A book is a sum of things—characters, setting and description, dialogue, pace and plot. It’s the combination of all of these elements, done in the right way that makes a book exciting and sought after by readers.
It takes a lot of work to get a book to a standard that’s saleable. My first drafts are like white boxes. People inhabit the white box—my characters that is, but they’re quiet and in shock from the lack of scenery. It’s all white in there, after all.
During the first stages, my characters are a bit superficial and half the time they have no idea what they’re doing, what their purpose is in the box. It’s almost like the first run through of a play where the cast are strangers and feeling their way into their parts.
It’s during the second and third run through that I add the color and turn my white box into a real world, complete with real people. Adding setting and description is a skill I’ve fought to learn—it certainly doesn’t come naturally.
Not so long ago, it was normal to read very flowery descriptions in books. These days descriptions in fiction are briefer and spare at times.
Here’s a paragraph from Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer.
The Apparition wore a coat of the palest apricot cloth, with a flowered vest of fine brocade, and startling white small-clothes. Red-heeled shoes were on his feet, and his stockings were adorned by sprawling golden clocks. He carried an amber-clouded can and a jeweled snuff-box, while ever and anon he raised a cobwebby handkerchief to his aristocratic nose. He minced down the street towards the market-place, followed by the awestricken glances of an amazed population.
That’s a lot of description for one person, although I have to say I’d love to see him in person. You probably won’t find this amount of description in a modern romance, not focused on one person. We’re more likely to add it in more sparingly in bits and pieces.
This snippet is taken from Dark Lover by JR Ward.
When she was finished with the Twinkie, she flipped open her phone, hit speed dial, and put in an order for beef with broccoli. As she walked along, she looked at the familiar, grim landmarks. Along this stretch of Trade Street, there were only bars, strip clubs, and the occasional tattoo parlor. The Chinese food place and the Tex-Mex buffet were the only two restaurants. The rest of the buildings, which had been used as offices in the twenties, when downtown had been thriving, were vacant. She knew every crack in the sidewalk; she could time the traffic lights. And the patois of sounds drifting out of open doors and windows offered no surprises either.
With this paragraph, we get a little characterization along with a feel for the neighborhood. We learn that although the district is run down, the place is home for our heroine.
In another book, that shall remain nameless, the description of a room sounded like a shopping list. It mentioned an antique rug, hardwood floors, a Victorian sofa and the color of the brocade, a coffee table and the type of wood, the silver tea service on top, two Victorian chairs, a gas fireplace, silver-framed photo frames, the photos inside them, the mantelpiece, a cherry and glass counter and quite a few other things.
The actual story wasn’t too bad, but this description, done list style, made me roll my eyes. I’ve edited the list quite a bit. The descriptions took up over half a page.
What I try to do is show the character experiencing the setting, give sensory details. I show them walking across a thick carpet and wondering if their shoes are going to get lost in the pile or holding out their hands to catch snowflakes, feeling the cold and dampness or tasting it melt on their tongue. They might notice the cars buried in snow or hear the chains on the tires as they fight for purchase. I try to involve the character’s senses of sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing to make the description come alive.
Here’s a paragraph taken from Tea For Two by Shelley Munro
“I see a line of dots.” Hayley Williams peered solemnly into her customer’s white china teacup. Outside her colorful curtain-partitioned area of the tea tent, children shrieked with excitement as they lined up for the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round. Her assistant chatted to one of the ladies in charge of the tea, extolling the high points of a reading by Madam Deveraux. Somewhere in the distance, a toddler howled and a brass band played “Rock Around the Clock”. Closer, touts shouted spasmodically about the exciting things available at their stalls. The clatter of china and the muted gossip of the ladies in the makeshift café added to the cacophony of fairground sounds.
For me this is actually quite a long description, but I hope it plops you right in the middle of a fairground.
When it comes to describing characters, I’m typically very brief because as a reader, I like to imagine myself as the heroine. If there’s too much description I think it gets in the way of my imagination. Just a brief hair color, eyes, build etc is all I need. You might think differently.
