L.K. Madigan Reminds Us What's Important

Last week, the young adult writing world lost a piece of itself. L.K. Madigan, age 47, passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer. She is the recent author of two well-received books, Flash Burnout, and The Mermaid's Mirror.

I did not know the author, whose real name is Lisa Wolfson, but her untimely death has made me do some thinking. Sometimes we believe we have all the time in the world to write. That putting off our work in progress is not a big deal. It will happen sometime.

Not always.

Life happens. And we ought to embrace it like Madigan did. Twenty years ago, she battled breast cancer. She beat it, and went on to become a mother, a writer, and finally a published author. 

 Listen to this quote from Madigan:
“The main thing is to WRITE. Some days it might be 2000 words. Some days you might tinker with two sentences until you get them just right. Both days belong in the writing life. Some days you may watch a ‘Doctor Who’ marathon or become immersed in a book that is so good you can’t stop reading. Some days you may be in love or in mourning. Those days belong in the writing life, too. Live them without guilt.”

Madigan left behind a written legacy. She will live on through the memories of her family and friends, and through the wonderful worlds she created. Kind of makes you want to write today, right?

If we learn something from this lovely life, it's that family and dreams are vitally important. And that writing can leave a legacy for those that follow, regardless of whether it gets published. How are your priorities lately? Are you living the writing life?

Agent Friday: Ted Weinstein

This week, I've got some fascinating audio and video recordings that will give you some of the benefits of a writing conference without spending any money. Though our agent of the week does not host a blog, he's shared so much information online, I couldn't skip him.

Ted Weinstein's agency, Ted Weinstein Literary Management, has been running for ten years. An author himself, and heavily involved in journalism (he's even the music critic for NPR's All Things Considered), Weinstein has his finger on the pulse of today's publishing industry. He's been in publishing for twenty years.

Though he accepts only adult non-fiction, the information he dispenses is helpful to writers of all genres. Look through the links below to see which might be useful to you.

Three audio workshops to listen to: 
Book Proposal Bootcamp: a 90-minute recording from the 2008 Writer's League of Texas Conference. Download the handout, too. I know this one will come in handy someday.

The Business of Publishing: a 45-minute talk given at the 2009 San Francisco Writers Conference. It's worth a lot to hear a veteran of the business give an inside view.

Writers on Writing: Weinstein was a guest on this 20-minute radio show in fall 2010.

Weinstein has a series of brief videos that share even more information:

Intro: What authors need to know to attract the interest of an agent.
Build Your Brand: working on your career, even if you don't have a "name".
The Importance of Platform for Authors:   how high do you stand above the "others"?
The Brand Called You: more specifics, and a great book recommendation.
How Agents Find Authors: three ways agents find authors, and why Weinstein reads his own slush.

An interview in Publisher's Weekly, where Weinstein explains why going with a big publisher is no longer "a foregone conclusion".

How are you building your brand and platform as an "unknown"?

Brainstorm With Bradbury, Chat With Capote, Dish With Doctorow

Thanks to a heads up in the latest issue of The Writer magazine, I've discovered a fascinating spot to get to know my favorite authors. Until recently, interviews posted by The Paris Review could be accessed only by subscribers.

Not anymore.

Now, readers can peruse this amazing collection of interviews, without spending a penny. The interviews are grouped by decades, going all the way back to the 1950s.

Reading through several interviews reinforces the fact that no two writers use the same process. Some regret their MFAs. Some felt their MFA was invaluable. Through varying levels of confidence, successes, and failures, those of us in the learning stage comprehend a valuable lesson.

An individual's process is just that. Individual.

What works for one person won't necessarily work for you, but it's interesting to try on some of the habits of history's amazing writers. Who knows which quirks may tickle your muse?

Here are a few quotes from some of the interviews I enjoyed reading:

Truman Capote on devices to improve a writer's technique:
Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. 

John Updike on his writing habits:
I write every weekday morning. I try to vary what I am doing, and my verse, or poetry, is a help here. Embarked on a long project, I try to stay with it even on dull days. For every novel, however, that I have published, there has been one unfinished or scrapped. 

John Steinbeck on criticism:
Writing to me is a deeply personal, even a secret function and when the product I turned loose it is cut off from me and I have no sense of its being mine. Consequently criticism doesn’t mean anything to me. As a disciplinary matter, it is too late.

Toni Morrison on helpful editors:
The good ones make all the difference. It is like a priest or a psychiatrist; if you get the wrong one, then you are better off alone. But there are editors so rare and so important that they are worth searching for, and you always know when you have one.

