Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Writer's Lexicon is Updated

I’m actively compiling this list to benefit writers of varying levels of immersion in the waters of authordom, to help us look less stupid or simply to help you navigate the world of writing a little more confidently. I am taking suggestions to add to this list, it's not complete by any stretch.  I am particularly interested in ‘writer-culture’ words. Or, perhaps you disagree with my definition. I’d like to hear about that as well.

Plot Devices and Literary Words

Alien Space Bats - The term was originally used as a sarcastic attack on poorly written alternate histories due to lack of plausibility to create improbably plot divergences. Also refers to the use of Deus ex Machina in the form of Ancient Aliens.

Backronym - Same as an acronym but the word came first and the meaning behind the letters followed after.

Big Dumb Object (BDO) - The science fiction term refers to any mysterious object (usually of extraterrestrial or unknown origin and immense power) in a story which generates an intense sense of wonder just by being there. For example the Monoliths in 2001 A Space Odyssey, or The Void Ship in Doctor Who.

Brenda Starr dialogue - Long sections of talk with no physical background or description of the characters. Such dialogue, detached from the story’s setting, tends to echo hollowly, as if suspended in mid-air. Named for the American comic-strip in which dialogue balloons were often seen emerging from the Manhattan skyline.

“Burly Detective” Syndrome - This useful term is taken from SF’s cousin-genre, the detective-pulp. The hack writers of the Mike Shayne series showed an odd reluctance to use Shayne’s proper name, preferring such euphemisms as “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” This syndrome arises from a wrong-headed conviction that the same word should not be used twice in close succession. This is only true of particularly strong and visible words, such as “vertiginous.” Better to re-use a simple tag or phrase than to contrive cumbersome methods of avoiding it.

Brand Name Fever - Use of brand name alone, without accompanying visual detail, to create false verisimilitude. You can stock a future with Hondas and Sonys and IBM’s and still have no idea with it looks like.

“Call a Rabbit a Smeerp“ - A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)

 Chekhov's gun -  "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." – Anton Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889. It is a metaphor for a plot device or foreshadowing, which if shown or discussed should be used later.

Deus Ex Machina - Latin for: God from the machine. 
This device goes all the way back to ancient Greece, where a problem in the story is solved by the sudden invention of something that saves the day.  It’s often criticized as lacking imagination on the part of the author, as it often violates the internal logic of a story.

Gingerbread - Useless ornament in prose, such as fancy sesquipedalian Latinate words where short clear English ones will do. Novice authors sometimes use “gingerbread” in the hope of disguising faults and conveying an air of refinement. (Attr. Damon Knight)

Head Hopping - Moving from one POV to another in the same scene without a scene break

MacGuffin - "[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers." -- Alfred Hitchcock
A plot device that provides the initial motivation for a character, and it may or may not end up coming back into the story at the end.

Not Simultaneous - The mis-use of the present participle is a common structural sentence-fault for beginning writers. “Putting his key in the door, he leapt up the stairs and got his revolver out of the bureau.” Alas, our hero couldn’t do this even if his arms were forty feet long. This fault shades into “Ing Disease,” the tendency to pepper sentences with words ending in “-ing,” a grammatical construction which tends to confuse the proper sequence of events. (Attr. Damon Knight)

Pathetic Fallacy - A literary term for the attributing of human emotion and conduct to all aspects within nature. It is a kind of personification that is found in poetic writing when, for example, clouds seem sullen, when leaves dance, when dogs laugh, or when rocks seem indifferent.

Quibble - A plot device where the exact verbal directions are followed to the letter but avoid its intended meaning, such as: A deal with the Devil, or Genie Wishes, or in The Lord of the RingsGlorfindel's prophecy states that "not by the hand of man will the Witch-king of Angmar fall." The Witch-king is slain by Éowyn, a woman.

Pushbutton Words - Words used to evoke a cheap emotional response without engaging the intellect or the critical faculties. Commonly found in story titles, they include such bits of bogus lyricism as “star,” “dance,” “dream,” “song,” “tears” and “poet,” clichés calculated to render the SF audience misty-eyed and tender-hearted.

Red herring - A false clue that leads the characters toward an inaccurate conclusion within the plot of a story, considered to be the opposite of Chekhov’s Gun.
The Chewbacca Defense is starting to come into the lexicon as a famous Red Herring It refers to a South Park episode and refers to using something so patently absurd that it makes no sense and creates confusion.

Red Shirt - Expendable, refers to the crewmen of the TV Series Star Trek who were often killed during a mission.

 Retroactive continuity or Retcon - An alteration of facts about a story that already been published in order to accommodate a sequel or prequel, or simply to correct errors in the original chronology of events. Commonly used in Comic Books and Pulp Fiction.

