What My Literary Agent Got Me

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Why would an agent ghost a client?

Now there’s a baffling question.

Aren’t we always told (in no uncertain terms) that a literary agent and a writer are business partners? And if so, shouldn’t open communication be a part of this relationship?

Still, in recent weeks, there’s been some hubbub over the fraught relationship between literary agents and the authors they represent.

In fact, ghosting was just one accusation leveled against superstar literary agent, Brooks Sherman. In a now deleted post on Querytracker, a former client alleges that Sherman stopped responding to their e-mails once their novel wasn’t picked-up by a publisher. When the writer attempted to sever their “working” relationship, Sherman never responded.

The allegations against Sherman, however, didn’t stop there. There was another, more chilling one posted on QueryTracker. Here, the anonymous denouncer mentions how Brooks Sherman lied about submitting manuscripts, lied about submitting for foreign rights, failed to give editorial feedback, and even neglected to read client manuscripts.

I suspect this is only the tip of the iceberg as far as Brooks Sherman is concerned. But the truth is, most of it will remain secret, or spoken about in whisper networks.

The reason I’ve been following this closely is because I queried Mr. Sherman at the beginning of February. In fact, the second allegation I mentioned was already in the comments. Thinking back, why hadn’t I stopped to consider it? Why did it not give me pause before I went ahead and queried the guy?

Probably because agents are the gatekeepers to traditional publishing. In fact, they are the first of many you’ll encounter on that journey. This gives an agent power. It even creates a power imbalance between the agent and his or her client. Any such partnership will be an unequal one, especially at the beginning. Which explains why all the allegations have been anonymous. Power can silence people.

It’s no surprise then that many publishing industry insiders have just swept this scandal under the rug. We’ve been warned many a time that there are agents and there are schmagents. I call this the bad apple defense of the publishing industry. Just take out the few bad ones before the whole barrel goes bad, and everything will be fine.

But I think Brooks Sherman is too high profile to be considered a mere schmagent. From what I can tell, he’s an agent to some and a schmagent to others. This isn’t too surprising for someone like me who comes from academia. We all know that some Ph.D. advisors are mentors and some are schmentors. And most are like Brooks Sherman: mentors to some; schmentors to others.

But why would an agent even behave in this way? What do they get out of it?

I have no idea. My guess is that they think they’ve found you, and therefore have some claim over you- on the off chance you create something truly marketable. It’s kind of like a conquistador sticking a flag in a continent. They don’t know exactly what’s there, but by God, they own it.

But that’s just a guess.

What I’ve really been pondering is what the agent- writer relationship is really like. Is it what people say? Is it a partnership?

An Agent Represent a Writer

While on Twitter, I came across a tweet thread posted by romance writer, Courtney Milan. It really spoke to me because I’m just the silly sort of writer she’s describing. I believe “A bad agent is better than no agent.”

Courtney Milan on agents and the writers they represent

My logic: having an agent means at least you’re in the game.

Milan then goes ahead and demolishes that line of thinking. I believe she is a lawyer, which explains why she’s so amazing at constructing arguments.

But towards the end, her tweet thread becomes even more interesting. She writes:

“One of the most painful things that agents do is treat the publisher as if they are the client, and themselves as talent scouts. This person might get you a deal, but it will bite you.

The agent who thinks that their relationship with a publisher is more important than their relationship with an author is not functioning as an agent.

Your agent represents YOU. Period.”

How sure that “Period” is!

But is this true? Does an agent represent you, the writer, and not the publishing house? As I said, Milan is a lawyer, and lawyers represent their clients. In fact, they have no relationship with the entity opposing you in a case. It’s possible Milan thinks that the relationship between an agent and a writer is similar. It makes sense. The more money an agent can bring in to his client, the more money they themselves make. Win-win.

But is this how agenting really works? I mean, we may want it to work that way. The actual truth, however, may be something different.

