Sunday, June 28, 2015

Fortuna Helps Writers Who Help Themselves

Novelists who attend writing conferences might leave inspired by the ever-changing publishing opportunities or dismayed by grim news about slim chances, jaded agents, and an anti-artistic industry. It’s all true. There are positive changes, but publishing is a business, driven by greater interest in a quick buck than a long, gorgeous novel with limited audience appeal.

Equally true? Readers still want great books, and people often become agents because they want to represent great books. If you have a great book, either publish it yourself or be smart about seeking an agent. Either way, optimism + practicality will take you where you want to go.

Tip: Believe in your book enough to nurture it from conception to marketing.

A writer friend of mine carefully researched contests, sought advice, and entered several. His reward for writing a good book and doing his homework? Third place in a national contest. The reward for that? He followed up with an agency he’d written earlier and a senior agent is currently considering his work.

There you have it. Want to publish? That depends not just on a great book but a willingness to treat publication as seriously as you treat writing. Some of us find that sad. Yet ignoring that reality is like fantasizing about oral health while ignoring floss and toothbrush.

Do your homework. Here’s how:

~ Polish your novel to a high shine.

Writing a gorgeous book won’t guarantee an agent. But it can’t hurt.

~ Solicit and respond to feedback.

If you’ve struggled over your novel for whatever you personally consider “a long time,” it’s hard to hear that something isn’t working. But if you receive suggestions from someone you respect, pay attention. See # 1.

~ Research agents thoroughly.

Understandably, writers detest putting time into analyzing who wants what. Sounds boring. But sending a romance to an agent looking for y.a. fantasy is like tossing your novel into the air and hoping it’ll land in the right senior editor’s mailbox.

~ Compose individualized query letters.

Every agent differs from every other agent. Again, though this might seem like a tedious waste of time, it’s a wise use of your valuable time—and the agent’s.

If you respect your novel and the time you devoted to it, complete the process with revision, networking, marketing efforts, and perhaps thoughtful application to a few contests. Doing your homework will make you feel more positive. That helps you and your book in more ways than one.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Time, Space, and Fiction

Novelists tend to view time and space in terms of themselves or their characters, i.e. “I never have enough time to write—and I’m never inspired except in coffee shops,” or “My novel moves my protagonist from childhood to seniordom, and no two scenes occur in the same place.”

All perfectly legit. But these observations circumvent a crucial question: how do readers experience time and space in your novel?


Every novel has two kinds of space. The obvious one of course, is the physical one what we call sense of place. Without that, your characters exist in the ether.

But the one more often neglected is described by Stacey D’Erasmo in The Art of Intimacy:

What’s in that critical space beween in fiction? Of what is it composed? What makes it “work” or not? One way into this delicate matter might be to look not so much at individual characters and their motivations or the outcomes of their yearnings and relationships, or even at their interactions per se, but at exactly what is in that space between them, the linkage.

This is where, if you leave room, your readers experience your novel’s world and characters directly. Sure, if you omit all comments, your readers might miss something. Isn’t that preferable to bludgeoning with clarity?  Yes. So, how do you provide that gift?

  • Plant clues.
  • Use imagery and metaphor.
  • Avoid cliché. (Familiar expectations fill space, leaving readers outside.)
  • Omit whatever the reader already knows.
  • Trust your reader. Trust yourself.

You’re the ruler of every physical law in your novel. This gives you the power to make time slow down for drama and speed up for backdrop.

  • Clarify time’s progress.
A reader wondering about sequence doesn’t constitute pleasurable ambiguity; it’s merely confusion.

  • Make time emphasize.
In Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes, she notes that “Slowed time is—or should be— a way of pointing to what’s important.”

  • Start where your story begins.
In other words, is the material with which you open the story an arrow pointing toward the unified effect?” ― Julie Checkoway, Creating Fiction

Tip: Make your novel’s world one where time and space never frustrate, only offer endless pleasure.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Smart Novels

Not everyone wants to read them. Not everyone wants to write them. But for certain readers and writers, unless a novel stretches your mind—at least a trifle—it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. It doesn’t have quite enough substance. Whether you wrote it or read it, you’re pretty much who you were when you started. Where’s the fun in that?