Steep a fresh cup of tea and sit down with one of your favorite icons. Which will you choose first?

Book Review: Archetype Cards, by Caroline Myss--Use them to develop three-dimensional characters

Since I'm dreaming up new characters for my next novel, I'm drawn to resources that help me pull together three-dimensional characters that are interesting and compelling. Today's Archetype Cards offer tools that will help.

I found these through the recommendation of fellow blogger The Writing Nut. Scroll down to the bottom of this post to find the link where she's giving away a set of these cards. 

What is an archetype? The author describes them as "psychological patterns derived from historical roles in life, such as the Mother, Child, Trickster, Prostitute, and Servant . . ." When you begin reading the cards, you'll start to classify people you know according to the information you learn.

There are 80 cards in the deck, including six blank cards, which can be used to come up with your own archetypes. The cards give both the "light" and "shadow" of a particular archetype, which help show the downside to a character trait.

Here's an example from the booklet of the good and bad side of an archetype: "The Rebel . . . can be a powerful force leading you to reject illegitimate authority and strike out on a bold new path of action. But if you let your awareness lapse, its shadow aspect can induce you to rebel against constructive, positive leaders, or to fall in love with the image and trappings of rebellion."
Though these cards (and the accompanying instruction booklet) are not specifically made for writers, they can be useful for novelists and short story writers trying to come up with their umpteenth character, without making him or her sound exactly like the protagonist in their last book. The Writing Nut shares the details on how she uses the cards on her blog.

If you're interested in learning more about archetypes, here are a few links:

This page includes a gallery of archetypes, with a solid explanation of each one, and a list of how that particular archetype has been used in fiction, film, fairy tales, drama, and religion.

The Wikipedia article gives the history of archetypes, and more examples of how they've been used over the years.

Essortment has an article more specific to writers, titled Understanding Literary Archetypes.

As promised, here's the link to The Writing Nut's Archetype Cards giveaway. Best of luck to you!

Do you have any resources to help you come up with brand new characters?

Take a Walk With Your Character: New Features on Google Earth

Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio
I've just spent the last week walking the streets of Palermo, Sicily. I've been window shopping along the avenues, taking in the fabulous architecture of the churches and cathedrals, and checked out the view of the Mediterranean from the shore.

And I haven't spent a penny.

For that matter, I haven't left my chair. I've been researching my next novel, a historical fantasy set in this ancient Sicilian city. My time and budget won't allow me to jet off to the Mediterranean just now, so Google Earth is my best friend. And the latest version (Google Earth 6) has bells and whistles I never expected.

You may dismiss this post as irrelevant, since you write science fiction, or historical fiction, or perhaps a tale set at the bottom of the ocean. Perhaps your story has fantastical buildings you'd never find on this planet. Don't click away yet. Google Earth has something for you, too.

First of all, Google Earth is a free download, so it's worthwhile to play around with until you decide if it's helpful to you. When it opens, a box will pop up with "start up tips". Don't close this box. It's your personal tour of the amazing tools just waiting to inspire you. Here's what I've had fun playing with so far.

Time Slider. Let's say your novel is set on the slopes of Mount Everest. You'll have Google Earth "fly" you to your location, but maybe your character is trapped on the mountain, watching the sun getting lower, and pondering his chances of survival. Never having been to Mount Everest, you may be at a loss as to how the sun sets (or rises) in relation to the mountain. Just use the time slider to watch dusk, dawn, shadows on the slopes--whatever you need.

Explore the Moon. Believe it or not, you, too, can land on the moon! Tour the landing sites of astronauts, zoom in on 3D models of space craft, and even watch video of moon landings.

Build your own city. Google Earth allows users to design their own buildings with Building Maker. You can place your creations anywhere on the planet. Maybe you're writing a dystopian novel set in a desert, and you can't find the buildings you've imagined. Create them yourself, set them in the Sahara, and you can "fly through" your imaginary city.

Don't forget the trees. The latest version of Google Earth has mapped out the location of specific trees in certain areas of the planet. You can even fly to the Amazon and "walk" through the rainforest, noting the particular trees all around you.

Time Travel. Let's say your novel is set in 1900s San Francisco. Once you "fly" to the location, if there are historical maps available for the area you choose, they'll be indicated by a historical imagery button. You can slide from the present all the way back through images of various time periods, even "walking the streets" of a particular era. This is amazingly helpful for historical fiction.

Are oceans your thing? Google Earth lets you fly over any ocean, or if you prefer, you can fly beneath the oceans surface, exploring the terrain at the bottom of the sea. A fantastic resource if you write about submarine travel, or imagine a civilization on the ocean floor.