Retronym - A neologism that gives a new name to an old object because of some development that requires clarification, such as Acoustic Guitar after the Electric Guitar was developed.

Roget’s Disease - The ludicrous overuse of far-fetched adjectives, piled into a festering, fungal, tenebrous, troglodytic, ichorous, leprous, synonymic heap. (Attr. John W. Campbell)

“Said” Bookism - An artificial verb used to avoid the word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the English language and is almost impossible to overuse. It is much less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” “he ejaculated,” and other oddities. The term “said-book” comes from certain pamphlets, containing hundreds of purple-prose synonyms for the word “said,” which were sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era.

Tautology - Needless repeating of a word or idea, such as 'final result'

The Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis - A character from television series St Elsewhere who, in the last episode was seen waking up and the entire series was in his imagination. Refers to using the “it was all a dream” idea to end a story.

General Terms

Active Voice - Writing where the subject of the sentence is carrying out action

ARC - Advanced Reader Copy, printed before the actual print run on a new book

Auxiliary or Helping verb - A verb that goes with another verb (have or do)

Back Matter - Back pages of a book that have appendixes, indexes and endnotes

Bastard Title - Optional first page of a book containing only the title and nothing else

Blank Verse - Unrhymed poetry, very popular in current writing circles

Block Quote - A quotation set off from the main text (usually indented) and NOT surrounded by quotes

Bluelines - Final proofs that offer a last chance to make changes

Boilerplate - Standard text used in multiple documents with little or no change, usually referring to contract language

Bubble - The circle that surrounds editors comments

Chicago Style - The preferred method used by The Chicago Manual of Style - style guide for writing

Cliché - An expression or idea that is so overused that the meaning is weakened, more commonly used today to mean stereotypical or predictable

Clip - A sample of work

Conventions - Mechanical correctness, spelling, grammar, usage, indenting, capitals, and punctuation

Dead Copy - Final edited Manuscript that is used to proof typesetting (less commonly used with software)

Draft - Preliminary version of a piece that will likely require revision and editing

Editing - Proof reading for mechanical features of writing, spelling, punctuation, etc

Ellipses -  … there are several methods to show this in manuscript, check with your editor or agent on how to show these.

Em Dash - a style of showing a break in thought. Style manuals show 2 and 2 em dashes and their uses.

Fair Use - Allowing copying of short portions of copyrighted material for educational or review purposes

Forward - Introductory statement in the front matter written by someone other than the author

Front Matter - Printed material at the start of a book including title page, table of contents and dedications

Front Piece - A page in the front matter facing the title page, usually containing an illustration and often on different card stock

Galley - The first printed version (proof) of a document

GLB - Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual

H/H - Hero and Heroine (A couple in a romance novel)

HEA - Happily ever after (used in the romance genre)

het - Heterosexual

HFN - Happy for Now (used in the romance genre for how the story ends)

Hook - The important part of a work at the beginning that captures a reader's interest

House Style - Preferred editorial style of a publisher

Imprint - A branding name used by a publisher for books they release, one publisher may have several

ISBN - Unique number assigned to each book by a publisher, now a 13 digit number, not necessarily required by self-publication

Lead or Lede - The first couple of lines of a story

Ligature - Special characters formed by combining two or more letters, such as æ  

Logline - A brief description of a piece, usually a teaser

MC - Main Character

Meme - Pronounced ‘meem’ - an idea, belief or system of beliefs that spreads among a culture

NaNoWriMo - Pronounced ‘Nah No Rye Moe’, National Novel Writing Month, a 50k word writing challenge for the month of November

Neologism - A new word or expression

On Acceptance - Payment received only when the editor accepts the final manuscript

On Publication - Payment received only when the MS is published

On Spec - A submission accepted without obligation to publish it

Orphan or Widow First line of a paragraph that appears at the bottom of a page by itself

Parenthetical - Using these (), still acceptable but falling out of use in fiction

Passive Voice - A sentence where the subject is being acted upon instead of doing the action

Pitch - A short description of a piece

POD - Print on Demand

POV - Point of view - the perspective of the story, 1st person

Preface - Introductory statement in the front matter written by the AUTHOR

Prewriting - Invention, Brainstorming, Researching, Plotting, Outlining,Character development, in other words, things done before starting on the first draft

Proof - A trial sheet printed to be checked and corrected; a galley is the first proof

Query - A sales letter showcasing writing style, usually limited in length to 1 or 2 pages

Reproduction Proof - A high quality proof for final review before printing

Revising - Making structural or content changes to a draft

Royalty - The Percentage of book sales paid to the author by the publisher

Run-on Sentence - A sentence containing two or more independent clauses improperly joined or simply too long

