Friday, September 28, 2012

Thursday, September 27, 2012

How to write an acknowledgments page.

And I really do mean "page," and not "chapter!"

We'd talked in the comments section of last week's Friday post about people's acknowledgments, and a lot of you admitted that you've already written yours, whether or not the manuscript is actually finished.

There's been a lot of discussion recently about acknowledgment etiquette, with a general consensus being that acknowledgment sections are getting out of hand. A few links:

The New Yorker (August 2012)

The Guardian (2010)

The Paris Review (2011)

I tend to agree with a lot of what all three of these writers have to say: acknowledgments that run on for pages and pages and pages are rather tedious.

Here are a few pointers on people I think should be thanked in your acknowledgments. Note that I think this applies mainly to first books, as there may well be people on this list who don't merit a mention in each subsequent work.

1) Your family, especially your parents, your significant other, and your children. Siblings and extended family should be thanked if they directly contributed to the book's production in some way (read drafts, came up with the original idea, watched the kids while you wrote). Don't include them just because they're related to you, and please, please do not include pets. I have seen acknowledgment sections where the author's dogs received a more lavish thank-you than the book's editor. True story.

2) Your professional publishing "team:" your editor, your agent, and probably anyone else you've been in direct contact with at the publishing house. It's nice to thank the agent's and editor's assistants, if they made significant contributions, but whenever possible, try to err on the side of "and everyone else on the Publishing Imprint team."

3) Your non-professional* publishing "team:" your writing group (just call them your writing group rather than listing them individually by name, if possible), the volunteer at the small-town historical society who devoted hours of her time to answering your incredibly specific question, the endlessly kind man at the British Museum who always took your phonecalls. (*non-professional meaning they don't make their living in book publishing)

4) Anyone else who was directly involved in the book's production. I leave this a little open-ended, because some people will want to list everyone who read an early draft, and others will already be worried that the acknowledgments are getting too long. Err on the side of vague, if you can, and remember that the shorter you can make the acknowledgments, the less room there is for casual friends to be offended if they don't get a mention.

5) That's basically it. Don't rattle off your Facebook friends, your Twitter followers, the names of all of your elementary school teachers, or the members of your fantasy football league. If someone will be horribly offended not to be included by name, or if you'd feel really badly were you to leave them off the list, then go ahead and include them. If you think they would be placated by receiving a signed copy of the book, with a personalized note from you, I encourage you to go that route instead.

What did I leave out? Do you like reading acknowledgments? What's the weirdest thing you've ever seen in an acknowledgment section?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

How to overcome procrastination

Fun fact: if I didn't deliberately self-limit, about 80% of my blog posts would be on the topic of procrastination. (Armchair psychologists, please leave this alone! hah)

But I can't resist this one, which helped me knock out a big task yesterday:

(Link via Andrew Sullivan, who is, to his credit and my detriment, one of my regular procrastination stops.)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Monday morning thought.

"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." 
--Thomas Edison

(and yes, Internet, I know about this!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Fridaydream: who gets thanked in your acknowledgments?

OK, fess up: how early in your current WIP's life did you start drafting the acknowledgments section? Have you already decided to whom you will dedicate Book 2, 3, 4, 5?

Would a future post on acknowledgment do's and don'ts be well-received, do you think?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Conflict avoidance, fighting on Facebook, and character development.

I'm spending a lot of time right now trying not to get into politics-related fights on Facebook; I bet a lot of you are too. (Let's not rehash here!)

What's been especially striking to me, lately, is that people seem to fall into three major camps when it comes to public arguments about deeply-held beliefs:

1) the fighters, who start out argumentative and get feistier from there. Sometimes this means posting a link, pseudo-innocuously, to Slate or the New York Times or the National Review or the latest incendiary Newsweek cover story, and just letting the fireworks happen. Other times it means a deliberately confrontational status update, along the lines of "HOW can these bozos actually BELIEVE [whatever it is these bozos believe]".

2) The conflict-avoiders, who have their own cherished beliefs but find that their love for some of their friends and family is being eroded by too much information about said friends and family members' political preferences. This group would rather everyone made a pact not to talk about religion or politics on Facebook, please!