Google Earth has much more that I haven't played with yet, but it's a great (and cheap!) resource for writers working to make their settings come alive.

Would Google Earth help you with your storyworld?

Writing on President's Day

Happy President's Day! I'll be back tomorrow with a really cool resource that I'm using to research my next novel--so much fun. It's time to get back to playing with my new idea. See you tomorrow!


Agent Friday: Andy Ross

Andy Ross is a veteran of the publishing business. Involved in publishing since 1972, he owned Cody's, an independent bookstore for 30 years, works as a literary agent, and is president of the Northern California Booksellers Association.

While his agency, the Andy Ross Literary Agency, represents only non-fiction, a man in the business this long has worthwhile opinions on the varied aspects of publishing. Fortunately for us, he shares his viewpoints on his blog, Ask the Agent: Night Thoughts About Books and Publishing.

As a writer, it's important to be aware of the genre you write. Ross interviews agent Laurie MacLean and provides a detailed explanation of the different genres, and how to tell them apart from literary fiction.

Most of us will end up submitting to an agent's slush pile. Andy Ross is different from most agents. First of all, he believes the term "slush" is demeaning to writers, because "writing is a courageous act. And the activity deserves to be treated with dignity and respect." As a result, Ross doesn't delegate the slush pile to an intern. He reads it himself. Find out why.

Of course, if you're going to query, you need to write a query letter. Thankfully, Ross shares nine tips for effective query letters. Number nine is my favorite.

If you survive the query process, and nab an agent, the possibility of rejections doesn't end there. Publishers will reject your manuscript, too. Having been in the business for decades, Ross understands how to deconstruct a rejection letter to learn what the publisher is really saying.

More posts I really like:
The Art of the Pitch: getting publishers to get excited about your book proposal (and what not to do)
Social Media for Writers: the pros and cons of different media platforms, and what writers need to know.
E-book Royalties: how Ross believes writers are getting cheated in the e-book market.
Interviews: Ross regularly conducts interviews with fascinating people in publishing.

For more about Andy Ross, check out the interviews here and here.

Can't get enough Agent Friday? There are lots more right here.

Want to Test-Drive Your Query Letter? Check Out Evil Editor

After spending weeks (or months) tweaking your query letter to perfection, you may want to solicit some feedback before you send it out. Evil Editor is your guy. He'll post your query on his blog, often with tongue-in-cheek comments, where other writers can chime in with their own opinions.

But Evil Editor adds a twist. He posts the titles of the manuscripts the queries represent, and invites blog readers to guess the plot based upon the titles. The most interesting (and far-fetched) plot ideas get posted along with his query critique in his Face-Lift series.

Another feature on Evil Editor's blog is the New Beginning series. Writers submit the first 150 words of their manuscript, and blog readers show how they think the piece should continue. Evil Editor posts the most interesting continuation, and invites blog readers to give the original author feedback on how the opening captured their interest.

It's nice to find a site that gives good feedback with an element of fun. If humor is not something you want to mix with your fiction, you may want to stick to more "serious" sites.

Evil Editor conducts monthly book chats, where readers discuss recently published books. There's also a weekly contest for writers to contribute captions to a posted cartoon. The best captions get published on the blog. If you need a laugh to relieve your writer's block, check out Evil Editor's short films to give you some relief. And at regular intervals writing exercises are posted, with the best examples posted on the blog.

Does humor help to relieve the tension of the journey to publication?

Book Review: The Sell Your Novel Toolkit, by Elizabeth Lyon

Picture this: you set out to climb a mountain, toiling and sweating your way to the top, only to find you've reached a false summit, and the actual peak is far beyond what you feel you're capable of. As fiction writers, our "summit" is finishing a novel. Toiling and sweating through the acquisition of fiction techniques that seem impossible to master. Yet finally, we reach the top.

But we're not there yet.

Stretching far above lies the true summit. Publication. And to reach those heights requires a different skill-set than the ones we've labored to master in recent years. Things like query letters and synopses actually make use of non-fiction techniques, and marketing oneself is completely opposite of sitting alone, typing out a novel.

Is there hope for any of us?

Fortunately, Elizabeth Lyon has taken up the task to educate writers for the final climb. Wearing the hats of author, book editor, writing instructor, and marketing consultant, Lyons is the perfect person for the job. The Sell Your Novel Toolkit is exactly what the title says. The tools you need to get your novel sold.

Lyons shares eight ways to sell your novel. And then she gives the secret to the ninth way. She explains the three belief systems most writers have about marketing and sales.