Serial Comma - Comma preceding 'and' or 'or' in a list of items

Show Don't Tell - Writing in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through the description of actions, thought, senses and feelings rather than through exposition or summary

Stet - Proofreading mark indicating that the editing marks should be ignored and the text displayed as the original (let it stand)

Synopsis - A longer description of a piece, usually including all the secrets and how the story ends, these can be different lengths for different purposes, usually in the range of 2 pages for agent submission

Trim or Boil - To reduce the length of a story

Vanity Press or Publisher - Where the author pays to have their work published and covers all out of pocket expenses themselves

Voice (Author's Voice) -  The personality of the writer coming through the words

WIP - Work in progress, usually the current project being written

YA - Young Adult genre

Editing terms or Abbreviations

ASGCM - American Suburban Gated-Community McCastles - Castle or palace settings where royals don't actually act like royals and answer the door themselves, dress themselves, etc

awk - Awkward sentence or phrase

cap - Capitalization

DTG - Delete the grimace

FBP - Floating Body Parts, using description in a way that gives action to the character/person, not his/her independent body parts, like 'Her eyes roamed the room' or giving people smiles

frag - Sentence Fragment

gr - Grammar error

ital - Italicize

lc - lower case

MS - Manuscript

mss - manuscript formatting

nc or ? - Not clear or confusing

p - Punctuation

P E - Printer's Error

R O - Run-on sentence

ref - Pronoun antecedent is unclear

RUE - Resist the urge to explain

SDT - Show, Don't tell

sp - Spelling Error

ss - Sentence structure error

- Incorrect Verb tense

Tr - Transposition error

TSTL - Character acting Too Stupid To Live

UC - Upper Case

wc - Word Choice

Grammar Terms (Just a little refresher)

Alliteration - A series of words all beginning with the same letter or sound

Anagram - A word or phrase formed by transposing the letters of another word or phrase

Antecedent - A word or phrase that is referred to by a pronoun

Clause - A complete phrase containing a noun and verb that is part of a compound sentence

Complex Sentence - A sentence containing an independent clause and one or more dependent clauses

Compound Sentence - A sentence containing two or more clauses separated by 'and', 'but' or 'or'

Gerund - A form of verb acting as a noun and ending in 'ing', like 'acting' (present participle)

Homograph - Words spelled the same but pronounced differently and having different meaning

Homonym - Word spelled and pronounced the same way but with different meaning

Hyperbole - Extravagant and deliberate exaggeration

Idiom - A phrase peculiar to one geographic area or group of people

Imperative - A word used as a command; Go

Independent Clause - A group of words containing a subject, verb, and if necessary, an object, that can stand alone as a sentence

Indirect Object - The object preceding the direct object that tells to whom or for whom the verb is acting, such as 'me' in 'He sold me'

Interrogative Pronoun - A pronoun used to ask a question, What, Which, Where, Whom, Whose, etc

Intransitive Verb - A verb that doesn't need a direct object, such as 'she fainted'

Metaphor - A phrase comparing two unalike things WITHOUT using 'like' or 'as'

Onomatopoeia - Use of Words whose pronunciation sounds like their meaning, like Buzz or Hiss

Oxymoron - Phrase consisting of words with contradictory meaning, military intelligence

Palindrome - A phrase or word that reads the same forward or backward

Participle - A verb form ending in 'ing' or 'ed' that can be used as an adjective

Personification - Giving human traits to non-human objects

Predicate - Part of a sentence, excluding the subject, that tells about the subject

Restrictive Clause - A subordinate clause essential to the meaning of the sentence and which does not require a coma preceding it

Sentence Splice - connecting two independent clauses with a comma

Simile - Comparing two similar things using 'like' or 'as'

Split Infinitive - A verb form where an adverb or phrase comes between the 'to' and the verb

Subordinating Conjunction - A conjunction such as 'although, because, since, while' that precedes a subordinate clause

Transitive Verb - A verb that requires a direct object, 'he threw the ball'

Page Set-up or Style words

Curly Quotes - Special Quotation marks slanted toward the quote (smart quotes)

Deck - The sentence or two under the title of a book

Folio - The page number on a page; blind folio has no page number but counts in the page count

Kerning - Adjusting the space between characters

Leading - Adjusting space between lines of text

N - Short for number

Nut Graf - The paragraph right after the hook which explains an article

Plate - A full page illustration, often on higher grade paper or different color

Running Head - A title that is repeated at the top of every page

Sink - Distance from the top of a printed page to the first element on that page

Slug Line - ALL CAPS - location and time of day

There is a link to this on the top line that I will keep updated with the most current version.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Review of Steel Victory by J. L. Gribble

J. L. Gribble has created a captivating alternate reality in her debut novel, full of magic and vampires and were-creatures. The story centers around a centuries old female vampire named Victory and her adopted family, and the city-state she's cultivated as a safe zone between the British and Romans empires.

