Friday, September 28, 2012

The “Why?" Must Be Answered

Happy Friday everyone!

Today I wanted to talk about answering the question “Why?” in your book.

Have you ever noticed how in books (and movies) villains almost always divulge their nefarious plans? This is because readers want an explanation for why people do bad things. In fact, readers want an explanation for everything, even down to the minutiae of why the main character skipped school that day. The world of fiction is hyper-logical, and in a book, every action and decision must have a logical reason.

While this is an easy concept to grasp, it is much harder to apply throughout an entire manuscript. The truth is that when many of us write scenes, we have not fully fleshed out why something happens. It just needs to happen in order to move from one scene to the next. However, this can be a major problem for readers who must know, or at least expect to know at some point, why a character did what he or she did.

For example, if Jane runs out of the house and begins screaming, you must include some reason why she did so. Maybe Jane hears a loud noise, so she runs outside. Then maybe Jane sees that her teenage son has driven his car through the garage door, and thus she screams. Perhaps originally it was only important to get Jane out of the house; now this explanation gives the reader a convincing reason why Jane would exit the house.

My following discussion is centered heavily around characters. However, most aspects of a book could be improved by answering “Why?”, even if you deliberately withhold that explanation.

Why do I Need to Answer “Why?”
Frankly, as a writer, your job is to entertain. And part of what is entertaining about books is understanding why these scenarios are plausible. In fact, I’d go so far to say that some of the most satisfying books are those that go even further than just giving logical explanations; they answer the why’s the reader never even thought to ask.

But There is no Explanation
Surprisingly even where there appears to be no explanation for a character’s actions, there actually is. A good illustration of this actually comes from the movie, The Dark Knight. There is a scene in the movie where Bruce Wayne and Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, discuss why the Joker is committing horrific acts of violence. As an explanation, Alfred says, “. . . perhaps this is a man you do not fully understand . . . Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Technically, all that Alfred is saying is that sometimes there is no reason why people commit acts of violence, yet let’s be clear: this is still an explanation of the Joker’s actions.

Needless Content
If you cannot answer why something happens or why a piece of information is important, there’s a good chance it’s because it is unimportant. This is what I call needless content. If Jane calls a friend to chat for the sake of chatting—rather than placing the call because it is intimately tied to the plot—it’s going to slow down the momentum of the book.

What Happens If I Do Not Answer “Why?”
Not answering why can potentially reflect poorly on you the writer. Say you are writing a thriller, and you forget to explain why the father is trying to kill his daughter. Readers will quickly get frustrated with the novel. Worse, they may think you are a novice for forgetting to include that vital piece of information. As a writer, you and I both know how easy it is to forget to explain these actions. To us, they may seem so fundamental that they either go without saying, or we assume we’ve already inserted these explanations into the text.

How Do I Go About Fixing This?
The easiest way to fix this problem is to let friends, family, beta readers and/or editors read your manuscript and give feedback. As difficult or embarrassing as this prospect may seem, it is a much better alternative to disappointing agents or—for those who self-publish—your paying customers.

Aren’t You Talking About Motives?
I’ve heard many labels (depending on who is giving the explanation) for this concept. Motive is an internalized explanation that gives a character a reason to pursue a course of action. Another set of terms is stimulus and reaction. A stimulus is an external force that immediately provokes the character into action. “Why” is an umbrella term that encompasses both internal and external explanations.

I’ll be the first to point out that my scope is too general in many ways. An entire book can be dedicated to discussing “Why?”. It could be dissected from an extremely narrow perspective (looking at why a single sentence is important) to an extremely broad perspective (looking at why a chapter or even the book’s topic is important). In addition, the messy truth is that general content rules overlap each other. Even worse, because writing is so immensely creative, it is an impossible effort to nicely box these rules.

