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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Literary Idol: The Dos and Don'ts of the First Page (The Muse, Part III)

This post is directly mainly at writers, but readers, please bear with me. I’d love to know if any of this makes sense to you!

The second highly instructive Muse and the Marketplace session I attended was something called Literary Idol. In that session, three literary agents and one editor from a highly regarded literary press acted as the judges. Steve Almond, author, “randomly” selected anonymous first pages of books to read aloud to the audience and judges. Imagining that the samples were part of a query, whenever the judges heard something that would make them stop reading, they raised their hand. If two hands went up, Steve stopped reading. If no hands went up, the sample went into a pool, and the winner among them received a free membership to Grub Street.

You can read about what happened when my first page of Seven Noble Knights got read and what I decided to do afterward at the other blog. In this post, I’ll share what happened to most of the other samples and what we might learn from their voluntary exposure to ridicule.

We’ll start with the worst and move to the best.


The only page to receive four raised hands was a piece of fiction whose writing the judges described as vague. If the reader can’t picture (and ideally, hear, taste, smell, and feel) what you’re writing about, she’ll get bored more quickly than an agent’s intern gets a paper cut.


The two pages to get three hands raised, a YA fiction and an NA fantasy, had in common a lack of freshness and a disorienting tendency to change scenes abruptly. If your subject has been done once for your genre, you can bet literary agents consider it overdone by the time they see your manuscript. Freshness needs to translate into the language you use, too — clichés and stale telling instead of showing were the first to be pointed out and reviled. The agents were additionally put off by the NA piece because it over-explained the life-and-death stakes of the story and opened with a graphically violent crime scene, leaving nothing positive about the characters for the reader to “invest in.” The investment referred to here is the reader’s attachment to the story and characters and resulting willingness to keep reading. The first pages must attract reader investment, or all the following ones, no matter how great, are wasted.


By far, the biggest category included the pages that raised two hands.

An epistolary novel put the judges on high alert from the outset because that genre has a reputation as being hard to pull off. According to the agents, it too frequently results in an artificial, stilted reading experience. Hands were raised because the writing didn’t present a reason to care about the main characters, even though he was dying from an unnamed disease. It’s rough out there, I tell you!

A memoir was described as not different enough from others to be compelling. There was a kitten, which sparked some interest, but otherwise, they’d “heard it all before.” The authorial voice in memoir may be more important than in any other genre. This one seemed bitter, and caused resentment as the judges listened. Not the sympathetic reaction a writer usually goes for.

Both of the samples in the mystery genre tripped up the judges with over-description in the form of lists of objects in the room or types of people passing by. In spite of the necessity of red herrings in mysteries, there is such a thing as too much detail. The writers needed to include only those that were important or would appear to be important in the course of the story. Mystery also seems to be the most likely genre to fall into cliché. Just avoid cliché phrases and cliché situations. They're the hallmarks of stale writing.

A sample of literary fiction didn’t give enough context for the reader to know what was going on. Steve Almond said concisely, “Establish informational equity.” Don’t keep any essential information from the reader. “Disorientation kills the reading experience.” As opposed to this example, the mysteries took the amount of information a little too far. As with every other aspect of writing, it’s all about finding an elusive balance.

Two agents raised their hands upon hearing the title of a fantasy sample. Steve went ahead with the reading anyway, only to bear out that the text was as off-putting as the title. The details were disorienting and too gory to interest the judges. Anachronistic language and repetition added to their confusion.

A YA literary sample started unusually, with a quote from Thomas Jefferson. Unfortunately, they weren't the right words. It’s important that all the words you choose be the right words, especially if they’re someone else’s. The rest of the introduction showed quite a bit of interesting pizzazz, but the quote made the page all wrong.

Finally, a sample that might be categorized as lad lit used song lyrics to move the story along. The technique was seen as boring and overdone. Pop culture has to arise organically in the story, they said. The song wasn’t one that would be accessible to a wide range of people, so they felt the story excluded the reader. The idea is definitely to draw the reader in, not keep him out.


Two samples got one hand each. While a single hand did not cause Steve to stop reading or knock the sample out of the competition for the Grub Street membership, it certainly decreased the odds it would win.

The one agent to raise her hand for a MG fiction claimed a case of TMI (too much information). It was middle grade humor, admittedly. Though the others said it had a good hook with a hidden letter mystery, all agreed the foreshadowing was a real downer. They were talking about a sentence like, “Little did we know, that summer all our lives would change.” No one wants to read a sentence like that anymore.