In fact, I’ve always considered an agent an adjunct to the publishing house. Once upon a time, publishers read their own slush piles. Nowadays, this is outsourced, and an agent mines this mountain of manuscripts and extracts whatever gold they can.

What I think is that literary agents are more like estate agents. Sure, estate agents drive clients around and help them find their dream homes, but in reality, they work for the property seller. Of course, this analogy doesn’t work either. If we overlay this analogy atop of the writer-agent-publisher scenario, the writer is both the client looking for the new house and the house/ property itself.

And boy, wouldn’t that be twisted.

What Publishers Paid Me

We may, however, not want to believe agent’s relationships to publishing is stronger than it is with their clients. And who know? Possibly, it’s not. I’ve never traditionally published a thing. I also suspect I never will.

But my free associating mind made me think of that Twitter hashtag: what publishers paid me.

This hashtag brought to light the large discrepancies between advances given out to white and non-white writers.

What really struck me is that no one blamed their agent.

Why wasn’t the rallying cry, “#Whatmyagentgotme”? Surely, it’s the agent who negotiates the advance (and everything else).

But that’s probably because everyone knows publisher has the real power. And the agent is his man.

Let me know what you think about all this in the comments below.

Also, want to know when I post something new? Follow me here or on Twitter.

Who’s Marketing that Book?

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Looking back at the Authors Guild’s 2018 Author Income Survey, one thing is clear: people who traditionally publish do better income-wise than self-published authors.

While some authors are doing better self-publishing than they could be through traditional publishing, our survey shows that the overall median income for self-published authors averages 50–58% less than for traditionally published ones.” 

The question is, why does this disparity exist?

The simple answer is marketing. Traditional publishers have greater market reach. It’s also why traditionally published authors take a pittance of the royalties even though they do most of the work to produce a book. Such writers expect to make up their losses with higher-volume selling.

So, does marketing begin and end with publishers?

Over the last year, I’ve read many a blog post on the role authors themselves play in marketing. There’s a sameness to this content, and they’re almost all invariably written in a finger wagging tone. “Authors must market their own books!” So, who’s being admonished, you might ask. Well, it’s you, the author. The thesis is always: traditional publishing does very little marketing for its writers. “You have to stop being a precious wallflower and put yourself out there!

But is this true? Thought of in another way, if the above premise is correct, then very successful authors must be masters of marketing and self-promotion.

Common points raised in such “how to market” articles include:

1: have your own website

2: be active on Facebook

3: tweet a little everyday

4: create a mailing list

But is this enough? While these things are essential for a self-published writer, are they necessary for a traditionally published one?

Thinking like a reader

I approached this question by considering how I find books to read.

First, I have to confess: I only read traditionally published books. The reason behind this is structural. About a decade ago, I received an e-reader as a gift, only that e-reader was a Nook. This has effectively cut me off from indie publishing, most of which occurs on the KDP platform. (While I don’t want to have two e-readers in my life, I’m currently saving up to buy a Kindle at some point. Until I do, my reading will be mostly restricted to traditionally published books.)

So, just how do I find books?

First off, unless I’m doing research for this blog, I almost never visit author websites, check out their Facebook pages, follow them on twitter, or sign-up for their mailing lists. The principal reason for this is that I find the content boring and I’m not a fan of getting mail. In my case, the role of author-centric marketing in my reading choices is limited.

Where I do find new books and new authors is the bookstore. Before the pandemic, weekly visits to my local Barnes and Nobles were common. I’d buy a cup of coffee and wander through the aisles, thinking about what to read next. Unfortunately, the pandemic has curtailed this activity. As a workaround, I’ve been using GoodReads, which allows you to scroll through new releases not only under the general category, fiction, but also by genre.

Besides this, I read professional reviews for fun, and I find a lot of new books through “book hauls” and “TBRs” featured on BookTube.

Therefore, if I make a representative case study for the average reader, none of my reading choices come from direct marketing from the writer him/herself.

So, who controls the means of marketing?

Well, publishing does, obviously. Most of these are structural.