Conclusion
In conclusion, the hyper-logical world of fiction demands that writers give meaning to characters’ actions, even the mundane ones. Doing so will increase the believability of the story, and failure to do so will detract from reader interest and can potentially reflect badly on the writer’s skill. There is almost always needs to be an explanation for why a story unfolds the way it does. If there is not an explanation, it could be because the scene itself is unimportant. Lastly, a great way to fix these edits is to receive feedback from friends, family, beta readers, and/or editors.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services
www.americaneditingservices.com
415.745.1764

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fiction Queries

Today I want to talk about query letters. They are the bane of most writers’ existence. Why is it that queries are so frustrating to write and so hard to get right? My discussion aims to answer this question. 

I’m angling my discussion towards writers who already know the basics of query letters. For those of you who are unclear what a query letter is or how to write one, I’ve listed some useful resources. 


A great website is AgentQuery.com. The following is a link to their discussion on query letter writing: <http://www.agentquery.com/writer_hq.aspx>. In addition to query letters, this website is full of information on every stage of the writing process, and I often give out edits on their sister site, AgentQuery Connect. 

Nathan Bransford, a published author and a former literary agent, has a really great blog entry on queries, <http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/08/how-to-write-query-letter.html>. 

Lastly, QueryTracker.net is a great resource for finding agents, <http://querytracker.net/>.

Professional Disclaimer

Before I begin, I need to emphasize that I am not an agent, nor can I speak on behalf of any agent. Just as every writer has a subjective taste for certain genres and writing styles, so do industry professionals. The best I can do is analyze the pitfalls writers commonly make. 

Why are Queries so Difficult to Write?

Very simply, a query is not the same as a book, and the two serve vastly different purposes. The best analogy I have for this is running. If you asked a long distance runner to become a sprinter, chances are s/he wouldn’t be all that great at it. The same is true for writing. There is a reason most authors of books do not write marketing pieces.

Queries are Business Proposals

Now that we have very generally clarified that a query letter and a book are two different beasts, let’s talk about what query letters are—business proposals. There is a common misconception that a query is synonymous with the back flap of a book, and in most ways it is. However, the audience is different. Agents are business people, not casual readers, and they will not pursue a book idea unless they believe they can sell it. So, I am going to give you some tips on making your book idea more marketable by telling you what to avoid. 

The following is how I approach query letters—not agents—although I would not be surprised if agents approach queries from a similar angle. When I read query letters, I look for those who have mastered the craft of writing and have phenomenal ideas. Further, I look for writers who can market their product (aka their book) successfully. So when writing a query, remember that it is not a summary, and it is not a back flap; it is a platform to sell your idea.


Query No-No's

Below are some common mistakes I have come across when editing queries. 

Content

The most vital difference between a query letter and the back flap of a book is the content. There is a fine balance between too much and too little content, and this is the biggest divergence between a book’s back flap and a query letter. When I read through queries, I want to see that there is enough content to carry the story throughout an entire book. This includes scenes or plot twists a writer might withhold from a book’s back flap.

Withholding the Most Exciting Scenes 

This is an extremely common phenomenon. The reason is that many writers believe they need to withhold the “best parts” of their query. The reality is that most agents are going through hundreds of query letters, so the time they spend on any one will likely be insignificant. Writers do not have the luxury of withholding the best scenes and the most exciting twists. To make it beyond the query, a writer must include vital information.

Too Much Detail

On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve received queries that try to cram nearly every scene into a single page. Here my general edit is for writers to think about their book as a funnel: the most general information comes first, followed by subsequent scenes, and wrapped up with the main conflict. 

Writers must introduce the main character(s) and set the foundation of the book. This foundation should either introduce a world that is different from ours, and/or it should introduce some change that ignites the story (ex. The main character gets framed for a murder she did not commit. Now she is on the run to find the true killer before the law finds her.). 


After this information is introduced, only insert information that adds to the main plot, sets the book apart from other books of a similar topic, and/or heightens reader excitement. Most extraneous detail comes from emotions, thoughts, or unimportant details regarding characters, scenes, and situations.