A memoir from a cancer survivor provoked pleas for the writing — or something, anything — to really stand out. Most said they’d already seen too many cancer memoirs, aware and regretful that they sounded callous. Here we picked up a concept, thanks again to Steve Almond, known as “rate of revelation”: When a reader comes across new and essential information, she’s interested. When the information is not necessary or new, he’s bored. Over-explaining is a case of unnecessary and old information. The example given was that the reader did not need to be told the nurses were wearing scrubs because, what else would nurses be wearing, after all? It could become new or essential information with more details, but just the scrubs were a “duh” moment.


And finally, the best samples: five pages provoked no hand-raising. I wish I had copies of all these so we could absorb their subtleties.

Two novels lacked a specific moment that caused any one to raise their hand, but they didn’t have a real hook, either. One of them inspired confidence in the writer’s talent, but had several fixable problems: unclear pronouns, wrong words, needed a better beginning. Something that leaves agents so passionless will never get representation. Sorry, but it’s true.

On the other hand, real enthusiasm entered the room with the remaining three pieces. One short story (never mind that I think short stories shouldn’t be competing with book-length pieces) had a “good voice,” that elusive commodity everyone was hoping for. Some revelatory declarations in this piece were good because they didn’t spell out exactly what the story was about, so they maintained a healthy air of mystery. A YA historical fiction had a strong hook, powerful, evocative language, clear stakes, and most unusually of all, variety of syntax. A second short story, about middle school experiences from the perspective of an adult looking back, had a “fabulous voice,” a unique take on the situation, appropriate humor, and good verbs. “Good verbs” make for strong writing. It’s a matter of choosing the most precise and vivid word for idea. In this case, instead of merely handing her friend a prized piece of lingerie, the character “palmed” it to her.

This last sample occurred midway through the session, but I had no doubt that it was going to win. Not only were there no negative comments about it, but it was so memorable, it might even stand out in an agent's slush pile. What did it have that the others lacked?

Writers: on your first page, you must not disorient or confuse the reader; over-explain; foreshadow; have typos or unclear pronouns; use the wrong words; or bore the reader.

Conversely, on your first page, you must have a unique voice and perspective; a strong hook; vivid imagery; powerful, evocative language; clear stakes; freshness in abundance; and if possible, a variety of syntax. All of this is just to draw the reader in and make the reader care what happens next. Not much to ask from about 200 words. (Ha ha.)

Readers: is there anything here you disagree with? How long do you give a book to draw you in? Most of the readers I know will spend fifty pages with a book before abandoning it for unreadable. Are they unusually tenacious?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Two New Roles

Ever since I got my new job in educational publishing, I've been trying to cut back on other projects. I haven't been too successful at that yet. On the contrary, I have two exciting pieces of news!

First, I'll be helping the fine folks at The Worcester Review with my sharp copyediting skills. The Worcester Review is an amazing annual publication of literature and criticism and I couldn't be prouder. See the overqualified staff (including me) here.

Second, as we were finishing up our latest Loose Leaves release, I had the opportunity to gain a translation credit. I did the English version of Pablo Neruda's "El hijo," which brings Year of the Poets to such a poignant close, with unbridled enthusiasm. I hope the enthusiasm "translated" to an authentic reading experience. Year of the Poets is now available in ebook at Kindle, Nook and Kobo and in softcover at Amazon and wherever fine books are sold.

The Strategic Author: The Muse, Part II

I was at The Muse and the Marketplace on May 2. My amazing author photos were done and I'd had a nice breakfast with some writers of memoir. I was in my favorite city, thinking about my favorite activity (writing). You might wonder what more I possibly could’ve gotten for my registration. I still had all my sessions to attend!

The first was The Strategic Writer, given by Grub Street founder Eve Bridburg. Advertised as help positioning oneself as a writer in the professional world of publishing and publicity, this session posed the first hard questions of the day. In order to plan a successful business (of writing), the first task is to define what success means. Eve gave us a framework from which to consider the question that encouraged us to avoid answering automatically: to be a New York Times bestselling author. Of course every writer hopes for that! But what real changes would such a status cause in our writing lives? And, importantly, are there other aspects to that kind of success that might be more obtainable right now — baby steps toward the ultimate goals?

Start at the beginning: why do I write at all?

I write because I have to. By that, I mean that those times in my life when I haven’t regularly done creative writing were the worst, the most despairing and purposeless.