The book includes an education of the different jobs in the publishing world, and a detailed section helping you get your manuscript ready for marketing--including diagnostic checklists, and help in categorizing and describing your novel.

Two chapters are devoted to the synopsis. The first dissects the synopsis, while the second gives examples of synopses in several different genres.

Queries get two chapters as well. First, the how-to of the query, then a long list of actual (and successful) queries in many genres. Lyons even includes a chapter on getting your sample chapters ready for submission to agents and editors.

But she's not done yet. Further sections give instruction on researching publishers and agents, systematic marketing, what to do when rejections come, and tips on what to do when you make your first sale. The appendices are full of sample contracts, and resources to extend your knowledge on all the topics covered.

I knew since I enjoyed Lyon's Manuscript Makeover book, that this one would become dog-eared as well.

Which summit are you climbing toward right now? Finishing your manuscript, or heading for publication?

Does Your Manuscript Have What It Takes? You Can Find Out Today. Really.

All writers crave feedback. Even if they're too scared to join a critique group, and letting someone read their work puts them in a cold sweat. But what if it was anonymous?

Page99Test is an ingenious website a friend pointed me to. It's based upon a quote from the late English novelist Ford Madox Ford: "Open the book to page ninety-nine, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

The site allows you to upload the contents of page 99 of your manuscript, and readers of the site will rate it by answering three questions.

1. Would you turn the page?
2. Why or why not?
3. Based on what you read, how likely are you to buy this book?

Because site visitors are reading just one page, and the questions are brief, it takes only a few minutes to read and give feedback on a submission. Once a reader clicks "submit" after the questions, they can see a summary of how others rated the same page, and their comments.

For writers uploading a page, you'll choose the genre of your story, and can give a brief background if you like. All the commenters have a number next to their screen name so you can see how many critiques they've done so far.

You may wonder why it's page 99, and not say, your first page that is critiqued. Most writers work and rework the beginning of their manuscript, so it's not really representative of the body of the story. It's a random page, yes, but hopefully all your random pages will have good dialogue, description, characterization, and tension.

The site creators warn against uploading an overworked page just to get better feedback. Since it's anonymous, no one cares what your feedback is

The nice thing about Page99Test is that even the negative comments don't sting so badly when you consider that the reader has missed the 98 previous pages setting up your story. You can use the feedback you get to improve your pages, without feeling like you have to give up altogether.

Head over to the site and spend a couple of minutes on a few critiques. It's kind of addicting, and you can feel good that you gave back some encouragement and helpful feedback to another writer. 

How open are you to feedback?

Crafting Romantic Tension in Your Fiction

Today is Valentine's Day. And over the weekend, I attended a marriage conference and read a romance novel. Is it really surprising that I might have romantic tension on my mind?

Besides romance novels, most novels have a romantic thread. Some of those threads the reader can feel, and some fall flat. I decided to gather some resources to help with making romantic tension feel more real.

Author Karen Weisner writes a great summary of 20 steps to writing great love scenes on Fiction Factor. I especially like number five, her explanation of "exaggerated awareness". Worth the read.

Barbara Bretton, another author, shows the difference between sexual chemistry and sexual tension, and shares the secrets of creating page-turning romantic fiction.

Maholo has a comprehensive article that includes a ten-minute video on including romantic tension in your writing.

And from the queen of romance herself, Nora Roberts, comes a fascinating article on crafting romantic suspense.

What makes the romantic thread in a novel "real" to you?

Agent Friday: Jonathan Lyons

Literary agents seem to come from the editorial end of publishing, or the legal end. Jonathan Lyons has the law degree, and uses that background to help his clients navigate the confusing world of book contracts. He has his own agency, Lyons Literary, based in my hometown, New York City.

Lyons has a blog, which he maintained for four years. As of December 2010, his schedule demanded that he stop blogging, but Lyons keeps it online to benefit readers who come along. Here are some of the posts I really appreciate:

I like it when an agent explains terms and procedures that may seem basic to those in publishing. For those of us just learning the business, they're invaluable. For instance, Lyons gives a clear distinction between a galley, a proof, and an ARC, and explains the process of getting paid as a writer.

You'd expect an agent to have some opinions on querying. Lyons shares some tips on the query letter in Query 101. He answers the question, When Should You Query?, and gives advice for writers working on a biography to place in their query letters.

Two ongoing posts that were popular are Lyons "terms of the week" and "your questions answered". In terms of the week, Lyons defined some of the obscure and misunderstood words that are unfamiliar to those who don't have decades of experience in the publishing industry. Your questions answered is a great place for aspiring authors to hear an agent reply to frequently asked questions.