The chief means of marketing is book availability in bookstores- something that is negotiated between booksellers and the publishing industry. In fact, all the lovely covers act as the book’s main advertising- not unlike a billboard, which is why cover art is so important.

Besides this fundamental form of marketing, publishing can do a lot of extras like arranging for someone to review your book. And while most publications say that they chose books independently of the publishing industry, I’ve never quite believed it. I’m sure at least some nudging is involved. The publishing industry also sends out copies for review to book influencers and for placement on BookTuber “book hauls”.

Another form of marketing is making a novel book club friendly by providing a reader discussion guide at the back of the book. A traditional publisher can also get a book placed in subscription services like Book of the Month. Once again, these are all structural forms of marketing that don’t require direct author participation.

Beyond that, there’s publicity: the flashy form of marketing. This is rarer and also in the hands of publishers.

One form of this is giving out enormous advances, which naturally raise interest in both reviewers and readers. They find themselves asking just what about that book deserves a $400,000 advance? Usually nothing, I suspect. It’s just publishers backing their horse. Tipping the scales.

Publishers can also arrange for you to appear in other media: radio, television, magazines. They might even foot the bill for a book tour or an appearance at one of the large Cons.

As you can see, not only is traditional publishing tied to marketing at its most basic level (physical books in stores), it also promotes and publicizes books (often in a genre appropriate fashion). But if this is the case, why do so many people say publishing does no marketing?

Big author marketing and little author marketing

I suspect this occurs because when people think of book marketing, they think only of media and event appearances. Sometimes, I even see people grumbling about this online: “I never got a book tour” is a big complaint. But I’d argue that this type of flashy marketing is really low impact for a consumer like me: one who doesn’t go to Cons or book signings or readings at the local bookstore. For the vast majority of readers, this is also out of reach due to finances or geography.

A spot in a magazine or a radio/TV appearance is a more democratic way of reaching a reader. But most of these spots are reserved for big name authors and only for a certain type of book.

So, what can a writer do as far as marketing and self-promotion?

The real question is what structural platforms are available. Well, there’s Twitter, Facebook, personal websites, etc. But don’t be surprised if this is not enough. And worse, don’t flog yourself because your presence on these platforms wasn’t sufficient to sell your book. It rarely ever is.

What maybe more impactful on marketing is writing a great book that readers want to read. After that, word of mouth will take care of the rest.

Hopefully.

Let me know in the comments how you find new books to read.

Also, want to know when I post something new? Follow me here or on Twitter.

Authors Have Meltdowns. Sometimes Collectively.

(How to Avoid Making an Arse Out of Yourself.)

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“This review makes me wish I’d never been born.”

This was author Elin Hilderbrand’s reaction to a negative review posted on Instagram. It’s strangely over the top for someone with a two-decade long writing career. Not to mention, a little lacking in perspective.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing is nothing new. Every few months I hear tell of a similar author meltdown. This occurs primarily on Twitter. But as someone who only uses that platform for writing advice and as a means of belonging to a writerly community (few other options where I live), I often miss a lot of the drama.

For a while now, I’ve been keeping up to date on author meltdowns by watching a feature on BookTube called Bookcommunitea (Jess Owen), a weekly update on book-related drama. To be sure, it’s never ending. Sometimes what’s presented is eye opening; but most of the time, I can’t be bothered to care. I mean, there’re bigger problems in the world. Still, the videos are a great window to the fraught world of fiction.

Around the same time as the Elin Hilderbrand meltdown, there was a collective author meltdown over negative reviews in general. Authors piled on a Booktuber who tweeted a link to a video of his worst reads of 2020, a kind of video that is de rigueur on the platform. Authors who were not even mentioned in the video flocked together to state how hurtful negative reviews are.