How much description do you like to read in your books? Do you like lots of description or a bare minimum? Do you like detailed description of characters? And writers: what approach do you use when it comes to description? Do you have a white box like me or is your world colorful from the start?
I often come across good articles and posts relating to writing and the writing business when I’m surfing on the net. What? You thought I wrote all the time?
I don’t know about you, but I enjoy both keeping up with the writing market and learning new things. I thought I’d share the bounty and repost some of the links I’ve found.
Bootstrap Book Marketing Co-op has a post on one thing that can really derail a writing career, and that is professional jealousy. We all have times when we feel down or think someone else is getting a better deal than us and the green-eyed monster creeps in. Bootstrap has a post called The Writer’s Other Classic Curse and Four Ways to Deal With It.
Erastes writes some very thought provoking posts at Reviews by Jessewave. A recent post related to horses in historical novels. Neigh…I blame Hollywood talks about horses and mistakes writers making with them. Note Reviews by Jessewave reviews gay romances, but the post on horses relates to all historicals.
On 1 January 2004, I received my very first writing contract. It was for Aislyn, a paranormal romance that is currently available from New Concepts Publishing. I remember the excitement, the pounding heart and trembling fingers, the shriek that rippled from my mouth and caused both my husband and Scotty to come running. Finally, I managed to babble coherently enough for hubby to understand I’d sold a book. I love writing, and each successive sale still holds the same excitement and thrill for me.
It took me six years to sell my first book. Most of my friends were targeting Harlequin, and I did too. At the time e-publishing was fairly new and unknown to most people. In hindsight, I wish I’d tried e-publishing a lot sooner, because I love the artistic freedom and the way everything happens so quickly in the e-world. The last year before I received my first contract was full of rejections. I had some requests for full manuscripts and did well in competitions, but ultimately received a rejection.
2004 started my journey as a published writer. Since then, I’ve received some great reviews, some not so great and enjoyed every moment. I’ve learned about promo and the fact a writer is only as good as their last book.
All along, at the back of my mind, I’ve wanted to sell to a New York publisher. Like many others I’d like to walk into a book store and see my book on the shelf, and the wider distribution wouldn’t hurt at all. During 2009, I worked hard with this goal in mind. Unfortunately, the rejections have poured in, and I have to admit I’m discouraged. My joy of writing left me during 2009 and for a lot of the time, it was just a hard slog. During the last week, I’ve come to a decision. I’m giving up submitting manuscripts to agents and New York publishers for the next year at least. I want to rediscover the pure joy of writing and creating characters without worrying about them being outside-the-box. I want to sit down and translate my ideas into writing, whatever genre they might be, without worrying if they’re marketable for New York publishers.
I don’t think either way of publishing is right or wrong. They’re different, that’s all. I’m giving my muse permission to fly free, and I’ll see what happens. I think as more and more people purchase e-readers, those who are e-published will find an audience, and I know from experience that a New York contract doesn’t necessarily equal big bucks. There are many authors who don’t earn out their advances. My Medallion titles certainly didn’t. Despite the problems with piracy, I’m probably still earning more than many authors who are traditionally published.
I’m actually happy with my decision. I’m bursting with ideas, plus I have three series underway with Ellora’s Cave and another starting with Samhain Publishing. I certainly have plenty to work on in the upcoming months. Each writer’s journey is different, and though I’m stepping outside the accepted normal path, I really am excited about what the upcoming year will bring.
Do you have writing goals for 2010? For my reader visitors – in the upcoming year, do you think you will buy more e-books or will you continue to purchase from a traditional bookshop? Do you purchase most of your books online or get them at your favorite bookstore?
As a writer I’m always interested in craft books, and I’ve been meaning to pick up this particular one for a long time. The title—First Draft in 30 Days is a bit misleading because if you follow the methods prescribed you’ll end up with a very detailed outline rather than a first draft. Ms. Wiesner does state though that because you revise the outline so much before starting to write, the end result is more like a final draft, which will require only minor polishing before submission.
The first part of the book deals with preparation and the things the writer should do during thirty days. Days 1 – 6 are for the preliminary outline and include character, setting and plot sketches and a summary outline. Days 7 – 13 are for research. Days 14 – 15 are for story evolution, internal and external conflict etc. Days 16 – 24 are for a formatted outline where research, character and setting are incorporated into the outline. Days 25 – 28 are for evaluating the outline and days 29 – 30 are to revise the outline.