3) The popcorn-eaters, who may not want to participate in the drama but are enjoying the hell out of watching it unfold.

Which category are you in? I think this year I'm a #1, trying really hard to be a #2 but mostly settling for #3.

Which category are your characters in? What great fictional characters can you think of that are not #1s, or at least don't start that way?

I'll name one: Bilbo Baggins, in The Hobbit, starts out as a classic #2.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dan Wilbur's advice on book clubs.

The celebrated book expert Dan Wilbur, who's been saving us all lots of time since 2010 by giving books more accurate titles at, has a new book out, called How Not to Read. 

Here's a video he did to help promote the book, with tips on surviving a book club. 

And yes, of course he's a client!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Five tools for outlining your next novel

Via Galleycat, here are five tools for outlining your next novel. Some of these are really inventive!

What's your favorite technique? Anything from this list you're planning to try?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Friday, September 14, 2012

Fridaydream: writing implements.

Lately I've been wanting a fountain pen. I had one in college; they're much more common in England, where I was studying at the time, and I found a Waterford at the "Everything's a Pound!" store. (Really!) I loved it, even if it did take a while to get the hang of not smearing my hand through the wet ink. I'm right-handed, or I probably would have mastered this by second grade.

But ages ago the nib dried up and I couldn't get it to write again, no matter what I did, though I think I still have it somewhere. I'm thinking about getting another one, but I don't actually NEED another pen.

Still, there's something different about writing with a fountain pen; the thoughts seem to flow differently.

What's your writing implement of choice? It's okay to say "my computer."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Stakes Motivation Turns Escalation

The New York Magazine cover story this week about Mindy Kaling is delightful, and segues nicely into my (still-to-come) post about likeable heroines. The title of my post is from a sign Kaling apparently puts up everywhere: the four pillars of a good comedy story, according to The Office creator Greg Daniels.

Will you be watching The Mindy Project? Do you like sitcoms? I tend to eschew the laugh-track variety myself, but there's something very "comfort food"-y about the genre as a whole.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Three things I mean when I say no, and why you should be glad I did.

Like most literary agents I know, I use a form rejection letter for most of the queries I receive. It's not unusual to receive 50 or 100 queries a day-- some agents receive many more!-- and it's just not possible for me to respond personally to each one. I do try to respond to each one, so at least the writer knows the query didn't get lost in the ether, but if I didn't use the form letter, I would never get anything else done. 

Every so often, someone will respond to a form rejection requesting more information: feedback on the manuscript pages, more detail about why I didn't want it, maybe referral to another agent who might be interested. I don't reply to these requests (see: never get anything else done, above), because, in the coldest of terms, I don't make any money on things I've already said no to. 

It's human nature to want to know why, though. Here are the three things I most commonly mean when I use the dreaded form letter, "this isn't right for my list." 

1. This is not a genre I represent. As an agent, I have a tremendous amount of freedom in terms of the projects I take on; if I see something I like and I want to sell it, I am free to do so. My website bio gives a list of the genres I am most interested in, both for fiction and for non-fiction, and while I occasionally do take on something outside of my stated preferences, it doesn't happen very often. The "interests" on my website are a pretty complete list of the sorts of things I like to read. It's hard to be well-versed in absolutely every genre being published, and I find I have more than enough to keep me busy as it is. 

Why this is a good thing for you: Editors, like agents, tend to specialize a bit; there are editors who only do business books, and editors who only do thrillers. An agent who specializes in the sort of books you write will, one hopes, have a good relationship with the editors who specialize in the sort of books you write. 

2. This is too much like something else already on my list. This one's kind of the inverse of #1, isn't it? Let me give you an example: my client Pamela Schoenewaldt's marvelous first novel When We Were Strangers tells the story of a young Italian seamstress who immigrates to America in the late 19th century. I love immigration stories, and I love stories about Italy, so I'd happily consider taking on more of those-- but another seamstress-immigrant story is going to be much too similar. Again, I don't have time to personalize all my rejection letters, and I'm sorry to say it, but I don't owe you an explanation of why it's wrong for me-- but if you query me on a book I basically already have, it's going to be wrong for me. 

