Thursday, November 29, 2007

Agents And The First Two Pages

Today I’m privileged to “steal” and post the work of another contributor to a site that’s fast becoming one of my favorites: Writer Unboxed. Therese Walsh tells us about her experiences in New York, reading her work for four different agents. Read on and learn. I certainly did. (And remember, what she says about agents goes for editors as well).

By Therese Walsh

I had a great time in NYC last week. Saw the fabulous WICKED (just in time, too, as the stagehands’ strike has shut down a chunk of Broadway), got to wear my hip city clothes and had the pleasure of participating in Backspace’s Agent Seminar. During the seminar, we were given the opportunity to peer inside agently minds, to hear what made agents take note, what made them groan, and what made them laugh.

We also were able to read our first two pages aloud for a group of fellow writers plus two agents. Because I did this on two consecutive days, I read for four agents. The experience was truly enlightening, since the agents were asked to stop a reader once they reached the point where they’d put the work down if sent to them as a submission.

Although I already understood cerebrally the importance of hook, these sessions drove home this point: To be taken seriously in the slush–and I’m including partial submission requests here–you must not only possess a first graph that’s going to get an agent’s undivided attention, but you’ve got to entice them on and convince them that your work is about as close to perfection as humanly possible. Ugh. But it’s true. Said agent Jessica Faust, “It has to be perfect to sell it.”

Agents face a mountain of slush and partial subs on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and they just don’t have time to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. In fact, I’d say the assumption when they peruse page one is that the work isn’t going to be good. Uphill battle? You bet. So don’t hobble yourself. Your story picks up steam in chapter two? Tough, no one’s going to read that far to see it. Your story gets brilliant on page three? Sorry, never made it past the first paragraph.

This hard truth upset a lot of people, but sitting through a live version of slush-pile processing, I’d have to say it’s undeniable. Perfection is an unpublished author’s one true hope of standing out. But is the flavor of perfection in those first few agent pages different than what we think of as perfection for the work as a whole?

Some of you may not agree with this, but I heard more than one person come to this conclusion: The first pages you send to an agent may be more likely to land you a request for a full if those pages are specifically constructed for agent maceration. Crazy? Maybe. But if a few tweaks get an agent to read on to page 3, 5, 10, 25, 100, does it really matter?

Like I said, I read both days. The first day, I read my current first two pages without alterations, which included a three-graph prologue. I wasn’t stopped as I read through my work, but I wasn’t commended for my approach either. “It’s not pulling me in,” I heard. “Nix the prologue.”

On day two, I revised. I removed the prologue entirely and tweaked the opening of chapter one a little, too. I removed reference to a secondary character to streamline the prose, for example, and got rid of other things I thought could act as “road bumps” in the work. I not only got through my reading but was praised for some craft elements including flow. Lesson? You know I’m not going to send my prologue in any partial request. Maybe for a full, but not for a partial. And, who knows, maybe I don’t need the prologue at all and will ditch it in the end.
Based on my experience as part of a group of writers at the seminar, here are some tips that may get an agent to read beyond your first two pages. Caveat: There are going to be exceptions to every rule, but these points stood out for me and others.

* Make it unique. Don’t let you prose be the equivalent of a sunset photo. They’re beautiful, but we’ve all seen them, we’ve all taken them. What you want is the literary equivalent of a “wildergibra." AKA: One of a kind. Sure Alice Seibold was raked over the coals for her latest book, but her first line caught everyone’s attention (”When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”). Seminar participant and agent Rachel Vater has a client, Jeaniene Frost, who just made the NYT’s bestseller list with her debut novel, Halfway to the Grave. First line? “I stiffened at the red and blue lights flashing behind me, because there was no way I could explain what was in the back of my truck.” What about your work will make an agent put down his or her coffee mug and read on with interest?

* Polish your voice. Your unique writerly voice and the personalities of your characters should come through, even in those first two pages. Voice alone sometimes got readers in our groups through their reading, whereas a vanilla or clunky voice was sure to make an agent say “stop.”