The book includes a series of worksheets for each day, which are helpful. They can be handwritten or done in a computer file.
The second part of the book shows how to incorporate the 30 day method when you have a completed manuscript or a partial one that is perhaps not working. There is also a section on setting goals for projects and book promotion.
One thing Ms. Wiesner stresses is the importance of brainstorming throughout the outlining process, which is something I agree with. She says constant brainstorming during your day means you’ll never sit down in front of a computer and wonder what to write.
I’ll admit that I’ve always been a determined pantser, but after reading Ms. Wiesner’s book I think I’ll try her outlining method. I’ve decided to plan a new story while I complete my current work-in-progress. I am a little worried about sticking to a rigid plan because I’ve always thought too much planning spoiled the story for me, so it will be interesting to see how I go during the next 30 days.
The methods outlined in this book will not work for all authors, but it is definitely worth reading.
Fellow New Zealander and friend Amanda Ashby has produced a delightful trailer for her book Zombie Queen of Newbury High. It’s a great book – I enjoyed it very much and chuckled my way through Mia’s adventures, so if you enjoy Young Adult stories or have a daughter who enjoys reading, this is the book for you.
I’m excited to announce I’ve sold Soldier of Fortune to Ellora’s Cave. Soldier of Fortune is a contemporary romance and features Louie, one of Nikolai’s friends in Summer in the City of Sails. It’s also my thirtieth sale to Ellora’s Cave!
Australian writer, Eleni Konstantine is having a special celebration during the month of October. Special guests include Anna Campbell, Anna Hackett (Nocturne), Tracey O’Hara, Erica Hayes, Rachel Bailey (all three are debut authors) and Ellora’s Cave author Mel Teshco plus more. There will be fun and prizes so definitely drop by, say hello and join in the fun. Here’s the link or check out Eleni’s webpage for full details.
My heart goes out to all those in Samoa who are suffering after the tsunami. My husband and I were there earlier in the year and love spending time in Samoa. Our thoughts are with you all.
Shelley: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you become an agent?
Holly: I actually had no idea that “agent” was a job until after I’d already landed in publishing. When I moved to New York I knew I was interested in trying something a little different than the editorial work I’d been doing, and that led me to make my way to the agency side. Agency work allowed me to work with authors shaping their books but also shaping their careers.
Shelley: What are the most recent books you’ve sold?
Holly: This summer was busy with renewing contracts for clients at Pocket, Grand Central, Harlequin and elsewhere, and that’s always fun, seeing an author’s series continued. I have some great debut fiction heading out on submission soon too.
Shelley: You’re going on holiday. What books do you take with you for your reading pleasure?
Holly: If I were leaving tomorrow I’d take the four books at the top of my TBR pile: Jennifer Weiner’s Best Friends Forever, Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl, Malinda Lo’s Ash and James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. Unfortunately there are no holidays planned soon!
Shelley: A query letter is very important these days. What mistakes or problems do you see in the query letters you receive?
Holly: Most are just not quite ready for prime time—clear first drafts, or letters that lay out the entire plot to less than stirring effect. I also see many letters that say, “Writing this was very therapeutic.” I find most authors feel that way, but it doesn’t affect the market appeal of the work so it doesn’t belong in your query.
Shelley: How would you describe your ideal client?
Holly: Crazy talented as a writer, thoughtful as a person, and cool-headed enough for the wild ride we’re about to go on together. Ideally we’d also have similar communication styles; nothing is harder than working on a subjective endeavor like fiction with someone who doesn’t speak your language editorially.
Shelley: Do you offer editorial advice for your clients?
Holly: Yes. We do at least some editing before every submission. Once there’s an editor involved, I defer to that person so as not to have extra voices whispering in the author’s ear while writing, but I am always available for advice, even if the advice is just “write it and see.”
Shelley: A lot of aspiring authors struggle with high concept and the fact agents and editors are looking for a high concept in submissions. What is your advice to writers with regard to high concept and how would you define it?
