant presidential election – a fictional one.

Which literary character would you most like to see run for president? And remember because it’s fictional, your choices don’t need to be limited to pesky rules like age limits and U.S. citizenship.

My dream ticket would be Hermione Granger and Tracy Flick. If there are any two people who can lead the free world, it’s them. And I’d be happy to sit back and, for once, not worry about what the people in Washington are doing to me. The hardest part would be choosing the top of the ticket, but I guess I’ll go with Hermione since she can keep cooler under pressure.

Honorable mention: Atticus Finch. Not only is a natural leader, but he’d make us all better human beings. Plus, he’s pro-civil rights, from the deep south, has a background in law, and (if you think of him as Gregory Peck) has a simultaneously dreamy and commanding presence. Kind of hard to beat.

What say you, readers (American and non-American alike!)?

PubSpeak Contest Winner!

A huge thanks to everyone who participated in the PubSpeak Definition Contest over the weekend. You all came up with some amazing (and fairly spot-on) definitions, and it was very hard to pick just one winner.

So we picked two!

Yes, Tracy “PubSpeak” Marchini and I decided on a tie, and the winners are (drumroll)….

Rachel Wilkerson and Chris Karem! Congrats to you both!

Rachel’s winning entry: Novelette: a published work by any woman who is called “the female version” of a prominent male author.
PubSpeak definition:  A complete work of fiction that is generally between 7,500 and 17,500 words in length.

Chris’ winning entry: Advance: Something so small even the IRS wonders why you claim it as income.
PubSpeak definition: A payment made to an author or other party by a publisher, most often divided into two to four smaller payments that are due at certain benchmarks in the publishing process. An advance is a payment against forthcoming royalties.

Rachel and Chris should contact Tracy Marchini through her website at http://tmarchini.wordpress.com/aboutme/ to find out how to obtain their copy of PubSpeak.

For those of you who didn’t win, you still had awesome submissions, trust us. And we hope that even though you won’t be getting a free copy of PubSpeak from Tracy, you will still purchase this educational tool yourself from the following retailers: Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Amazon UK.

Thanks again everyone!

Guest Blogger: Tracy Marchini

Tracy’s new e-book, PubSpeak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms is now on sale through the following retailers: Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Amazon UK. Tracy writes: 

Hello readers and writers of Glass Cases!

I’m very excited to be here today and host a contest for my new ebook, Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms. When I wrote the book, I was envisioning an author who may have received their first contract using it to look up terms, or perhaps someone who wanted to get into the industry reading it to get a jump on the numerous other graduates competing for the same internships. I think there is a lexicon in publishing, and like many businesses, those that speak the language tend to do better than those that don’t!

Today though, we build a new lexicon – one of wit, and snark, and hopefully, pants-peeing.

It’s a Pub Speak Definition Contest and the winner will receive an electronic copy of the book, as well as my eternal admiration and probably some embarrassing congratulatory tweets. (You know you want it.)

I’ve listed six terms out of the 400 plus in the book. Choose one term – or all six – and come up with a definition in the comments section. Keep the comments limited to one definition only, but feel free to comment again choosing a different word. Only use each term once – no multiple definitions please from the same commenter, please.

Example: So if one of the terms was “advance,” your definition could be, “Advance: A figment of the writer’s imagination” or, as a second comment, “Advance: Half what you made that year at McDonalds.”

Here are the terms, good luck!

1) cheap edition
2) offer
3) work
4) novelette
5) shelf life
6) advance

Sarah and I will pick the winner and announce on Monday.

When You Should Go Back to the Future

Some of you may have heard me say (via the Twitter) that I don’t like historical novels, particular in YA. Then, as if by a miracle (or sheer hypocrisy), I may have tweeted last week that I had requested a historical YA manuscript. I surprised myself with this, and asked myself why this particular query stood out where the many, many others did not. Here’s what I came up with. (Editors note: For the purpose of this blog post, “historical novel” will mean any novel that takes place in the past, not necessarily centered on a specific event.)

This Story Can’t Be Told in Any Other Time.
The triumphs and struggles of human beings on a personal level transcends any decade. When deciding when to set your story, ask yourself if this story could be told just as easily in present-day. The Diary of Anne Frank, for example, cannot. The Vampire Diaries, however, can. It wouldn’t matter if Elena is a young hippie from the ’60s, a tech-crazy gamer in the ’90s, or (as it stands) fairly popular former cheerleader in present-day Mystic Falls. Likewise, it wouldn’t matter if Stefan and Damon were turned into vampires in the 1400s, 1800s, or last week. The plot is independent from personal attributes.