* Make us care. Characters who are bored are going to bore agents and readers, too. Characters who are a little weird can make compelling characters, but remember that agents almost have to assume that your manuscript and story are not what they’re looking for. If your protagonist comes across as unfriendly, ubertormented or just plain psychotic, the agent may not want to spend more than a few graphs with them before moving on to clear more slush from their desk.

* Don’t jar the reader. Things that made agents stop reading immediately–as in, after a paragraph–included overlong or complex sentence structures, strange word choices, inappropriate language for the age of the character and plotlines that jumped around in time right from the beginning. Keywords here are smooth and professional.

* Nix the backstory. We all know this rule, but many still try to become an exception. Let’s try an analogy. Your story is dinner. Your would-be agent is a stomach. What’s more easily digested? A nice carrot-ginger soup, made with a few simple ingredients, or a bowl of chili made with tomatoes, onion, oregano, paprika, garlic (5 cloves!), ground beef, bacon drippings, scallions, Serrano chilies, chorizo sausage, chopped bell peppers, red hot chilies and cumin? (Phew!) The NOW of the story, by the way, is the beef. The rest is backstory, and in the first two pages it just provides indigestion. Don’t serve it up.

* Reconsider the prologue. Agents tend not to like prologues because they’re often unrelated to what comes next, which can slow the pace and create frustration. Prologues can also be backstory heavy and not very compelling on their own–a good excuse for an agent to set your work aside and reach for a form-rejection letter. Even if you want to argue later to keep your prologue in the story, strongly consider nixing it for purposes of trying to hook an agent.
* Careful with your beautiful prose. I personally enjoyed many of the pages I heard, though the agents stopped some readers if their openings were thick with poetic wordsmithing (and by thick, I mean merely a paragraph). Truth is, poetic prose slows the pace because it asks that the reader stop and appreciate, and when you’re trying to hook a busy agent you shouldn’t expect them to give you that time. Not at first, anyway. Not when you’re in the slush.
* Minimize description. In the first two pages, even your best detailed descriptions may seem like unnecessary clutter. Like beautiful prose, description can slow pace. Make sure your descriptive passages are compelling or get them out of there.

* Do your homework. Make sure you’re sending your work to someone who’s looking for the type of book you’ve written, otherwise it’s a waste of the agent’s time and your valuable resources. Though we didn’t get into this during the two-pages sessions, it was made clear throughout the seminar that following agent guidelines is critical. Take the time to read them. Some agents want queries, others prefer a query plus the first ten pages, etc… Personalized letters to agents stand out in the slush, too. These letters indicate that the writer has done some homework, knows what an agent is currently looking for and even compares their work to the work of current clients, if applicable.

Thanks, Teri. In her original post, Teri challenges the reader to take a look at the first two pages of their own work. Do you think they’re enough to entice an agent (or editor) to read on? Or is there something more you can do to keep them out of the slush pile. And if you want to know more on this subject, I highly recommend Noah Lukeman’s excellent book, The First Five Pages.

I’ll have more from Teri in my next post.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Writing: Outline or "Seat-Of-The-Pants"?

I'm shamelessly stealing material originally posted by my friend in cyberspace, editor Ray Rhamey, on the site, Writer Unboxed. I highly recommend Ray's own blog, Flogging The Quill, on which he tells why he either would or would not turn the page after reading the first sixteen lines of a manuscript. Ray has critiqued a couple of my first scenes, and every painful comment he's made has been spot-on. This particular posting deals with the methodologies of writing from an outline vs. seeing where the story takes you. I'll let Ray tell the rest of the story.

Pantsers versus Architects
by Ray Rhamey

Relative to the never-to-be-resolved debate between “pantsers” (writers who forego outlines and write by the seat of their pants) and, er, “organizers” (funny that there’s no funny name for writers who outline their novels– how about “architects” for a more colorful handle?), I came across advice by author David L. Robbins posted in a Backspace article that said this: “…keep in mind that imagination is limitless. Do not, therefore, reduce your story to outlines and sketches, notes and 3×5 cards. You will make your story finite this way and it will suffer because it cannot grow beyond your outline. Juggle your story: by this, I mean keep eight balls in the air and only two in your hands. Let the story - the eight balls - float free, dangerously so. That’s the beauty of watching a juggler: where will those balls fall? Chase your story, believe in your characters and follow them. Do not predetermine every step they take but record what they do, and do the recording breathlessly but with control, as if you just came inside to report an accident or a marvel you have just witnessed.”