I also want to tell stories readers enjoy, because otherwise, writing is lonely and too theoretical to have any impact in the world. Here, there’s been a little conflict: Sometimes, I share my stories with someone or a group of people and they don’t seem to enjoy it in the way I intended. My first reaction is to stand up for my inspiration — how could something so indefinable do wrong? My definition of success involves finding the right readers, the readers I can entertain by making good editing choices instead of by compromising my unique vision. It will be a lot easier to find those readers when I’m finally able to define what exactly about my writing is unique…

To further define success, we considered the following two questions from both the emotional and the monetary points of view: How do I want to spend my time? How will I know when I’m successful?

Signs of emotional success for me include:
When readers like what they’ve read so much that they ask for more.
When 500 people “get it,” when they show signs the book has really connected with them.
When my book appears as a Jeopardy! question.
When my book is used as a text or is deconstructed in an academic paper.
When my book wins a prestigious award.

Signs of monetary success:
When my book wins a lucrative award (which may be the same as the prestigious one!).
When I’ve sold so many copies I no longer have to worry about bills or debt.
When I get an HBO series.
When I get other book deals, job opportunities, fellowships and/or grants.

The main idea of the day was that once each writer has a solid understanding of her goals, she has to weigh the investment with the rewards of any publicity campaign. I came to fully understand that some techniques will not work for me because of the type of books I write or because of my personality. While I greatly admire the campaign my Loose Leaves author ScottE. Blumenthal has been able to put together, there is no way I could accomplish the same results, even if I copied everything he and his publicist have done.

The thought that I’m not obliged to try every possibility simply because it exists is liberating. I can breathe much easier knowing that I should do exactly what makes sense for me as a writer and as a human being and what aligns with my clearly defined goals, no more and no less. That’s when the ideas began to germinate!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sephardim and Rejection Management: The Muse and the Marketplace

On Friday, May 2, I attended my only day of the three-day writers extravaganza, The Muse and the Marketplace, in Boston. I had to get up insanely early and take the train instead of doing my usual routine. I would have loved that if not for the sick-to-my-stomach feeling from lack of sleep and, yes, the separation anxiety from my husband. But as the train passed some of the monuments to the fond memories of my past, when I worked in Boston, my aching love for the city overwhelmed any lingering anxieties and I determined to make the most of this opportunity.

I got to walk a few blocks from the train to the conference, and even the traffic gave me energy. The sunlight coated the Public Library in swathes of brilliance while the Hancock Tower glinted across the way. By the time I arrived at the Park Plaza Hotel, I was thrilled to be there.

First order of business: take advantage of Kobo’s generous offer to have my “author photo” taken by a professional photographer. I had figured I wouldn’t look any better as the day went on and I got sleepier, but then the Park Plaza that day was like a tropical greenhouse: humid and in the mid-80’s, despite whatever efforts the staff was making to fix the air conditioning. All the more reason to get a picture ASAP! I chatted with the people in line — we have writing in common, after all! — and got ready for my close-up.

Michael Benabib, the photographer, takes pictures for The New York Times, so we could now all say we’d had our brush with fame in that capacity. He was efficient at taking as many shots as he needed and at getting his subjects to look as natural and as beautiful as possible. After a thorough powdering to mitigate my sprouting “glow,” he asked me what I write. I said, “I’ve written a historical epic set in medieval Spain.” His enchanting reply was that he is a Sephardic Jew! He added that Spain grants citizenship to people who can prove Sephardic ancestry. So of course all I could do was wish I had some Sephardic ancestry. (I patently do not.)

The pictures will be emailed to all the participants. If it's not as disastrous as I fear, I'll debut mine here.

When the photography session was that much fun, I had the funny feeling that it was going to be the best reaction to my subject matter all day. A self-fulfilling prophecy? Perhaps, but at breakfast and lunch and all other social opportunities of which I took advantage going forward, I somehow ended up talking to people writing memoirs. I’m sure there are common elements to writing a good memoir and a good fictional narrative, but since I’m so firmly a fiction writer and pay so much close attention to the fiction market, I was largely left out of the conversations. Except one thing we certainly had in common: rejection.

I've now had more than 100 rejections or "non-responses" from agents for my Seven Noble Knights query. I'm starting to feel just a tad unwanted. 

At the sessions I attended, I asked some hard questions and got some hard answers. I’ve been chewing on them ever since. I also came up with some brand new ideas. Watch for posts about them, coming soon!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Think of the Rhinos

White rhino relaxing with a friend.
According to Fight for Rhinos, it actually helps keep wildlife poaching down when people actively write and share about the problem on social media!

So of course I'm doing my part to keep rhinos, my favorite creatures, who happen to be in critical danger, in the public eye.