Victory has tried to step back in her control of the city politics, but as often happens, subversive elements creep in and try to undermine all she has accomplished. A new Roman Emperor also threatens to destroy the peace that has been established by treaty for decades.

But her family is not one to be trifled with. They all have military training and varying degrees of experience in the arts of war. A mercenary guild helps protect the city as well, with ties that go back to the birth of the city. But their little hamlet is no match for an entire legion from either the Brits or the Romans, so they must rely on savvy politics to keep their status as a free-state.

The characters are all singular, well-developed, and interesting. She uses strong female characters as the main points of view, while not a new thing, it does add flavor to the historical fantasy trope, especially Victory as a matriarch of the city-state and the anchor of the story.

Mrs. Gribble's prose is excellent, a very well-done novel from a first-time author. The story is tight and moves quickly. It drew me right in. I would definitely qualify this novel as a page-turner. She keeps cranking up the tension, and just when you think things couldn't get any worse, she takes up another notch.

The timeframe this story takes place in is hard to pin down. The alternate history of Romans and Greeks still playing a large part on the world scene would imply an older venue, but it's post-apocalyptic, taking place long after a nuclear war that has devastated much of the land. Certain types of technology have been rendered useless by Elven magic but there is a history of gun making that could be taken out of our current science. The history of this world intrigues me and I hope we find out more about it in the other books in this series. She currently has this planned as a trilogy with the next book set to release sometime in 2016.

If you like vampires or urban fantasy this should be in your wheelhouse. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Review of Life and Death by Stephenie Meyer

        Full disclosure, I've read all of the Twilight books, and The Host, and I enjoyed them all to varying degrees. I credit Stephenie Meyer with getting me to write. The thing I enjoy about her style of writing, say what you will, it is easy to read. I wanted to do something similar in my own writing. Everyone seems to have an opinion on her writing, and my friends reactions when I announced I was going to read this were all over the map.

        If you enjoyed Twilight you will likely enjoy Life and Death. Meyer flipped the genders of all the characters, except for the parents of the main character. The story is a re-imagining of the original book, and there are differences . . . some significant and some trivial, but I won't put any spoilers in this piece.

        The bad stuff.

        It is the basic plot scheme of the original, so the flaws with that story come along with this one. If you hated the premise, that hasn't really changed. I didn't though, so this is simply pointing out the obvious. She uses some filters in a few places that serve to distance the reader a little, but barely noticeable during the read through. Some of the plot ideas are weak, like the baseball game or the way that a kid with no apparent skill can endear himself to a small school so quickly. The main character, Beaufort, Beau for short, has no interest in sports or video games or anything other than cleaning the house and cooking. I've raised two boys, known lots of boys, hell I was a boy a long time ago, and I've never met anyone that remotely comes close to this character. He's also clumsier than the Keystone Cops, even more clumsy than Bella. Meyer explains that Beau has been taking care of his mom for most of his life, and I can understand that, and even the "old soul" idea, but she takes it a bit far. That's about it though. I actually like Beau and he's not whiny like Bella was.

        I missed Alice. The Archie character has the same abilities but lacks some of the charisma that the petite Alice had. Putting her spunky package in a guy didn't really work for me.

        The good stuff.

        I really enjoyed reading it. I read it quickly and it drew me to keep reading. I cared about the characters and the especially found myself drawn to Edythe. I get why women of all ages fell in love with Edward. Meyer paints Edythe in a way that is very appealing. I think most guys that read this will get the fantasy girl thing.

        Meyer is very good at drawing on emotions. She does a lot of inner monologuing, so you are really in Beau's head and understand just how incredible Edythe is to him, and therefore to us. At least to me. Women will probably have a different reaction to this story than the original. The lead doesn't have the charisma of an Edward or a Jacob.

        Meyer explains in the preface that she tried to really draw out the differences in the genders and the characters mostly reflect this. Knowing the plot of the original story and the characters made for interesting reading, because it is not a one for one correlation. It starts out much the same way plotwise, but it starts to go off the beaten path a little bit past the halfway mark. I like the way it changed. I was dreading some of the events that I knew happened in the original story, to Meyer's credit, she made me care again.

        I read this book with different eyes than the original. I finished an MFA in writing before reading this version and I have to say I didn't want to put it down. I looked for speed bumps that might draw me out, and of course the writing's not perfect, but she really tells a compelling story. This one made a lot more sense in many ways and ending left nothing up in the air. It has a finality to it that is also satisfying.

        I would recommend this book to anyone that likes urban fantasy. You won't have to have read the first one to enjoy this one.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Are Electronic Search Tools Ruining Our Memory?

These stories are all over the internet lately. They play right into the the premise of my story Quintessence.