Me being a pantser, his words were, of course, delightfully affirming. That’s me, boy, taking in what’s happening and putting it on paper. Sometimes it happens that I’ll be able to see a little further down the road than the immediate scene, say a chapter or three, but that’s as far ahead as I ordinarily go (except for knowing the ending, which I usually do).

But I wonder about Mr. Robbins’s assertion that a story will “suffer because it cannot grow beyond your outline.” Cannot? I’d like to hear from you architects out there on this, but that seems to me to assume that you don’t have the creativity and flexibility that pantsers do. I seriously doubt that, although architects may have to resist a natural resistance to dumping their work, much the same as a pantser does.

While we pantsers don’t have to worry about keeping to or straying from an outline, we are often faced with a need to throw out perhaps thousands of words because our pants have walked us into a blind alley. In my own writing, I now know that when the narrative stalls and I just can’t seem to make it move forward, the problem lies in a wrong fork taken. When that happens, I backtrack and reread until I see the error of my story’s ways, throw out the bad stuff, and my writing is re-energized and the flow resumes. I’ve scrapped chapters, sections, you name it.

It seems to me that architect-type writers must be able to do the same thing with outlines. We pantsers know well how an unforeseen development can steer a scene or a chapter to an unanticipated destination. An architect’s outline may seem perfect at the conceptual stage, but unexpected twists must also happen to them as they write. I don’t think that good architect writers limit themselves, as Robbins suggests, to sticking with the outline no matter what. I’ll bet that they do the same thing I do, only with less waste motion—re-evaluate, find the right path, and then reorganize (same as me rewriting, only a lot less labor-intensive).

For what it’s worth.

Ray, thanks for sharing. I'll be posting another segment from Writer Unblocked soon, one in which Teri Walsh relates what she learned from reading the first few paragraphs of her work for a number of different agents at a workshop. I think you'll enjoy it.

Now back to the kitchen for a turkey sandwich. Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

My "Backstory"

Crystal Miller has posted an interview with me on her site, "When I Was Just A Kid." Check it out if you'd like to know more about me, including a picture of me as a toddler and one of my high school baseball team.

Speaking of turkeys.... Have a wonderful, blessed, and thoughtfully thankful Thanksgiving. I'll be back this weekend with a post from an editor about writing from an outline vs. "seat of the pants" writing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Interview With Teena Stewart: Moving Forward On Faith

Our interview today is with Teena Stewart. I believe she has some interesting things to share with us. I think you'll agree.

RM: Teena, you’re a pastor’s wife and heavily involved in ministry activities. How do you find time to write?

T: Ministry does keep me busy. And lately, busier than ever. I just finished helping plan and implement something called Faith in Action at church that mobilized hundreds of people to get involved in community service. Plus, with our current status where were are changing church ministries, which involves lots of work, it has really eaten up a lot of time.

But even so, I reserve several days a week for writing. Even before I go to work in the mornings – I have to be there at 10 am--I sit down at the computer and work on my writing. Sometimes in the evening, if I have a little time after doing ministry, going to exercise class or handling some family obligation, I write. I've learned that having time to write is similar to having time to have devotionals. You don't find the time, you have to make the time. That means less playtime, but that's how I have to balance it. I rarely watch TV (which eats up lots of time) except for watching an occasional murder program on TV or watching a movie on weekends with my husband.

RM: I notice that, like me, your initial experience in writing was in non-fiction. Yet we “met” on the loop of the ACFW. Where do you stand with your fiction efforts?