Here's some great news: Vietnam now admits that rhino horn DOES NOT cure cancer. In fact, rhino horn has no medicinal properties at all — that can't be overemphasized!

In other news, there are probably only about 30 Javan rhinos left on planet Earth. Actually, the video at this Kickstarter project to photograph them before they're gone explains it all. I decided to support this project, despite the strange sensation that this man is looking to cash in on the Javan rhino's rarity. I would really like to have some pictures of these rhinos if we just can't have them on the planet much longer. To be totally honest, I wish I could be a part of such an amazing expedition! So by getting the updates, I'll live vicariously. As of this blogging, the project has a good chance to get funded, so take a look and enjoy!

And keep sharing about rhinos!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Meet My Main Character Blog Hop

One of my favorite authors, Kim Rendfeld, tagged me in the Meet My Main Character Blog Hop. I’m taking the opportunity to introduce Mudarra on the Seven Noble Knights site. Right here, meet the narrator from my current work-in-progress, the final book in the Providence Trilogy.

1) What is the name of your character? Is she fictional or a historic person?

Patricia (don’t call her Trish!) Blundt, PsyD, is a fictional character with many traits of people I’ve met in real life, including myself.

2) When and where is the story set?

The story takes place in present-day Providence, Rhode Island, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. In this version of one of my favorite cities in the world, there are three types of people with special talents aside from the rest of us: telekinetics (who can move objects with their minds), pyrokinetics (firestarters), and psychics. These Talents were discovered in the mid-1800’s and suffer varying degrees of training and oppression from government agencies now.

3) What should we know about Patricia?

Patricia is the court-assigned therapist of Emily, the narrator of the first story in the trilogy. Patricia is especially good at her job because she’s a psychic and can more or less read her patients’ minds. However, Patricia has never registered with the government, and has kept the secret from everyone in her life.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up her life?

Patricia is conflicted about whether to tell her husband she’s an unregistered psychic. If she did, it would correct a lot of misconceptions he has about her, but she’s afraid he’ll report her and she could be punished. Secondly, Patricia is mystified because, unlike all her other patients, she can’t read Emily’s mind. It goes deeper than Emily’s intractable personality disorder.

5) What is her personal goal?

Patricia wants to maintain her professional record, and genuinely to help Emily, so cracking her case is a top priority. She also wants to reach out to her husband, but goes about it in a passive manner. It all leads to an explosive finale befitting the zany-serious tenor of the entire trilogy.

6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

The working title is “Friendship is a One-Way Street.” That’s a “thing” in Providence (search "Mad Peck Providence Poster"), because there is a Friendship Street in the DownCity area, and parts of it are indeed one-way. I thought it was appropriate for the isolation Patricia feels because of her sensitivity. She can be a great friend because of her Talent, but who could ever really know her?

You can read more about the other stories in the Providence Trilogy herehere and here.

7) When can we expect the book to be published?

I’m almost certain I’ll self publish the Providence Trilogy. I need to revise the first two and complete and revise this third story before going into “production” mode on them, so I’m projecting 2015. Sooner if I can manage it! These strange stories are eager to be read and to find just the right readers.

If you like historical fiction, be sure to check out these authors who’ve already introduced their main characters, all in their own way:

Monday, May 5, 2014

Happy Cinco de Rhino!

One reason rhinoceroses are especially celebrated on 5/5 is that there are now five distinct species of rhinoceros in the world. Sadly, some are barely hanging on and all the species come closer to extinction every day. Some estimates give us, the crazy humans, until just 2020 to see a live rhino in the wild.

This would not be the ideal outcome. Aside from being gentle, majestic creatures, rhinos are key species in each ecosystem in which they live. If the rhinos are gone, the entire ecosystem collapses.

Five species forever!

The white rhinoceros, a mellow grazer and the second largest
land mammal in the world.

The beautifully proportioned black rhinoceros, with a prehensile lip.

The Sumatran rhinoceros, the smallest species, descends
from the ancient wooly rhino.

The elusive Javan rhinoceros has never
been successfully housed in zoos.

The Greater One-Horned or Indian rhinoceros is today’s unicorn.
(I’m proud to say this photo of mine made it into this year’s
International Rhino Keepers Association Calendar.
Not the main picture of the month, but still.)
Each species makes a unique contribution to the world. So, on this Cinco de Rhino, my husband suggests taking a favorite rhino you know out for margaritas and tacos. Or, a good equivalent might be to find out a little more about rhinos and what people are doing to help them.

For more about Cinco de Rhino, World Rhino Day (in September) and other rhinoceros events, check out