Why this is a good thing for you: Publishing is a fairly small world. Pamela's editor is not going to want another seamstress-immigrant story either, so already that's one less editor in the relatively limited pool of "historical women's fiction editors" I can try. Plus you don't want to run into a "mom likes you best!" scenario, where you feel competitive with one of your agent's other clients. Better for everyone to have a fresh start with something that feels really new. 

3. I didn't love it. I know how you guys think: you get a rejection letter and you think, "She HATED it!" And, okay, sometimes I really did. But just as often, I felt lukewarm about it: I liked it but I didn't love it. Sometimes the writing isn't good enough. Sometimes I take an instant dislike to one of the characters. Sometimes it's pretty good but I just don't see a sales angle for it. 

Why this is a good thing for you: This is a tough business, and it's much better for you if you have an agent who feels just as passionately about your work as you do, who will really go to bat for you.  Taking on a client is a significant investment of time, and I don't make any money on things I can't sell. My job is a lot more fun-- and I'm a lot more effective at my job!-- when I'm working on something that I love. Maybe I didn't love your work. So what. Go find an agent who does. You deserve nothing less. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Fridaydream: what does it look like to have "made it?"

When you think about your goals for your writing career, what's the Big Goal?

I have three big "dreams" as an agent:

1) a #1 New York Times bestseller

2) a Big Hollywood Movie based on one of my books

3) a book on the "Banned Book list."

What does it look like to have "made it?" Do you find that your goals shift over time?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Writing Life: Kurt Vonnegut's chore list.

This is an incredibly evocative (and funny) portrait of a marriage: Kurt Vonnegut's chore list.

What goes neglected at your house when you're in the midst of a writing project?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Writing Advice Wednesday: Read.

This feels like a real "duh doy" thing to talk about, but it really matters: are you reading enough?

One of the most important and difficult parts of my job is to make sure I'm keeping up with books that are being published. I need to know not just which editors are looking for specific kinds of books (for romance, for example, I have a list of people who have told me they love cowboy books), but what people are buying, and what's selling. My regular "reading" for work includes trade publications like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, bestseller lists like The New York Times and USA Today, and the lists of recent book deals on Publishers Marketplace. (login required)

But I also have to make it a point to actually read the books that are selling particularly well, to make sure I have a good handle on the genres I represent. I also try to read anything "zeitgeisty," whether it's my cup of tea or not, because the American public tends to get really excited about just one or two books a year, and the subsequent sales of those books blow everything else out of the water. I believe that it's part of my job as an agent to have at minimum a passing familiarity with those popular books, if nothing else because if I tried to sell a children's book series set in a magical boarding school in Britain, I would embarrass the hell out of myself.

This goes for writers too. Whatever your feelings about Amazon, the site is full of great resources for writers, including an at-your-fingertips list of the books that are selling well in your genre, no matter how narrow. Amazon can quickly tell you what your competition is, and (roughly) how well it's doing, relative to all the other books available. Here is a link to the current Amazon bestsellers in the category "Women's Fiction."

Here's where I take a strong stance: if you're not familiar with at least 75% of the big sellers in your category, you are not reading enough-- and you are not doing your job as an author.

What are some of the benefits of reading other writers?

1) Reading other writers will help teach you the tropes of your genre. You can absorb a lot of information about what elements must be included in your story...and maybe what elements have become cliche' and should be avoided.

2) Reading other writers will give you a sense of others' writing style. Read too much of one author and your writing can start to sound like mimicry; read deeply and widely across the whole genre and you begin to develop your own voice. 

3) Reading other writers will help you market your own work when it comes time to query agents and/or publishers. I can say from experience that when I get a query for historical romance that says the manuscript has "the wit of Julia Quinn and the sexiness of Stephanie Laurens," I sit up and pay attention. Doing your homework can really pay off.

4) Reading other writers supports the publishing industry: bookstores, libraries, publishers, and agents. If you want in on the publishing ecosystem, you have a vested interest in keeping the whole thing afloat. The best writers are fans first.

What are some other reasons to read?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Tuesday morning thought.

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." 

-Anton Chekhov