What questions are you wishing you could ask an agent? Post a comment, and I'll try to find an agent who has given the answer.

Finding Grants for Writers: Hidden Money for Finishing Your Novel

Ever wish you could write full-time? It's the dream of most writers. Before publication happens, it's difficult to convince family and friends that tapping away at your keyboard will one day generate some income.

Some writers try publishing freelance articles to supplement their income while they write their novel. It's a great idea, but it will extend the time it takes to finish your novel.

So here's an additional option: apply for a grant.

Believe it or not, there are foundations, organizations, and agencies that want to promote the arts--including writing. Taking the time to apply for a grant might net you the cash to be able to focus on finishing that manuscript. 

Not all grants require extensive applications, but those that do will probably offer more significant amounts. The big question is where can you find grants?

Start with writer's groups. Joining a professional writer's organization gives you access to more than networking. Many larger organizations sponsor grants for members, often funded in memory of a member who has passed away. For instance, I am a member of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. They offer several grants for writers each year in the amount of $2000. The application is brief, and asks for a synopsis and writing sample. Check out the professional organizations for the genre you write.

Find some lists. There are many places to find information on writer's grants. Read the application information carefully, as some grants involve residencies. Most grants will ask for details about a specific project you're working on. You can't usually say, "I just want to write." So working on your agent query and having a polished paragraph about your work in progress will help your application. Here are some grant sites to get you started:

C. Hope Clark's Funds for Writers. Clark keeps a list on her website, and you can sign up for several newsletters to learn about more.

WorldWideFreelance. A nice article about applying for grants, with links to emergency writing grants, and grants by country.

Love to Know. A list with links to more spots that list grants.

Freelance Writing Jobs. A list of nineteen writing grants to check out.

Writing World. A collection of grants, fellowships, and residencies.

Mira's List. A blog for creative types with residencies, fellowships, and grants.

Grants.gov. A database of federal grants to search through.

The biggest thing to remember, as C. Hope Clark says is, "You won't be able to quit work and write, but you might find a grant to make your writing goals easier to reach."

What do you think about finding a grant?

Book Review: The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction, by John Dufresne

Have you ever written a chunk of a new novel, only to toss it when it didn't meet your expectations? Pull that manuscript out of the trash. John Dufresne is ready to help.

Two weeks ago I reviewed Dufresne's Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months, which gives writers a realistic time frame to their writing. This week is another offering from novelist Dufresne, titled The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction.

If you want a book that not only tells you how to write, but gives you writing exercises that encourage you to actually put pen to paper, you've found it in Dufresne's guide.

The book is divided into three sections, The Process, The Product, and Other Matters. In The Process, the very first sentence of the first chapter is a writing exercise. How many writing books encourage you to put the volume down immediately in order to write?
 Besides multiple writing prompts, Dufresne offers a varitey of exercises that accomplish his purpose of getting writers writing every day, and helping blocked writers get unstuck. This is definitely a book that will motivate writers.

One of his main points is that the real writing is in rewriting. That's why you don't want to delete the writing that doesn't meet your expectations. In the second section of the book, The Product, Dufresne guides writers in the rewriting process, helping them with things like plot, character, dialogue, point of view, setting, and the beginnings and endings of stories.

The third section is reserved for Dufresne's writer's tools. For instance, he teaches writers how to learn by reading the writing of others.

Here's one of my favorite comments from Dufresne in the book. "Writing is a craft, and it can be taught and can be learned. I learned it. Writing is a skill, and none of us are born with skills. We work at them. What can't be taught, of course, is talent and passion. Talent is cheap, however. Passion is much more significant."

Do you have the passion to write?

How To Use Presuppositions in Fiction: Guest Post from Randy Ingermanson

If you haven't subscribed to Randy Ingermanson's free Advanced Fiction Writing Ezine, you're missing out (the link to subscribe is at the bottom). When I read Ingermanson's article on presuppositions, it was so well-explained that I knew there might be others looking for a way to explain details without "telling". Read on for a great article.

Creating Presuppositions by Randy Ingermanson

One of the biggest problems I see in fiction manuscripts is a big glop of backstory in the first two or three chapters of the novel.

Every novelist who has ever committed this sin justifies himself by claiming that the backstory is necessary because otherwise the reader won't know what's going on.

This isn't true. Readers don't read your novel for your marvelous backstory. They read it to get immersed in your main story. Once you get them hooked on the story, they'll begin to get interested in the backstory and you can start feeding it to them in small doses.