And if you think these kinds of author meltdowns are reactions to what appears on informal review sites like YouTube and Instagram, you’d be wrong. Back in the day, I remember Jennifer Weiner complaining about receiving a negative review from Jane Smiley in The Philadelphia Inquirer, a newspaper Weiner used to work for. I can’t find Weiner’s blog post about it, but I remember her mentioning how she’d read the review on some special personal occasion and how the review had ruined her day. Here’s even a link in which Weiner goes as far as to imply there was something anti-Semitic in Smiley’s review.

But how bad was the review, you might ask? The title was, “Weiner is Talented Enough to Aim Higher”. In other words, not terrible.

So why all the meltdowns then? Surely, all authors know that books aren’t universally admired. I doubt that they themselves universally admire all books.

But if behavior is indicative of anything- and it’s certainly more indicative than the things we say (words are wind, after all)- it’s clear authors don’t know this.

While I am a writer, I am first and foremost a reader. And as a reader, let me tell you something you, the writer, might not know: reviews don’t mean anything.

A simple understanding of this fact will prevent you from having any such meltdown in the future.

All reviews are meaningless

Years ago, when BookTube was in its infancy, I used to watch channels indiscriminately. I’d click play and then go about my house work while I listened to the book chatter. One thing that came up a lot was objectivity in book reviews. I remember one BookTuber stating that reviews can be objective- that aspects of the novel, whether they be plot, character, or world building can be objectively good. This attitude may even be widespread on the platform. In fact, many reviewers on BookTube dissect books and organize their reviews in this way. Part 1: Did they like the story? Part 2: Was the hero or heroine believable? Part 3: Was the world really cool?

This is an anatomical approach. It’s kind of like Olympics figure skating or gymnastics scoring. There are points for technical performance (important) and points for artistry (less important).

The problem here is that in writing, technically good is anchored in the artist’s thematic intention, which in turn informs the choices he or she makes in what to include in their composition. This means that unless you first define what a book’s themes are, you cannot say whether the artist’s narrative choices, characters, or even their world building are effective. In fact, without themes, all your likes and dislikes are arbitrary/ idiosyncratic to the reviewer. And while most reviewers are quick to comment on the story or characters, they almost never touch on a book’s themes.

This lack of interest in themes isn’t really the book reviewer’s fault either. Sometimes a novel has no theme. Other times, the writer deploys thematic double speak by which they simultaneously explore and undermine their novel’s themes. In fact, I’d argue that themelessness is more the norm for most fictions published today (and probably yesteryear too). There’s a reason why a showrunner of the super successful Game of Thrones television series said, “Themes are for eighth-grade book reports.” Literary products manufactured in this way are generally conservative with a progressive veneer, a combination that creates a semi-neutral work of art- one that is beyond criticism.

Essentially, the book/ author leaves it to the reader to decide what to take away from the novel- if anything.

Indeed, a look at informal reader reviews will corroborate this. When I scan GoodReads reviews, all I really get is a list of what people liked and didn’t like in a given book. The plot was good, or such-and-such a character was unlikable. We hear about how the reader “hates hates hates” love triangles- “ALL” love triangles. There’s very little effort put into thinking about why the writer selected any of the elements of the book. It’s also equally likely that the author him or herself put little thought into it as well.

In short, reviews are about what do I, as the customer, want in the fiction that I enjoy.

Looked at another way, reading reviews on GoodReads or Instagram or Twitter essentially amounts to listening to a focus group. Such groups exist not for the artist to make better art, but for marketing purposes and maximizing profits. A negative review is merely saying I, the consumer, haven’t gotten what I wanted.

It’s nothing personal.

And certainly nothing to have a meltdown over.

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Querying in Batches: Is there an advantage?

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When it comes to querying, do you dip your toe into the chilly waters or do you wade right in?

After you have scoured AgentQuery, Manuscript Wish List, and Twitter for names of agents representing your genre, written an exciting hook for your novel along with a writer’s biography and a sales pitch that includes a comparison title, the next step is putting your query out there. If you’re like me, a compulsive reader of writer’s blogs about writing, you’ll already know there are many blog posts devoted to this process. That shouldn’t surprise anyone: there’s advice out there for just about every aspect of publishing.

