Friday, March 14, 2008

Ok, enough negatives..what works?

1. Tell me the outline of the plot: Marcia Brady needs money for a hit man to take care of the blackmailer. If she doesn't pay the blackmailer, photos of her original nose will be sent to the Miss America judges. Marsha has wanted to be Miss America her whole life, and unbeknownst to her, Canadian terrorists have threatened to invade Minneapolis if Marcia Brady is denied the sceptre and sash.

2. Tell me the book opens in the middle of action or conflict: The book opens as Marcia discovers the hit man is her brother Greg.


3. Tell me the word count.

4. Tell me where you'd find it in a bookstore. Classics is not an option. Neither is Bestsellers.

5. Tell me if you've previously published anything including having screenplays optioned. Include the publisher and the film company. It doesn't count if you just say you're published without including details.

6. Include the first 3-5 pages of the novel. I can't emphasize enough how important this is. I will overlook almost every fault in a raggedyass query letter if the writing is good. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by sending ONLY the query letter.

OTHER AGENTS may differ on this, but with me, I want to see the writing right off the bat. (If you're planning on attending a conference where I'll be, I'll ask for pages there too, regardless of what the conference says. It's about the writing, not how much we both like Scotch.)

15 comments:

Chris Pommier said...

Recently started reading your blog.

Wow. I desperately want to read the book outlined in #1.

Thanks for the advice!

Usman said...

Thanks again for this second list.

Southern Writer said...

I'm glad you mentioned this. There's something I've been wanting to ask you for a while. The formula for a hook / plot is:

X is the main guy;
Y is the bad guy;
They meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don't solve Q, then R starts and if they do, it's L squared.

At the very least, the hook is supposed to give the reader a sense of the conflict, right? So, without naming any of the titles/authors/agents/publishers involved, books that recently sold were described in Publisher's Lunch (or Publisher's Weekly) as:

the first in a series set during the Civil War about an impoverished woman who becomes an assistant to the owner of a plantation and the richest woman in America -- involving blockade running, runaway slaves, the art world, and a master gardener who teaches her where true beauty can be found

about a world where the days of a man's life can be harvested, bought, and stolen

a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan

set in an all-American high school whose juvenile delinquents are the offspring of the giant-brained aliens and atomic monsters immortalized in the golden age of Hollywood B-movies

a literary thriller set in World War II Berlin

one post-collegiate idealist on his quest to fit in with - and then separate himself from - D.C.'s political and social elite

Southern gothic novella concerning the residents of a fictional town in the Shenandoah Valley and the sometimes dark goings on there

While I get a good sense of what these books are about, I can't pick out a specific conflict in any of them. I wish I could read the queries where these books were pitched to the agents who took them on. I have a feeling that if I pitched my novel to you as

"A group of friends torn apart by tragedy reunite twenty-five years later"

that I would get a big fat "not for me," in return. It seems like a bit of a double standard on the part of agents and publishers.

150 said...

southern writer-

I notice that your hook is different from the others in that it lacks specificity. I have the feeling that if you pitched something more like, "A group of friends torn apart by a failed suicide pact reunites twenty-five years later in war-torn Baghdad" it might get some interest.

My two cents, YMMV, etc.

Southern Writer said...

Thanks, 150. That's not really my hook, it was just an example, maybe a poor one, to make my point. None of the hooks (or log lines) shown above are specific when it comes to detailing the conflict. Which is not to say they don't tell us what the book is about. And that's my point. We spend a lot of time constructing a hook that details the plot line, when one sentence could do the job. Publisher's Lunch certainly thinks so. Janet is always trying to teach us the right way to do things, so I was hoping she would explain why, when querying, a log line isn't enough to entice an agent to request more. Is it only because the agent wants to make sure we have a plot, and know how to organize it?

I read a lot of women’s fiction, and I want to be successful at writing it, so recently, I’ve been re-reading some best sellers with an eye for how they’re structured, and I’m getting confused.

For instance, White Oleander (Janet Fitch) is basically about Astrid’s journey through various foster homes after her mother goes to jail for murder. There are many complications, but no single antagonist opposing her.

In The Dive From Clausen’s Pier (Ann Packer), Carrie runs away to think about whether or not to marry her high school sweetheart who has just become the victim of an accident that leaves him paralyzed. Everyone she knows is confused, disheartened, or angry at her decision, but no one is trying to stop her.

In While I Was Gone (Sue Miller), Jo becomes reacquainted with an old roommate who shares a tragic experience in their past. She thinks she might have some romantic feelings for the guy, but the only person opposing her is an employee who clucks her tongue and says tsk tsk.

In The Pilot’s Wife (Anita Shreve), Kathryn learns that her husband who has been killed in a plane crash had a secret life, uh, wife.