You may be thinking, "That's great advice for everybody else, but I'm different. My story is different. My readers HAVE to know my backstory."

The answer is yes, but.

Yes, you're different. Yes, your story is different.

But your reader really doesn't care that 35 years ago your main character Luke got beat up every day in kindergarten.

Your reader cares that RIGHT NOW Luke is peering through the sights of a sniper rifle. Which happens to be trained on the head of the state governor. Who happens to be 40 years old. Who happens to be a bully. Who happens to have gone to kindergarten with Luke.

NOW your reader cares just a wee bit about what happened way back when. But your reader still cares a whole lot more about Luke's trigger finger than about his horrible childhood.

It's true that your reader is going to need to know a little about your backstory. How do you provide that without losing momentum in your frontstory?

One way to do that is by inserting "presuppositions" into your sentences.

And just what exactly is a "presupposition?"

Loosely speaking, a presupposition is a statement that is implied by a sentence. If the cop asks, "Have you quit beating your wife?" there's a presupposition that in the past you beat your wife.

A classic example of how presuppositions work in language is the following sentence, which Bertrand Russell analyzed many years ago:

"The present King of France is bald."

Is the above sentence true or false?

Since France is a republic, there is no present King of France, so the sentence can hardly be true.

But is it false? If it were false, would it be true that the present King of France has a full head of hair?

Obviously not. Russell pointed out that this sentence carries along with it some unspoken presuppositions:
* France has at least one king
* France has no more than one king

When you say that the King of France is bald, you are also implicitly asserting these presuppositions, and the combination of the three statements is false because they aren't all true.

Some people would say that it's simply meaningless to say "The present King of France is bald."

But if you were watching a movie set in 1753 France, and if one of the actors said, "The King of France is bald," everybody would know exactly what he meant.

Context matters. Presuppositions imply context. And another word for "context" is "backstory."

Now here's the point for fiction writers. Many of the sentences you write in your novel carry along with them certain presuppositions. When your reader reads your work, she unconsciously analyzes those presuppositions and makes conclusions about your Storyworld and the backstories of your characters.

When Han Solo brags about his ship in the original STAR WARS movie, for example, he says, "You've never heard of the Millennium Falcon? It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs."

Here are some presuppositions which are implicit in this line:
* The Millennium Falcon is famous
* The Kessel Run is long or treacherous or both
* A parsec is a unit of time
* Twelve parsecs is an excellent time for the Kessel Run

Notice that these presuppositions may be false (parsecs are units of distance) but they still tell us something about Han Solo and the world he lives in. Solo is not only egotistical, but he's also sloppy in his use of language.

Writers constantly try to explain too much. This is true for the greenest novices and the most advanced experts, and it provides unending employment for editors, who earn their keep by scrawling "Resist the Urge to Explain" in the margins.

How do you fix things when you're explaining too much?

The first step is to cut out the backstory. (Don't throw it away. Save it to another document so you'll have a record of it. Then delete it from your main story. Yes, all of it.)

The second step is to look for those places in your story that are now confusing to your reader because she lacks some essential context -- some piece of backstory. Insert ONLY the fragment of backstory that your reader needs in order to make sense of the story.

One way to do that is to imply a chunk of backstory by rewriting a frontstory sentence so that it now contains a few well-chosen presuppositions.

Your reader is smart. When she reads a sentence that carries presuppositions, she immediately assumes these presuppositions are true and are part of your backstory. If she knows or learns that these presuppositions aren't actually true, then she concludes that your character is unreliable.

We've already seen how George Lucas used a few presuppositions to characterize Han Solo. Let's look at a couple of examples of how other writers have done it.

Here's the beginning paragraph of a scene in ENDER'S GAME by Orson Scott Card, in which we meet Ender Wiggin:

The monitor lady smiled very nicely and tousled his hair and said, "Andrew, I suppose by now you're just absolutely sick of that horrid monitor. Well I have good news for you. That monitor is going to come out today. We're going to take it right out, and it won't hurt a bit."

This only makes sense if the following presuppositions are true:
* Ender is a fairly young boy
* He's had a monitor installed for quite a long time
* The monitor is unpleasant to wear
* Ender has had some painful medical procedures before
* Monitors are managed by a bureaucracy

We can also deduce from all of these that the story is set in the future.

Card could have told us all those things and a whole lot more about the history of monitors and why they're necessary and thereby slowed down the story. Instead, he let us figure out only what we need to know right now. With presuppositions.

Here's an example from the opening two paragraphs of THE KEY TO REBECCA, by Ken Follett:

The last camel collapsed at noon.