Google and electronic devices are ruining our memory

NBC Story on Digital Amnesia

UK Daily Mail story

Newser 6 signs you're Suffering from Digital Amnesia

What happens when you become completely reliant on these digital aides when they are taken away? You'll have to read it to find out!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Dark Side of Public Discourse and the Internet

This is a very broad topic and some smart person could probably do a doctoral thesis on this subject. The internet is an amazing technological gift and I don't think anyone envisioned the sort of potential it had when in its fledgling state. The ability to connect people from all over the world in real-time has unlocked an unprecedented global community. 

It's facilitated the Arab Spring, which the jury is still out on whether that is going to turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing. We've seen a young woman (Justine Sacco) vilified for making an off-color tweet in a poor attempt at humor that cost her job and ruined her reputation. We've seen young people commit suicide because of cyber-bullying. Harassment and death threats are rampant. And what is turning into a horrible custom--people jumping on the bandwagon of something they have very little knowledge of and creating a mob mentality. All of these things have happened and are happening, and it's sickening. Gamergate, Puppygate, leftwing vs. rightwing politics, I don't even want to get started on the details, but these things impinge on my daily visit to the web. News spreads at a viral pace now and people don't bother to take the time to see if things are true or not, they just take at gospel because everyone else says it's horrible. It must be bad if so many people say it is. It's as if a "journalist" from a gossip magazine is running the internet.

Why is it we want to believe the worst in everyone? The corporate world is not immune either (Examples of Social Media Crisis.)

And here is the worst part. If you speak out against something you are inviting the hordes to your doorstep. In some cases, literally. I'm hesitant to take a stand on any issue now. Who needs that kind of drama in their life? I know I don't, but I do think about stuff, and want to take a stand on things I feel strongly about without being singled out as the target du jour. Free speech should mean we all get to have a say, and be able to do it in a civil manner.

I don't know how we fix it. This age of free speech is different than any other time, because the reach is nearly instantaneous and global. My old roommate used to say, "Why can't everyone just be cool?" What is it about being insulated by your keyboard that gives people carte blanche to be A-holes? It's a little like road rage. It's a lot like pitchforks and torches and burning people at the stake, or a lynch mob--the worst type of social justice with no trial.

We need a new age of civility, social rules for the internet. I would rather see people chastised for breaking etiquette when he or she is being an A-hole, but not death threats, simple peer pressure to do better, that it's not acceptable behavior. I like what Chuck Wendig says about trying to be your best self on social media. I would love to see us be nice to each other, all the time, everywhere. I wish every person could be treated equally, male or female, gay or straight, black or white or whatever, all the time.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but I get the feeling we are on the cusp of something big. I don't know if it's going to be a good thing or a bad thing. I'm reminded of the first age of public discourse back in fourth century Athens, where orators were pleading with the public in courts and public events, to change the course of politics in their day. But that is nothing compared to the way disinformation flies around the world at the speed of light today. We can do so much with the connectivity we have now, but that could mean wonderful things or horrible things. This new age of communication is just beginning, and who knows how it will mutate as it matures. We do have the power of choice. We can chose to stand up for niceness. Or we can pile on.

Here's hoping niceness prevails.

Monday, March 23, 2015

My Journey to get an Agent

Used by Permission Hersson Piratoba
Are you or someone you know looking for an agent? Let me share with you what I've learned in the process. I'm aiming at fiction novelists. If you write short stories, or non-fiction or anything other than novel length fiction this isn't really for you.

There are a few things you will need to start the process--a manuscript, a query letter, a synopsis, and a list of agents.

First and foremost you need a finished manuscript. You can prep the other stuff, but before you send the first thing to a potential agent you need to have your MS completed, reviewed by alphas and betas, and edited as well as possible. It should be polished to a fine sheen, because this is the thing that will cement the deal. Even if you write a great query and a great synopsis, if your manuscript is subpar the agent is going to pass. Make all the arguments you want about story trumping writing or vice versa, but it will still come down to making that agent fall in love with your novel. Work hard on getting the first part of your story to really grab attention and showcase your voice, because it is the first thing the agent will read. Well, duh, but really, it needs to shine, because they always want the first pages--anywhere from ten to thirty or maybe the first three chapters. I'm just going to assume you did this part and move on. Don't make me regret it.

We've toiled on our manuscript for months or years and it's ready to be seen, so the next step is to work on your query letter. The query letter usually includes an introduction, a pitch, and a short bio. It should be double-spaced 12 font, and don't get fancy with the font. My preference is Times New Roman for this stuff. Ideally, it will be all on one page.