In The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger), Clare’s problem is that she and her husband are often on different planes of existence.

In The Last Girls (Lee Smith), decades after a group of college friends raft down the Mississippi River together, they reunite to do it again, but this time because it was the last wish of one of them, who is now deceased. No one is trying to stop them.

All the women face an internal struggle, but with the exception of The Time Traveler’s Wife, who has an external problem with a husband who disappears at random, I’m not understanding their “plots.” I can’t see what keeps these stories from being mere strings of related events. I'd like to know (but will probably never find out) how they were pitched to the agents who took them on. Janet represents women's fiction, so I thought she might share her insight.

Kristin said...

From my perspective, in most romances there is not an antagonist so much as an emotional reason why two people don't get together and fall in love. The journey is understand what kept these two apart at the beginning/middle and what brings them together at the end.

In White Oleander Astrid's relationship with her mother is the conflict. Both external and internal. Externally, the mother is orchestrating her life, even from prison. Remember how she involved herself with the actress wife? And talked her into commiting suicide? Internally, Astrid is fighting against becoming her mother...taking the bad lessons she learned while growing up under her mother's roof and either repeating the mistakes or finding out how to become her own person.

However, White Oleander is women's fiction. Not a romance. You have mixed two types of women's fiction and tried to lump them into one category.

Anyway, not sure if I got it correct, but this is how I see it. Hope that helps.

Southern Writer said...

Hi Kristin. I'm wondering which of the novels I listed you perceive as "romance?" I don't think of any of them that way.

Kristin said...

Well, I haven't read most of what you posted, but the way you described a couple of them, the main topic seemed to be romance...

While I Was Gone sounded romance-y. The main focus is the romantic feelings she has for the roommate, right?

Also, from what I understand, The Time Traveler's Wife is about the romance between the husband and wife even though his travels interfere with their relationship.

They might not be 'romance' in the traditional sense, but the main focus is the love relationship between the main characters, right?

Southern Writer said...

I'm sorry; I can't reply without a dose of heavy snarkasm, and I'm trying to be a nice person this week.

Kristin said...

Wow, southern. Not sure what in my remarks drew the snarky person out of you. I guess I'm tired of writers/readers/reviewers looking down on any book that is called 'romance.' What is so terrible with a book focusing on the romantic relationship between two people? Does it make it any less literary or read-worthy?

Look around on the Internet. I think most fans of "The Time Traveler's Wife" think of it as romance.

Guess I'll stop trying to convince you, because you just don't even want to explore the possibility.

Southern Writer said...

Not at all. I don't look down on romance. I don't read it; that is to say, I don't read genre romance, but I have nothing against it. I like single-title romance, which is how I would label The Time Traveler's Wife, if not that, then as "women's fiction." That's just my personal preference. I'm all for a good love story, and there are a couple in the publishing process now I'm anxiously waiting to read as soon as they're released.

I was a little taken aback that you stated I had "mixed two types of fiction and lumped them in one category," then turned around and said you hadn't really read what I wrote. *headdesk* But like I said, I'm trying to be nice this week, so here's a shrug, and a smile for you. Happy St. Patty's Day.

Jeff said...

but with the exception of The Time Traveler’s Wife, who has an external problem with a husband who disappears at random, I’m not understanding their “plots.” I can’t see what keeps these stories from being mere strings of related events.

A string of related events is a pretty good description of Time Traveller's Wife. I'm not completely familiar with how this book came into publication, but I would be surprised if she sold her book beginning with a cold call query letter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, networking is worth a thousand pictures.

Of course, the most important thing to remember is she did the work first.

Southern Writer said...

Man, I'm having such a hard time spitting out what I really mean the past couple days. Thanks to you, Jeff, and you, Kristin, I think things are becoming a bit clearer. Kristin is right. The plots of most of the books I summarized deal with internal struggles. But while the formula for a good hook works fine for stories with external conflict, it doesn't lend itself very well to those with internal conflict. I guess what I wanted to know was how best to write a hook for a story where there's no obvious antagonist to fight against, where the conflict is (wo)man against him/herself. Since Janet is keeping mum, maybe someone with experience writing queries for those kinds of books can enlighten me?

Malina said...

Thank you so much for this information. I have researched a lot on what to include in a query, a synopsis, and now am finding agents requiring cover letters! With everyone having different requirements, I feel so lost. :-) I think I will re-vamp my query before sending it to you.

JD said...

What if the novel doesn't start exactly on the conflict? (as in, it starts at a more relaxed point of the story and gradually gets to the conflict)

I'm guessing you judge the whole book on the first few pages and the query, and you say 'Tell me the book opens in the middle of action or conflict.'

I my have misunderstood what you wrote; but if you only except manuscripts starting at the conflict, then I will probably need to fully rewrite the start of my book for you!

Thanks.