It was the five-year-old white bull he had bought in Gialo, the youngest and strongest of the three beasts, and the least ill-tempered: he liked the animal as much as a man could like a camel, which is to say that he hated it only a little.

The first paragraph carries with it this presupposition:
* More than one camel has died already

The second paragraph has these presuppositions:
* The owner of the camel is a lone man
* He is no longer in Gialo
* He is familiar with camels

We can also deduce that the owner of the camel is making a long and dangerous journey across the desert. This isn't a presupposition, but it follows pretty readily from the presuppositions and from the first sentence.

Presuppositions are useful because they let you say more with fewer words. That is a worthy goal for any novelist.

If you'd like to see some more examples of how presuppositions work, check out the Wikipedia article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presuppositions
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 24,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.
For more on Randy Ingermanson, check out my review of his Writing Fiction for Dummies, one of my favorite writing books.

I'll be looking for ways to use presuppositions in my manuscript. How about you?

The First Moment of Your Day: Is It Time to Write?

What did you do this morning when you first sat down at your desk? C. Hope Clark bets you checked your email. Is she right?
Clark's post, The First Thing You Do At Your Computer . . . or the Last?, got me thinking about the order in which I do things. If I open my email account right away, what are the chances I'll actually start writing my next chapter within the hour?


 Have you ever said it? "I'm just jumping on to check my email." Yeah, right. An hour (or two) later, your manuscript folder has not even been touched. You've replied to "important" emails. Newsletters have gotten you clicking onto dozens of webpages. There are cute emails to forward, blogs to keep up with, because we need to add to our knowledge of the industry.

But we won't need much industry knowledge if we never have a novel to sell.

Not everyone will write best first thing in the morning. Clark writes in the middle of the night, when distractions are low. Same with author Camy Tang. One of my critique partners writes from 9 to 11pm, when her small children are in bed. 

The trick is to find your best time, and then use it for writing, not cruising the internet. I purposely do not have wireless internet in my house. That way I can take my laptop to a comfortable chair, and there's no distraction from the world wide web. Of course, this means I need to disconnect and walk to another room. You could turn off your modem. Or use a software that temporarily disables your internet (it's free) for the time you set.

How do you separate your writing tasks from research and daily business? Do you have any tips or tricks to share?

Agent Friday: Elaine P. English

In today's rapidly-changing publishing world, authors benefit greatly from literary representation. But how about a literary agent who is also an attorney? Elaine P. English is exactly that.

The Elaine P. English agency is a Washington, D.C. based agency, specializing in women's fiction, romance, YA, mystery, and thrillers. English has more than two decades of experience in law, including publishing law, and opened her agency in 2001.

English, her associates, and her interns have been blogging since 2009. Here is a sampling of some of their interesting and helpful posts.

Some writers query with so much over-confidence, it's a turn-off for the agent. Others write a query that appears they're begging for a reading. Check out Know Your Worth to find the happy medium between the two, and They're Just Not That Into You to prepare for rejection. And for those feeling ready to start querying, read Revise First, Celebrate Later before you hit "send".

What do the agents at English's agency consider a turn-off? One of them is a manuscript with far too many details than necessary. Another is a story with a huge number of characters to keep track of. Readers don't want to make notes to keep characters straight. Another habit that may earn a "no" is dialogue that is full of exposition. Basically, the character is telling by talking. And here's a bonus tip: Never open your query with "What if?"

Here are some tips on specific genres:
Contemporary: How to format the text messages your characters send.
Young Adult: How to write the teenage voice.
Historical: How to choose which historical details to include, without sounding like a history book.
Fantasy: How to make yours stand out from the rest of the (wolf)pack.
Chick-lit: How to write realistic humor.

There are many other posts I'd love to highlight, but I can't share them all. Posts on the pros and cons of prologues, how to craft a dream sequence (or just scrap it), and the ins and outs of point of view changes.

This is definitely a blog to keep up with.

Writing Groups: QueryTracker

One of the January posts focused on your personalized query plan. It may seem daunting to sort through hundreds of agents, and tracking submissions and requests can be equally overwhelming.

That's where a site like QueryTracker comes in. Once you set up a free profile, the site allows you to search for agents based upon their preferences, and add them to your own list. When you send a query, it's easy to track on the QueryTracker site. You'll be able to note if you get a response, and whether you sent a partial or full manuscript.

Because the site contains updates from its many users, you'll know the average response times of the agents you query. You can even set up an alert to remind you to check the status of a submission at a particular time.