But “smart” has another meaning. Somewhat ironically, as a verb, “to smart” becomes the action of irritating or wounding. It’s easy to inflict that on readers: just sound like a smarty-pants.

How do you offer the heft that leaves one changed when the book ends—without depriving readers of the entertainment they seek? And without being a smarty-pants?

*** Mystery.

In Andrew Winer’s The Marriage Artist, readers learn about the richly illuminated Jewish marriage contract called a “ketubah.”  Murders to solve and sex to savor keep us turning pages while delving into not only Jewish tradition but the meaning of art—especially when it stops being representational.

*** Humanity.

On a panel at the recent AWP conference in Minneapolis, Joan Silber remarked that historical fiction comes alive when readers grasp what “the characters would know and feel.” That “makes the history yours.” This explains the popularity of Hilary Mantel. We’re certainly being educated. But it doesn’t “smart” to wade through all those royals and edicts and Thomases—because they’re as real as a Piggly Wiggly clerk.

*** Voice.

In The Gold Bug Variations (pun intended) by Richard Powers, once you acclimate to the dazzling array of verbal gymnastics, poeticisms, and intellectual prowess, you’ll earn honorary degrees in history, classical music, genetics, and more. Rhythm and metaphor sweeten a scientist’s musings about the search to crack the DNA/RNA/amino acid code:

“We knew a little; enough to know that further extrapolation would require a whole new zoo of relational models. Certain things we already suspected: a long, linear informational string wound around its complement, like a photo pinned to its own negative, for further unlimited printing.”

*** Plot.

“She was like a fossil that’s been cleaned and set so everyone can see what it is.”

In Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, the history of fossil-hunting gets magnetically intertwined with the fates of the fossil hunters.

Tip: Smart novels are fun novels. But they have to feel like novels. That’s plot and character.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Economics of Fiction

Lots of fiction centers on money: Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (banking), David Liss’s A Conspiracy of Paper (how banking created the mess Dickens described), or the endless array of novels touching on wealth, power, class, and the interaction between them (Tracy Chevalier, Jonathan Franzen, Chad Harbach, Hilary Mantel, Fay Weldon, and on and on).

Aside from that, novels, like everything else in the world, have value. Time it right, and you can win it all with sharks, a boy wizard, a noble adolescent girl, or the decoding of a religious mystery.

But too early or late, too similar or different, and the market isn’t there. Neither are the readers. This makes second-guessing pointless.  If you could predict the market, you could publish not only your own novel but everyone else’s. Since you can’t, and since a novel is a lot of work, write because you love the work—not because you hope to love the result of all that work.

Keep your day job. Then assess credits and debits in your fiction.

Like any other account, put in more, and you can take out more. It’s just that this particular economy runs on details, ideas, and words used to capture them.

Of course readers disagree about credits or debits. Genre and voice play a huge role. Yet certain fictional elements consistently tend toward + or – .


  • Backstory. If it already happened, it’s slowing things down.
  • Setting. Unless it’s new and vibrant, it often competes with plot.
  • Speaker attribution. We have to know who’s talking, but “said” is no more invisible than any other word.
  • Psychological analysis. What the characters think and why—can flirt with “telling.”
  • Stereotypes. Been there, done that.
  • Explanation. Readers need context. But we don’t always love what we need.


  • Tension. It’s often the way to balance any item from the list above.
  • Characters. They make fiction fiction.
  • Clues. Engage readers in discovering what you tantalizingly hint.
  • Sex/romance. You already know why it belongs on this list.
  • Archetypes. Allusion adds depth and richness. It gives novels heft.
  • Electricity. This could be plot, characterization, scenario, voice, or all of them.

Most novelists have an ulterior motive, like roaming with dinosaurs, uncovering racism, celebrating Impressionism, making music, or condemning war. Want readers to follow wherever you want to go? Stuff the vault with scenario, plot, voice, imagery, and characterization .

Tip: Use your novel’s assets to balance whatever you want to express.