Monday, April 28, 2008

An Outing, and a Conundrum

I had lunch and went shopping with a writer friend today--something I don't usually get to do. That was fun. While we had lunch, though, we talked about what makes a main character appealing to us. Oddly enough, I have an easier time writing my male characters than writing my female characters. I'm not sure why. But one thing I want to see in a protagonist of either sex is strength. Not perfection or even the illusion of perfection, but strength of character, inner fortitude, determination, and a strong sense of self. I'm not big on whiny characters, characters with huge chips on their shoulders, or self-absorbed, shallow characters. If I think a character is pathetic or any class of a wimp, I won't like her enough to care about her. I want to be able to admire my character, even while I'm watching what she's going through and feeling really glad not to be in her shoes. So why do I have trouble writing female characters who embody all the things I admire and who I'd be proud to have a conversation with? Sometimes, despite multiple rewrites, my heroines fail to win the sympathy of my crit group in the beginning of the book, and that could potentially be a fatal flaw. I can't afford fatal flaws--not at this stage of the game, and not ever from here on out.

Now, here's the confusing part. I'm drawn to strong characters, so in the opening of my second Brenna book, I had written her as coming across strong and confident, especially given the life-changing events of the first book. The main gripe one of my crit partners had was that Brenna seemed a little too flip, and not quite vulnerable enough. Granted, she's just been through quite a lot at the end of From the Ninth Wave, so she probably should be a little more vulnerable there than I'd portrayed her, but.... Now I need to go back and see whether I can strike a different balance--or perhaps see whether that opening even works at all. I thought it did, but maybe it didn't. I don't know.

I was still puzzling over it after I took my friend home, so I went to the bookstore and found a book on characters, and one specifically on hooking readers at the beginning of the book. Now it's study time, on top of the other research I was doing for the next Brenna book. If Brenna can't win friends and influence people, I'm sunk. On the other hand, I could just be overthinking things again. But either way, it can't hurt for me to brush up my opening gambits and character intros.

Note for any beginning writers: no matter how many years you work in this field, you never stop learning the craft. The moment you're convinced that you have no need to improve and you know it all is the moment you should throw away your keyboard. This is a craft that keeps shifting and evolving as times and tastes change, so no writer has an excuse to stagnate. And yet, these "new" techniques are as old as the very first fireside storytellers. It's all in continually learning--or perhaps rediscovering--the techniques that bring your worlds and characters to robust and compelling life.

Friday, April 18, 2008

On Assignment

Sorry I haven't posted in a while. There hasn't been a lot to report on the writing front. It does look like I may have a chance to get an article published in a local magazine, though. I've only written a couple of non-fiction magazine type articles before, published in very small newsletters and unpaid except in copies. This article wouldn't be paid either, but it would be my name in print in a bigger magazine than the aforementioned newsletters. Credits will do fine...(waving hand in a persuasive, Jedi-like fashion.)

If I do the article--which at this stage is still up to me concerning whether I think I'll have enough interesting info to submit--it will be on our local farmers' markets. I'll be taking my own pictures, too. The first farmers' market of the season is this weekend, with the other two opening on each of the following subsequent weekends. So that makes it a three week project. We'll see how it goes; at this early date, there might be more artisans than food, and I really want to focus on the local food angle. So I might wait to submit it until the season gets a little later and there's more local produce available for sale. Still not sure exactly how I want to do this one, but since it's my own choice of assignment and subject, I can put it together however I want. If it's appropriate for the magazine, then it'll most likely get published, or so I've been told. I don't know how much an article of this nature will help me out there in urban fantasy fiction land, but a credit's a credit.

Mike Briggs has also asked me to revamp an informative post I made on Patty's forum, so that they can use said post on her main site. It'll be on the subject of queries and submissions to agents, right in line with an article I was already planning for this blog, so again serendipity strikes.

Payin' it forward, payin' it forward.... Any good vibes boomeranging back at me yet??? Just kidding--sort of.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Hot Topic - The Representation Equation

I've been asked to do some articles on various topics of interest to new authors, so today I'll be addressing the dilemma most authors face at some time or another: whether representation is necessary, and why.

You've completed your manuscript, and now you aren't sure what to do next. Do you get an agent, or go straight for the publishers? Is an agent really necessary anyway? Can you or should you represent yourself?

Possible Pitfalls of Solo Navigation: The Moxie and I recently met a lady who has had several books published. At first blush, that sounded great. Good for her; congratulations were definitely in order. Or were they? She went on to tell us that she hadn't gotten much of an advance for her books, and she'd signed away quite a few rights she shouldn't have, leaving her with very limited royalties. She admitted she hadn't understood her contract--which gives me the notion that she probably didn't have an agent to navigate her safely through the Boilerplate Sea. If anyone's making money off her books, it's not the author.

Gated Community Access: Will publishers look at work from authors who don't have agents? Yes; some will. But many more will not, and openly state that their houses are not interested in seeing work from unrepresented authors. When there is a pile of unrepresented, unrequested submissions on the editor's desk, it's called the slush pile. It's the last thing that gets looked at (if at all) after all the requested, represented submissions have been read. Yes, there are lucky authors who have been discovered and published out of the slush pile. But from articles I've read and things I've heard editors say at writers' conferences, it's rare and has gotten even more so over the last fifteen years. You may need an agent to get your foot into the right door. It reminds me of that Harry Potter scene where he tries and tries to get the right winged key--without which he cannot pass through the door ahead. It might not be an easy key to nab, but once you have it, you can finally continue on. (Note: no agents are to be harmed in the pursuit of the winged key--if you recall, that key looked pretty beat up once Harry finally captured it.)

Contract Matters: You might have heard that editors go to writers' conferences and take pitches from aspiring authors. Yes, they do. I've talked to one or two in the dim and foggy past. I've even had one ask to see a manuscript. Did I get an editor to look at my work without an agent? Yes. Would I have known how to decipher the publishing contract had she offered me one? No, not really. I would have paid close attention to the language and tried my best, but...would I trust myself to negotiate the best deal? No. I'm a good businesswoman, but I'm not sure I'm good enough to gamble my writing career on my ability to understand all the possible issues and ramifications inherent in a legal contract. I could miss the fatal clause and end up like that poor woman with many books and little to no royalties. It's just not a risk I want to take. In fact, if I'd gotten a publishing contract at that time, I'd have immediately called an agent I'd met before and asked him if he'd handle the contract for me. Often, even when unpublished authors do manage to make it to the offer stage, publishers will then ask them to go and find an agent to negotiate the contract. It's just easier for all concerned. And the agent will also handle royalty issues and send out 1099 forms.

So, do you really need an agent? At the outset, technically, no. You can go through the process alone, with the right contacts and no small amount of luck and good planning. But somewhere along the line, you'll probably discover that you want or need an agent. There's a lot to be said for avoiding contract pitfalls, not to mention having a strong advocate for your book other than yourself--someone with a vested interest in getting you the best contract possible and seeing that you don't sell yourself short.

Best advice I can offer--go for the agent first, if you can. Agents can function like a sort of first screening for the editor. Chances are, if the manuscript was good enough to hook an agent, it's quite a cut above your average slush, and the publisher will be much more likely to take a serious look.

Upcoming Hot Topic: Finding the Right Agent