Even if you're not ready to query right now, QueryTracker can help you get there. The forums on the site have groups for every genre, and for critiquing queries and first pages. Reading through the posts on the forum will help you glean information from writers who have learned things the hard way and are willing to share their knowledge.

Are you curious about the top ten agents who receive the most queries? The top ten agents who issue the most rejections? How about the most non-responsive agents, or the most accepting agents? If these kinds of statistics sound like they could help you narrow down your search, check out the Top 10 page.

Perhaps you have a favorite author who writes in a genre or style similar to yours, and you've considered querying his or her agent. QueryTracker will help you find that agent with its who represents whom listing (in helpful alphabetical order).

Beyond agents, QueryTracker also has a database of publishers, in case you'd like to skip querying altogether. Yes, there are some publishers who still take unagented submissions.

Does QueryTracker really work? Read through some of the 462 success stories to find out for yourself. And keep up with their blog for great tips on querying, as well as periodic contests.

If you're not part of some kind of online writing group, you're missing out on information and support. Which ones have been helpful for you?

Book Review: Blockbuster Plots Pure and Simple, by Martha Alderson

Since I discovered Martha Alderson, the Plot Whisperer last week, I've worked through her free videos on plot, and have read her book, Blockbuster Plots Pure and Simple.

Alderson has spent years analyzing plot and breaking it down to its bare essentials. She is a consultant for novelists, memoirists, and screenwriters, and shares what she's learned in Blockbuster Plots. If you watch her growing collection of online videos, you'll see why she's earned the name, The  Plot Whisperer.

Blockbuster plots is broken down into two parts. The first half takes you step-by-step through Alderson's Scene Tracker, which helps writers analyze their written scenes for seven essential elements. The Scene Tracker can also be used to plan scenes so that they have the biggest possible impact on the reader.

By scanning the Scene Tracker, writers can quickly identify scenes that don't live up to their potential. These scenes can be cut, or pumped up with action, conflict, or thematic details.

The second half of the book teaches writers to use the Plot Planner, a detailed map of your novel, showing where to place the most intense scenes. Alderson has devised a way for writers to indicate at a glance who is in control in a specific scene--the protagonist or the opposition.

Alderson has figured out the perfect timing for the crisis and climax of your story, as well as "the end of the beginning", the pivotal scene that ends Act 1 and propels your character into Act 2 with all it's complications. Once you know the framework of great novels, it's not so hard to flesh out the skeleton with the scenes Alderson helps you craft.

Maybe plotting doesn't ever baffle you, but I believe every writer can benefit from some time focused on the intricacies of plot. If you're at a point where you're stuck, or just burned out, a book like this may be all you need to get going again. It sure helped me.

Alderson posts even more plot tips on her blog, The Plot Whisperer, and also shares tips on Twitter.

Do you have any go-to resources for plotting?

No More Mister Nice Guy: Increasing Inner and Outer Conflict

I've been analyzing my plot lately, with the help of The Plot Whisperer's advice (come back tomorrow for a review of her book, but for now check out her free goodies). One thing I've discovered, is that I made a particular secondary character too nice. Though he's been badly disfigured in an accident and feels shunned in his town, he's patient, kind, and generous. Pretty boring, in fact, when he meets my protagonist.

Agent Rachelle Gardner tweeted an article that got me thinking further. Instead of increasing just the inner conflict or the outer conflict, why not both? I highly recommend Mike Duran's post, The Bomb Under the Sofa.

Donald Maass suggests printing out your manuscript, tossing it in the air, and picking up random pages to check for tension on every page. I suspected that the section introducing this character would not make the cut.

So, what did I decide to do? He's not nice anymore, he's wounded and haunted by the accident he survived. He avoids people (even my main character) for fear of rejection. He's fearful of small places (because of his accident in an underground tunnel). And he's a cauldron of anger, because a senseless accident yanked away the chance for the life he dreamed of. 

Instead of a cozy "instant-best-friends" relationship, he and my main character are at odds, constantly arguing, misunderstanding, and mistrusting. Having "stuff" for them to do and talk about is so much easier when conflict is involved. Knowing he's claustrophobic (and ashamed of that fact), means I'll put him in situations where he will be forced to choose between avoiding his fear and saving someone he loves. His anger will make him confront my protagonist on issues she would rather not share with anyone. And he'll be forced to travel the countryside, rather than hide away from society in his home.

Anyone can write in an earthquake or assassin to increase the tension. But when the tension is connected to the character's inner fears and insecurities, you get more for your money. Now it's time for me to analyze the rest of my plot the same way. 

How about you? Is your inner and outer conflict working together to ratchet up the tension?


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