Most historical novels are centered on a historical event, making it so the characters’ lives have to be effected by it (i.e. the Nazis are coming, the British are coming, the atomic bomb is coming, etc.) That’s not to say that your non-event-focused novel wouldn’t still work in a different setting. If your characters are products of their time – say, sexual repression in the ’50s, sexual expression in the ’60s, or greed and excess in the ’80s – then those settings are just as important to the story as the plot or characters.

Too often, however, character-driven novels, or even plot-driven novels, are set in a time period that does not add to the writer’s intentions. It is simply there. Because references and technology and general language change from decade to decade (or year to year, if it’s this decade), most of the time these other time periods distract from, rather than enrich, the story.

The Novel Was Not Any More or Less Difficult to Write.
I see this more in YA. Or more accurately, when the generation gap between Writer and Intended Audience is wider than ten years. I was wondering why so many YA queries were being set in the ’80s and ’90s until I realized the pattern – the writers were teens during those decades. It’s true that I didn’t experience high school through a Facebook lens and that most of us did not even have cell phones in our YA days, let alone MG days. Like most people my age and older, I wouldn’t even begin to speculate how strange (and normal) it is now to grow up in world where no one thinks twice about having a “public life.”

But, no one said writing was easy.

It’s not your job as a writer to recreate your own experience, slap a historical label on it, and think teens will be able to relate. Sometimes they might, but usually they want someone to reflect their experience. YA and MG exists because teens are people too. They get adults telling them about how their generation doesn’t understand “real life” all the time. They turn to books to escape all that. And unlike previous generations, they don’t have to yawn their way through their parents’ bookshelves anymore.

The writer’s own experience is not always the reason contemporary stories get thrown to the past. If you’re writing a mystery, think of how much more suspense could be sustained if there was no Internet. You don’t quite get the same dark intrigue when the answer to “Let’s see who you really are!” is just “Oh, I already Googled him.” It’s true, you lose a little with technology and it is hard to know how to work around it or use it to your advantage. But like in all facets of life – especially in publishing – ignoring technology does not make it go away.

The Year Is Not Overemphasized.
After you’ve considered the above, and you still decide that your novel needs to be set in a year that is not the current one, remember to let your story speak for itself. Otherwise, your completely necessary setting ends up becoming a gimmick. Nobody wins when something is a gimmick. Even TV shows like That ’70s Show ended up abandoning that premise in favor of actual character development. Instead of a parade of bell-bottoms, disco mockery, and vague jokes about oil embargoes, the show ended up being about a group of young people who rarely even mentioned the decade they were living in. They just wore Kiss t-shirts and bad hairstyles.

Once you’ve established what year your novel is taking place, trust your reader to know that. Overemphasis happens more – at least when I see it – when it’s recent history, things the author has lived through. Avoid sentences like “Tiffany spilled her Crystal Pepsi all over her new L.A. Gear high-tops, making her late for her jazzercise class.” If your story takes place in the ’50s, your character doesn’t necessarily need to try on a poodle skirt or swoon over Bobby Rydell. Over-referencing a decade will only take your reader out of your story, which is the last thing any writer, agent, or editor wants.

Another sentence that makes me want to get out my proverbial red pen often happens in nonfiction or in 1st person. It’ll go something like “Back then, we didn’t have [insert technological advancement here].” These sentences are always awkward to read and they are detrimental to the story for two reasons:
1) They abruptly speak directly to the reader, who may or may not have been spoken to before this moment.
2) They remind the reader they are being told a story, rather than have them experience it for themselves.

On the whole, I suppose I do have to admit I enjoy historical fiction. Sure it’s not my favorite, but when it’s done well and done for a specific purpose, it can be really great. Personally, I like stories to be told in the present if only because I prefer stories that are character-driven and those are the stories that are timeless.

My broken-record advice on this blog though is always to write the story you want to write. You’re the only who can decide the most necessary way to tell your story. But forcing a setting on your readers might end up being a fruitless attempt. What your readers take from your story is out of your hands, so you might as well focus your efforts on telling it in the best possible way.