The concept for the query is to pique the interest of the prospective agent. Because of this, you need to personalize each one for every agent you query. So, while working on your pitch, you need to start developing a list of agents. Agent Query is a great resource to start ( or you can just Google "your genre" and "agent" to see what comes up. Chuck Sambuchino has a great list at Writer's Digest ( and he updates it with new agents as they emerge. Preditors and Editors ( provides a wide-ranging database for lots of stuff, including which agents to avoid, whether or not they charge to review your work, legal services, and convention lists, just to name a few things. Agents that charge reading fees are warned against, as reputable agents do not charge a reading fee. Absolute Write Water Cooler is another good resource for reviews of agents. (

Take the time to do some research on the agent you select. If you have a connection mention it. If you met them at a con remind them. He or she will usually want your word count and genre listed in this introduction section. If they don't care about such things the agency listing should say. Or if you find an interview online they might mention specific likes or dislikes in a query. Some have done video blogs or live chats where these kinds of things are discussed.

Their agency website will have information about the submission process and their agents, especially their genre preferences, and usually a little bit of personal stuff, like favorite writers. Also take a look at their client list to see if you're a fan of one of their authors,or even if they have any yet. If the client list isn't mentioned on the agency page you can find out on Query Tracker. ( It's also a great resource for finding agents. The agency website will also have the submission guidelines. Follow them. Every agency is different. Some will have a simple submission worksheet that will be very limited, asking for contact info, a short bio, and a pitch. Others will take 30 pages and a query letter. More will want a full synopsis and first ten pages of your manuscript with the query letter. From my experience, most will want a query, a short synopsis (1-2 pages) and the first ten to fifteen pages of your MS. Pay attention to the details; they're usually quite specific. They will often have one email address to sent your query to, and might share within the agency if the particular agent you targeted thinks you might be a better fit with someone else. Some will have you contact the individual agent directly.

These days most prefer an email with everything including in the body of the email. There will usually be a clear note not to use attachments. Your email will get deleted without being read if you don't pay attention to this. There are still a few holdouts that will only take snail-mail packages.

The meat of the query letter is the pitch, and it needs to have a hook. The sole purpose is to get the agent to ask for your manuscript. This is the part you are going to spend the most time on. You want a one to two paragraph lure for your story, including the stakes and the thing that sets your story apart. I recommend sticking to the protagonist, and maybe the antagonist, and provide the agent with something enticing. There are lots of good places on the web to get help with these. I started with Query Shark (,) which a lot of my friends used as well. Jane Friedman also has a good page for these. ( Writer's Digest has a nice Dos and Don'ts page. (

Once you've created that pitch, you can test it out at several blogs. These two will post on their blog and publically critique: Writer Writer Pants on Fire ( and Kyra Nelson. ( At Agent Query, it's more like a club. ( are sites popping up and folding pretty regularly, and at the time I posted this all of these were still active. There are contests all the time, so don't be afraid to do some searches on the web when you've drafted your pitch.

For your bio, keep it short, but include any other work you've had published or any experience you have that is germane to your story, like you're an attorney and you write court dramas, that sort of thing. School history is a good thing to include, especially if it pertains to writing, for example an MFA. These things aren't required and if you are a fledgling writer with no writing credits just keep it simple. That won't stop them from reading your work. A great pitch will overcome a lot.

The next thing on the list is the synopsis. The synopsis is a full summary of your story with all the spoilers and secrets revealed, including the ending. There are resources online for how to do this, but essentially it is a scene summary of the conflict in your story. Carly Watters has a nice "how to" on her blog ( Jane Friedman also has a great helper ( I would make several of these of varying lengths--a one page, a two page and a full, which could be up to ten pages. These are usually single-spaced, and nobody has told me different. What they are looking for here is can you tell a complete story. Do your best to keep some of your narrative voice in these.

Lastly, I created a spreadsheet in Excel to track who I sent to and when, what they asked for, and a place for responses and comments. I used a default rejection if I didn't hear anything back after two months. You could always resubmit if this happens. Most advice I've seen is wait at least 30 days for any follow-up. Some agencies welcome trying other agents in their house after a month, and some will tell you not to bother.

You want to keep your manuscript on sub until you have success. My goal was to always have it out to at least four all the time. If someone asks you for an exclusive there needs to be a reasonable timeframe included, 30 to 60 days is normal. Don't let someone lock it up perpetually.

I actually have my MS with an agent right now, waiting to see if he will want to represent me. If he says yes, then the next step of the process starts, seeing how well you work together. Just because you get an offer of representation doesn't mean you have to take it either. Read the fine print on the contract. Obviously, the more reputable the agency the less you have to worry about this, but you still need to read the contract carefully.

Keep your chin up. There will be lots of rejection. Some of it will be nice, some will be generic, and some will seem to simply ignore you. Stay professional, and in the meantime, work on the next project. I wish you all the luck in the world.