T: Yes, that is interesting. Crystal Miller, a book doctor friend of mine, suggested I join ACFW after encouraging me try to get my fiction novel published. We are in an online writer's critique group together and she had seen some of my short suspense fiction before I switched to non-fiction. She also remembered the novel I had written but set aside due to life, ministry, moves, you name it. And she started gently nagging me to try to get it published. She saw the Christian romantic suspense market heating up. I have to say that ACFW has been such a blessing. Even though it is geared for fiction it has such a wealth of info and resources that a non-fiction writer can benefit from too.

Where do I stand with my fiction? It has been a long haul. And I have learned and am learning lots along the way. I have reworked the book so many times and am working with an agent to get it out there. But the original market I targeted, Steeple Hill, is closed to first time authors in the romantic suspense genre right now. They take a much shorter word count, which would have worked well for this book because I tend to write short. Now I am working on adding length and polishing. It's been tough but I now have it at nearly 75,000 words, which will make it more marketable to other publishers. Our concern now is that is might be a bit edgy because it deals with a business partner whose drug usage causes the death of his Christian partner. So there is no guarantee that even after I lengthen it that someone will want it. But if I look at that then I wouldn't write anything. I have to just keep writing. If God means for me to get it published, He will find a way. I envy those who seem to find fiction writing easy. It is the hardest writing I have ever done.

RM: Your book, Successful Small Groups: From Concept to Practice, has just come out. I notice that you had another non-fiction book, The World’s Easiest Pocket Guide To Money And Marriage, published about five years earlier. Tell us about the differences in writing those books and getting them published.

T: The World's Easiest Pocket Guide To Money And Marriage is technically considered co-written with my husband Jeff and financial guru Larry Burkett. I say co-written because our names appear on the cover. But in truth I did most of the writing, and Jeff added some masculine viewpoint. We compiled Larry's notes from previous articles that an editor provided, and added our own illustrations plus helped organize it. We never spoke with Larry and it is a work for hire, where we were assigned the work and paid a specific amount upon completion. Often this kind of writing is considered ghost writing, but because we have our names on the cover, it is considered co-written. Mr. Burkett has since passed away but I think it is a testament to his character that he allowed us the recognition of having our names listed. In ghost writing you don't get the recognition and the big names get all the credit. Many writers have an issue with that because it misleads the public and doesn't give credit where credit is due.

With Successful Small Groups: From Concept to Practice the process was similar in some way to the Burkett book in that I had published quite a few articles on how to lead and manage small groups. I saw where I had enough expertise and enough articles under my belt that I could organize them and add more meat to the bones. The tough part was marketing. I attended a writers' conference at the urging of a writer friend and made a crucial connection with a Beacon Hill editor. Through God's providence I hit the right publishing house just when they were looking for a book on that subject. Definitely a God thing.

RM: What is the important take-home message for readers of Small Groups?

T: That small groups are a crucial part of church health because they provide community, spiritual support and leadership training and that church's should have some means for growing and coaching more groups so people grow into mature Christ followers.

RM: You and Jeff are just making a move into a Christian coffee house ministry. What prompted that? And where can my readers learn more about what you two are doing?

T: We had this nagging sense that our ministry was turning in a different direction from our current church, which is growing larger and larger. Jeff is pastor of discipleship and both of us are equippers. We have worked with many people in small group settings. We both experienced a growing awareness that many churches have a "come to us attitude" for reaching unchurched people. And yet studies show that expecting people to come to your building and adjust to your church culture is not very effective at all. Very few people come to Christ that way. People feel lost in big churches for one thing. And regardless of your church's size, many will never step foot in a church. They just won't. We have to go out and reach them. We began noticing the coffee shop phenomenon. People love to come and hang out and have a favorite drink at coffee shops. It's almost a small group community in itself.

We saw that maybe having a legitimate coffee shop where people come for the coffee first could provide a crucial connecting point for reaching unchurched people. We don't have to try to drag them into a church building. They are in the shop of their own free will. Maybe we can meet them on their turf, offer them prayer, support groups, small groups and not expect to grow big. Where did we get the idea that bigger is better? Maybe we could teach them to be small group leaders and encourage people to meet in homes, businesses, etc. and be out in the world. So far, our decision has been a real faith adventure. We are having to raise support for covering many of our expenses. We are trying to sell our house in a depressed market, which has raised all kinds of challenges, especially if it doesn't sell. And yet, we still feel called to do this. If people want to learn more about our crazy Java Journey adventure and ministry they can visit this site.