Lastly, close with the main conflict. The best closing lines read like a second hook. From a marketing standpoint, these are the most successful because they increase reader interest. If you can pique reader interest, then you’ll increase your odds for partial or full manuscript requests.


Writing Style

Write to market your book. Don’t just state the facts, present them. If your query ends with a cliff hanger, structure your ending to build up to it. You’ll want to generate momentum in your query, and—ideally—elicit an physiological and/or emotional reaction. Think of songs that made your heart constrict, or a dream that left you with a feeling you couldn’t shake. That’s what you ideally want to get your readers to feel. Inspire them the same way your idea inspired you to write your novel. It’s not just content that counts; it’s presentation that illustrates your competency as a writer.

Exceptions

The difficulty I face when I give these edits is that book ideas are numerous and creative. Many times rules must be broken to accommodate an idea. That is perfectly fine, so long as you consciously break the rules. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, approach your query from a marketing standpoint. Readers want to see (1) that there is enough great content to carry a book, and (2) that the book is marketable. Content and writing style are the two areas that determine these. If you can manage to deliver the best of your book in a couple riveting paragraphs, you’ll increase your odds of obtaining agent interest.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services
www.americaneditingservices.com
415.745.1764

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Welcome!

Hi everyone and welcome to my blog! I have to thank the Writing for Change Conference for the inspiration to begin a blog. 

A repeated problem I have faced as an independent editor is building trust, communication, and rapport with the individuals who stumble upon my editing site, American Editing Services. Perhaps nowhere is identity more deceiving than on the Internet. One of my most important jobs is being transparent to you, my audience. So with that, I welcome you to my site, and I will open up about myself.

My name is Laura Carlson. Below is an [overused] photo of me, for those who are visually oriented. 


I've been editing for the last five years, but it was in February 2012 that I decided I wanted to start my own editing business. I had recently left law school, and with it a “cushy" career. The quotes are to highlight this common misconception; a huge portion of law graduates struggle to find employment in the legal field. 

After I left law school, I felt untethered. Law was a lifelong career path, and it conveniently mapped the course of my life. Deciding to leave my graduate studies dissolved that deceivingly comfy safety net. When I went back to the drawing board of potential career choices, editing was at the top. 

I had always had a talent for writing and editing, and I had been successful editing as a side career over the past four years. But I was hesitant; I did not believe a full-time career as an editor was attainable. Regardless of this, I slowly began building my business, nearly positive that my pipe dream of a career would not work out.

Surprisingly, however, it did! I worked with some amazing individuals who put their trust in me, and I spent long hours editing their manuscripts and preparing pages of feedback. I wanted to do everything in my power to make sure they were elated with their edits. Even more surprising was that it worked! People were grateful for my feedback! It is still mind-numbing that you writers take criticism with a smile and ask for more. But I applaud all of you--you impress me immensely. 

I still spend long hours editing manuscripts. I am here first and foremost to help you be as successful as possible, and my success as an editor is a direct reflection of your success.

Now moving away from the heavy stuff. Here are some personal tidbits about me. My love for reading developed during my teen years where I haunted the Young Adult section of Barnes&Noble. I owe R. L. Stine a huge thank you for igniting my love of reading. His Fear Street series sealed my fate as a bookworm. I'm convinced this genre is where the most magical stories are located, the stories where anything goes, and readers can be anyone. So it may not come as a surprise that I have a soft spot for YA.

These days my tastes are all over the place. Writers have asked me repeatedly what genre I specialize in. My answer is always, All of them." Variety is the spice of life.

My one unusual hobby is reading up on archaeology. If you are a writer, you can probably empathize (I know many of you weave your interests into your story lines.). I have no idea why archaeology intrigues me as much as it does, but I have shelves and shelves of dense academic publications that discuss archaeological sites and cultures across time and space.

For the sake of time--both yours and mine--I'll sign off here. Again, I welcome you to my website, and I congratulate you if you've managed to read this far. I welcome your comments and questions--don't be shy!

Happy writing,
Laura