Clear Ether!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Love Your Words (but not too much)

Ziegler has a lot of great quotes in his book, The Writing Workshop Notebook, but this one made me laugh and at the same time it rings very true. I spend a lot of time on picking the right words. I spend even more time picking out names of characters and places.

Words have power. They set tone and image and put the reader into the world you are creating. My wife thinks I spend too much time worrying about such things, but the wrong word can be jarring or confusing to the reader, and may draw them out of the story, maybe for only a moment, but great writing is experienced, not just read. When done extraordinarily well, the author becomes invisible and the reader simply goes along for the ride.

Contrary-wise, when the wrong words are chosen, or when there are too many, the reader gets bogged down and can certainly tell there is a conductor at the front of the locomotive who is determined to drive the train off the tracks.

Writers can fall in love with certain passages, and sometimes it can be to the detriment of the story. Less is more may be a cliché, but it's usually true. We've all read stories that were clunky or overly wordy. It's actually one of my pet peeves. I get irritated when the author goes on and on about a particular subject or describes everything in sight in excruciating detail. The consequence is that I skip the passage. If the writer stubbornly continues I may put the book down altogether.

I actually did a blog post about Neal Stephenson's Reamde, Don't Reamde!, if you care to read it, because he is about the most verbose writer of our generation. He doesn't use an editor anymore, at least that is the rumor, and the book could be easily half the length and still tell the same story. I will never read another of his books because he loves his words too much.

Sometimes even when you love them you need to set them free!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Saving the Novel Writer, One Cat at a Time

There doesn't appear to be a consensus from my informal survey of Goodreads and blog sites on Save the Cat in most writing circles. Some would say it needs its own "save the cat" moment. Others are devoted to the teachings laid out within. I found it useful in several ways. A point in Blake Snyder's favor is that he provides exercises at the end of each chapter and gives a lot of excellent examples.

Snyder opens strong with his logline concept. The idea of being able to sum up your story in one sentence has its appeal. It will make pitching your book all that much simpler, but it is certainly easier said than done. Blake's construct is framed around having the "Big Idea" from the start. There is value in this, but his focus is on selling the script to a producer, not on helping frame the book.

He even goes so far as to try to convince the reader that the title of the project should reflect the logline. The titles may be self evident but they certainly aren't "killer" as he would put it. They lack imagination.

Having a logline before you start seems like a good idea if you want to write a story using your craft skills. I can see a lot of "pantsers" arguing that this would strip the soul from their story, but it can be a useful starting point to deviate from perhaps. Trying to go back and capture a logline after the first draft is well underway can be a daunting task.

The next chapter lacks focus but the bottom line is read in your genre and avoid clichés. Snyder confuses the reader with talk about doing the same thing but different, and then provides a list of the different types of movie plots. He refers to them as genre, but they are not the same thing that novel writer would recognize. Perhaps there is profit in this for a screenwriter, but it's more plot focused than genre focused.

Blake follows this with selecting your hero. Here again it can be a little confusing for the novel writer. Snyder says, "It has to be about someone. It has to have one or two people we can focus our attention on, identify with, and want to root for - and someone who can carry the movie's theme." This is all fine and good, but his focus is more on picking a character that will amp up the logline. What I think he actually means is that you need to pick the character that can tell your story and has the most at stake. This is critical. There are craft things we can do to make the character more or less sympathetic, so maybe there is a little of cart before the horse here. I think Snyder knows that, but simply has trouble putting it in the right context. We see snippets in this chapter about his focus of selling the script versus telling a good story, when he talks about not writing the script for a particular actor or type. That is probably good advice for a screenwriter, but not necessarily important for a novel writer.

Next, we get to the meat and potatoes of the book, where the advice is widely praised for its story structure ideas. The three act play and Snyder's fifteen beats are great fundamentals to hang a story on. He goes through each beat, providing good descriptions of what they are, with solid examples. He also explains how they fit within the three act play structure. This chapter alone is the payoff for the entire book. His advice to hit the mark on the proper page can be taken with a grain of salt, but the beats are sound.

The section that follows is also gold. Snyder talks about the value of a good mentor, to which I can attest, and he lays out the storyboard concept.

I've had a lot of mentor figures in my life, both good and bad, and there are beneficial things to be learned from both, but a great mentor is invaluable. It's like a fastpass to learning tricks-of-the-trade along with the fundamentals. They may also furnish priceless networking connections. Even the less good ones can often provide at least a few lessons, as well as showcasing how not to do it if the roles are reversed.