RM: Any final words for my readers?

T: God is a big God who sees the big picture. Lately He has been talking to me and Jeff through what we call mile markers. Those are life changing events and incidents, (not always happy ones) that happen to us on the life journey. Look at your mile markers, write them down on paper. What are they? What did you learn? How can you use them to take stock of where you are and your life direction? Maybe you are supposed to use what you've learned to encourage others to press on toward the goal. It might even be a book.

Thanks, Teena. And best wishes for success in your new missionary endeavor, as well as in your writing.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blogs, Podcasts, and Exposure

I've recently been encouraged to branch out beyond blogging to the field of podcasts. Now, for someone whose yellow legal pad has been known to crash, just getting familiar enough with a computer to have a website and a blog is something of an accomplishment. (Confession time: my wife, Kay, designed my website and keeps it running. The blog, however, is mine--thanks to templates and instructions from the folks at Blogspot). Anyway, the question I'd like you to answer is: "Do you listen to podcasts?" And, if you're an author or speaker, "Do you do podcasts of your own?"

Let me hear from you. I want to know how you feel on this subject.

For those who are interested, Miralee won the copy of Texas Legacy Christmas that DiAnn Mills so graciously donated.

I'll be back mid-week with another interview, this one with Teena Stewart. We'll talk about her non-fiction book and how she's trying--like many of us--to break into Christian fiction as well. Y'all come back.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Guest Blogger: DiAnn Mills

I don't mean to cause you to panic, but we're six weeks away from Christmas. While I try to address my Christmas cards, I'm turning the blog over today to fellow Texan DiAnn Mills, whose latest book is A Texas Legacy Christmas.

Watch this blog this weekend when I'll post the name of the winner of a copy of A Texas Legacy Christmas, chosen at random from those who leave a comment.

Now, here's DiAnn:

Christmas is the time of year when we remember friends and family, when a bit of nostalgia roots in our hearts and blossoms into sentimental moments. Our faith in God and the birth of Jesus shapes our ideals of what we want for the world, our country, and our community. Peace on earth becomes an action instead of a greeting.
The Texas Legacy Series comes to a close with the Christmas book. The characters who I have grown to love and respect will always be with me, but now it’s time to finish the story. We think of Christmas as the beginning of our Christian faith, a time for all of us to reflect on the past and to step forward. I think this is a perfect time to say goodbye to our friends in Kahlerville, Texas.
For me, writing about historical Texas brings that era to life. In the beginning when I wrote Leather and Lace, I fell in love with Casey and her dream of forsaking the outlaw life. But the story would not let me go. Grant needed his story told in Lanterns and Lace, and Bonnie’s sweet story had to be told in Lightning and Lace. I fell in love with Zach Kahler, Bonnie’s son, and I could not let the series end without showing how that wayward boy had grown into a fine man.
Our lives are much like these characters. We grow and change while seeking to turn our weaknesses into strengths. Our faith is challenged, and even though we may stray, God’s love is permanent. Fiction is my way of planting seeds about truth. Writing about Texas history has allowed me to grow truth and memorable characters in the hearts of my readers. And maybe, just maybe, the story might make a difference in someone’s life.

Thanks, DiAnn. Now leave your comments and come back this weekend to see if you've won a copy of this excellent novel.

Monday, November 12, 2007

"Oh, Look! There's Manna Again This Morning!"

Our church's finance committee met last evening, and I re-learned something I should never have forgotten. Each year, on October 31, we hold "Festival 31," where families from the community can come to safely celebrate. There are expenses involved, and the token charge isn't meant to cover all of them. We put a sum in the budget to handle the shortfall. This year, those two amounts weren't quite enough, because of some added expenses and a larger group than usual. But we received some voluntary contributions to support the activity, and when all the figures were added up, everything was covered--almost to the penny. Not too much, not too little. And immediately my response was, "Oh, look! There's manna again this morning."