Shelley: For authors who live outside America, one problem that comes up is setting. Is a US setting necessary or does it depend on the genre?
Holly: That’s an excellent question. For contemporary genre fiction I think a setting outside of America is a bit tougher sell, but of course historicals (mystery, romance, general fiction) have often, even primarily been set outside our borders. If you’re in the more upmarket fiction market there’s more openness to settings beyond the US as well.
Shelley: What is your best craft tip for aspiring authors wanting to submit to an agent?
Holly: 90% of writing is rewriting. I don’t know that it ever gets easier, but I know that the more you learn to self-edit and polish, the stronger you’ll be at those skills.
Shelley: Thank you very much, Holly!
For more information about the Waxman Literary Agency, and up-to-date details of genres they represent or would like to see in the future, check out their website and blog.
It was a weird sort of a weekend for me. I attended the conference, but I have to admit I had trouble focusing on what the speakers were saying because of the personal stuff going on in our lives. I did, however, have a couple of real lightbulb moments – thank you Fiona Brand and Mary Theresa Hussey – and I think that once I return from holiday, it will be with renewed energy and inspiration for my writing.
I attended an early morning talk with agent Melissa Jeglinski from the Knight Agency. They read the first pages of manuscripts and she stopped them when she reached the point where she’d make a decision. The following is a summary of her dos and don’ts. For you experienced writers out there this is probably commonsense to you, but a reminder never hurts!
1. Don’t start your manuscript with a one-sided conversation. i.e. phone call. You’re wasting an opportunity to use characterization through dialogue.
2. It’s good to make the reader want more. i.e. intrigue them but don’t throw everything and the kitchen sink into that first page.
3. Add characterization rather than too much backstory. i.e. have your characters make an appearance early rather than giving lots of narrative first up.
4. Sentence length – don’t make those opening sentences too long and convoluted. You want the reader/agent/editor to understand the sentence. If they have to read it twice you have a problem.
5. You need a coherent flow of dialogue and narration. Don’t have all dialogue and no narration at the start of your story. Make the dialogue meaningful.
6. Don’t feel the need to give a detailed description of clothes etc in that first page. One or two details are fine but don’t describe everything in minute detail.
In a talk about Harlequin and the various lines editor Mary Theresa Hussey gave us a list of points that the editors use when they’re reading a submission.
1. Are the opening and closing lines strong? i.e. it’s that hook thing. Use strong hooks!
2. Do the characters make decisions? i.e. are they active rather than sitting back and letting things happen.
3. Do the conflicts come across as strong and interesting?
4. Are the characters compelling?
5. Does the story start in the right place? i.e don’t be tempted to slide in all that back story!
6. Do you want to read on?
If they can answer yes to all these questions, your manuscript is in good shape.
Mary Thesesa also mentioned that the Harlequin Intrigue line and the Harlequin Presents line are definitely looking for new authors, so if you’re interested in either of these lines get writing!
And two final things: If you’re interested in the new Harlequin YA line check out the prequel for Rachel Vincent’s debut story. You can download your free copy here.
Harlequin do regular podcasts that can be downloaded at this link or at iTunes. There are some additional ones coming any day now so keep checking back. The existing podcasts include editor inside information and interviews with authors.
Last month, I did an online class with John Foxjohn through the Kiss of Death chapter. The course was called Eight Steps to Murdering a Manuscript and it covered all the things a writer should do during the editing stage. One tip I’d like to pass on related to dialogue.
Characters shouldn’t chitchat about the weather or what they did last week at work. Dialogue should advance the plot. A tip to make sure your dialogue does its job is to delete everything from your scene apart from the dialogue (or just highlight all the dialogue) and read it out loud without all the narration. Does it give the reader new information? Does it advance the plot? If so, great job. If the dialogue is just a lot of chitchat then think about reworking.
I’m blogging at Access Romance and giving away a print copy of Tea For Two.
I also have a new interview with author Fran Lee at the Examiner.
And finally, I got together with three other New Zealand writers to do free bookmarks. Readers can download the file and print it out. Here’s the link to download your free bookmarks. Please do let me know what you think of them!