The storyboard idea can be used in pre and post draft work. For someone who enjoys outlining and plotting ahead of time the storyboard is a great way to see if you are staying on track and hitting all your marks. For someone who would rather seat-of-the-pants write, the storyboard can clarify the plot structure and framework of the draft, showing where things might need to be cut or moved around to better fit the flow of the story. I like his concept of using note-cards and limiting them to 40. This keeps the work focused and forces the writer to examine every scene to see if it moves the story forward. I especially like Blake's idea of writing down on each card the emotional change and conflict for each scene. These comments make the story arc easier to visualize, and the ability to color code and add further clarity by tying concepts or arcs together.

The next two chapters go into pitfalls to watch out for, and then he closes with a potpourri of things about selling scripts and stuff that really doesn't do much for the novel writer.

Overall, I found a lot of value in this book. Blake's focus on selling to a producer versus good story telling leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many writers, but there are nuggets of gold in these pages if you can grasp the underlying meaning. The concrete examples he uses provide a clear picture of the concepts and his structure ideas are well worth the read.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Art and Craft of Telling Stories on Paper

This is from a paper I did for my MFA program.
Stephen King's On Writing is more than just a book on how to write. It is a memoir and a journal about how he wrote several of his best sellers. It also showcases his keen eye for what makes a good story.

King is in the camp that believes writers are born, at various skill levels. A writer cannot be made of someone who is not born a "writer". Mr. King does believe that the skill can be sharpened, thank goodness.

I found the memoir section engaging. I'm not sure why this surprised me. Each of these little vignettes was a little story of its own. Even though they were non-fiction, they were quite entertaining. He remembered things that had some aspect that was either jarring or gross. Elements that, no doubt, helped shape the direction his writing life would take. I definitely empathize with getting poison ivy in all the wrong places as a kid. I did notice, however, that even Stephen King uses passive voice when describing something, colorful and evocative though it may have been.

Another facet that helped forge the writer King was to become -- his voracious appetite for reading. He experimented with copying form, and the encouragement of his mother was enough to set him on his course. It amazes me that he still remembers the first thing he wrote.

I gleaned a few writing tips from the first part of the book, including turning off the television and learning to recognize ideas when they show up, usually two unrelated ideas that come together. Also, writing a lot, and develop a thick skin. Stephen wrote a ton, and kept submitting stories despite rejection after rejection. He watched a lot of movies and paid attention, soaking up the stories. But any writing endeavor was usually accompanied with a dose of disapproval. Shame from writing "junk," and not living up to his talent, started early in Junior High School. "If you write . . . someone will try to make you feel lousy about it."

John Gould, editor for the "Lisbon Weekly Enterprise," taught Steve a valuable lesson when he had a brief stint as a sports writer. "When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story." Gould's other quote that resonated with King was, "Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open." He mentions this idea several times throughout the book.

After college, King got a job teaching English. He said that teaching zapped his brain, and writing got hard for the first time in his life. Despite that he kept at it. By then he was married, and living hand-to-mouth in real poverty, but his wife kept encouraging him to write. In discussing the development of his first big money piece, Carrie, he learned that stopping a piece just because it's hard is a bad idea.

King talked about his drug and alcohol addiction. His discussion on mind-altering substances, spoken from someone who knows, is a message that needed to be addressed, lest our young artists fall into the same trap trying to emulate Earnest Hemingway. After getting sober, he came to appreciate his life even more. "Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around."

In the next part of the book he gets down to the nitty gritty about writing. It's chock full of good nuggets of writing wisdom. I've heard the analogy several times but King has a colorful way of describing the idea that writing is like telepathy, across space and time, from the writer's mind to the reader's. He had some concrete ideas on how to go about starting writing. Construct your far-seeing place, your writing cave. Someplace that you can go, away from distraction. Take the craft seriously, and read a lot.

Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals. Grammar is touched on, but not at length as he felt this is an entry level requirement. Vocabulary should not be dressed up, but honest, direct, and clear. Words are only a representation of meaning, and may fall short, so you need to strive for clarity. Avoid passive verbs and adverbs are not your friend. "The road to hell is paved with adverbs . . . " His favored dialogue attribution is "said." He is a fan of Strunk and White Elements of Style.

King thinks the paragraph is the basic unit of writing, "where coherence begins." The pace should be varied with beat and rhythm. "The object of fiction isn't grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and tell a story. To make them forget they are reading."

Mr. King shared advice about how to go about telling a story. Write about anything as long as you tell the truth. Don't commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Meaning "write what you like, then imbue it with life, friendships, relationships, sex and work." Write a lot and read a lot. He reads seventy to eighty books a year. Set a daily word goal. He recommended a thousand words a day. He shoots for two thousand. Don't wait for the muse to show up--write six days out of seven. He also listens to music, which he related as another way to "shut the door."

King is a self-confessed pantser and thinks that outlining robs something from creativity. He believes that plotting and spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible. "Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest." (This has Timons Esaias written all over it!)