You remember the story. We all heard it in vacation Bible school. The children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. As we all do, they complained about the food--or lack of it. So God provided manna, kind of a heavenly bread, each morning and quail each evening. And to demonstrate their faith, the Israelites were only to gather as much manna each day as they needed for their immediate needs. God said there would be more tomorrow. If you want to refresh your memory, read Exodus 16.

I was shamed by how often in my life I'd failed to take God's promises to heart. We all have needs: financial, physical, emotional, spiritual. And it makes sense that we devote our best efforts to handling them. After all, God gave us two hands and we shouldn't just spend all our time wringing them. But, in the end, there will me manna in the morning. It may come as a surprise...but it shouldn't.

My blogging recently has mentioned the needs of fellow writer, Kelli Standish. If you haven't heard about her problems and the efforts being made to help her, please read about it now. Over the weekend, I learned that my friend, Kristy Dykes, has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. That's another situation to be added to my prayer list. But the attitude of both these wonderful Christians is unbelievably positive.

My prayer, for Kelli and for Kristy, is that they'll awaken tomorrow to a full harvest of manna.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

An Urgent Need

I was sitting at the computer this morning, pondering the subject of my next post. Then I received an email that answered the question. Maybe this call to help "one of our own" will touch you as it touched me.

I first met Kelli Standish in a class at Mount Hermon. She is a talented writer who has decided to focus her efforts on encouraging and facilitating the work of other authors. She truly is an amazing encourager, a huge supporter, with a generous, loving heart. She is also a big supporter of Christian fiction. For a few years she ran the successful Focus on Fiction web site. Now she functions behind the scenes creating web sites for others. I’ve seen sites she has designed and they're excellent. Kelli works tirelessly to promote authors and provide the support they need. What many don't know is that Kelli is in need of support herself. Right now, Kelli needs an urgent operation on her spine. Kelli has mentioned her problems in her own blog, but to see a summary go to this blog post.

As stated in Kelli's last blog entry, literary agent Janet Kobobel Grant has started a fundraising drive to help Kelli get the surgery she desperately needs. Now word has come of an anonymous matching grant of $10,000 for all monies raised on Kelli's behalf by November 15. If you would like to contribute, you can send checks made out to Janet Grant, with the note “for Kelli." on them. Janet will collect the monies, apply the matching grant and give Kelli one check. The amount can be large or small: $2, $20, $200...whatever. And remember, every dollar we give will be doubled by the grant.

Send checks to:
Janet Grant
Books & Such Literary Agency
52 Mission Circle, Suite 122, PMB 170
Santa Rosa, CA 95409-5370

I hope you’ll add your contribution and your prayers to those of many others, myself included. Kelli, we’re behind you. May God grant you relief from your suffering so that you can continue to be an encourager and a helper for so many.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Speaking Opportunities

Kay and I are back from a week in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. We rested, played some golf, visited with friends, and in general relaxed. Of course, I got some writing done while we were there. As with most writers, it wasn't as much as I wanted, but at the same time I was pleased with the way my current novel has begun to take shape.

Our first day at Lake Lure, NC, was Sunday, October 28, and Pastor Everette Chapman invited me to say a few words at the morning service of Fairfield Mountains Chapel. Last year I shared a bit of the message that's in my book, The Tender Scar. This year I talked about "divine appointments," telling the members about some of the ways God has placed people in my path who needed the encouragement I was able to give. Later in the week, I heard from several of these folks that the message seemed to be directed right at them.

Then, on our way back home, we stopped in Birmingham, where on Sunday, November 4, I was privileged to speak at South Roebuck Baptist Church and conduct a grief workshop for the members. Again, it was evident from some of the comments made to me afterward that what I had done was helpful to many of those present.

It's humbling to see how doing something that may seem so simple can affect the lives of a number of people. I'll continue to speak, to teach, to encourage, and to give my time in this ministry so long as opportunities arise. And maybe there'll be other books in the future, either non-fiction works or novels, that God can use as well. After all, that's what we're about, isn't it? Letting God use us? At least, that should be our aim. Is it yours?