Some of it good. Some of it dubious.

One common bit of advice I’ve seen is to query in batches, a strategy that entails sending out only seven to ten queries at a time. But is batch querying the right choice for you?

The testing the waters

First, sending queries in batches can be a strategy for success.

The big idea here is that each batch acts as an experiment that tests whether the query is any good. If you end up with no requests for either a partial or a full manuscript, then you can tweak your query hook and resend the updated query letter to a new batch of agents. In theory, you can rinse and repeat this strategy until you have exhausted your agent list.

At first, I found this advice exciting. It seemed sensible. In fact, it was better than sensible. It was a plan. The problem, however, is that the strategy seems impractical. Testing a query hook requires that your agent list contains a large number of agents with quick response times. While there are a few highly organized agents who respond the next day- sometimes the same day, these are few and far between. You’d at least need to have a small group of agents that respond within a two to four-week period. This might be likely if you’re looking for an agent that represents a perennially popular genre like mystery, but if your work is more niche, you’ll find your supply of guinea pig agents sorely lacking.

Another major issue with this strategy is that you have no way of knowing what an agent liked or didn’t like about your query hook. Most rejection letters are nicely worded form letters, and often times, the reason for the rejection is vague. The most common one I’ve received is that the book doesn’t fit their list. Knowing that can’t possibly help you tweak your query letter.

On top of that, an agent can pass on your book for a myriad or reasons unrelated to the hook, including word count, subject matter, character gender or ethnicity, etc. There’s a reason why a common refrain in rejection letters is how the business is subjective. Going back to tweak the hook in these cases would be fruitless, like spinning your wheels. You might even end up harming your well-written query hook.

What I suspect is that the benefits of batch querying are psychological. It gives a hopeful author a semblance of control in a situation where they have none.

Manage feelings of rejection

In fact, another touted advantage to batch querying is psychological (see here). In the article I linked to, there’s no tweaking of query hooks. You merely send out queries in batches, then wait for responses. When one comes back negative, you merely send out the next one.

At first, I thought, okay- it’s a little like gardening. Anyone who grows vegetables during the summer knows that you have to keep sowing seeds to replenish anything you harvest, and by doing so systematically, you can guarantee yourself a supply of lettuce all summer long.

But what are you guaranteeing yourself here? I suspect what you are sowing is hope- keeping it alive, but why you’d want to is puzzling. The obverse of sowing hope in this manner is having a prolonged period of rejection letters. And who wants that? I mean, isn’t it better to know right away if the industry isn’t interested in your project so that you can psychologically move on to your next project?

So, should you send your queries in batches? It all depends on your psychological makeup. Do you gently tug at a Band-Aid or just tear it off? I remember watching a fluff piece on morning television about groups of speedo-clad men bathing in the Baltic. They rushed headlong into the chilly water. No toe-dipping for them. And that seemed to work best.

That said, happy querying.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve queried in batches and found it useful. I’m on the fence about it.

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Meeting 2020 Writing Goals, Burnout, Symptoms and Cures

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New Year. New work in progress.

That was the dream.

Well, that didn’t happen, but I came close. I finished making content changes to my novel in early December. This was a protracted process during which I chopped twenty thousand words out of my manuscript and added a second narrative point of view. My target goal was 85,000 words. I ended up missing this goal too, but I’m happy with the novel’s current length (89K).

During the rest of December and the first weeks of January, I focused on line editing. My primary goals were to fix paragraph flow and maximize readability. After all the chopping I did earlier, there were issues with transitions both within and between paragraphs. More often than not, I found stray sentences that broke the smooth flow of the rest of the paragraph. I either had to delete those sentences or move them to some other place in the manuscript. Usually the latter.

The third editing phase was copy editing. Here I went line by line, fixing the grammar and correcting typos. A lot of the errors were missing commas. Occasionally, I’d find a misplaced modifier. Every copy editing session starts off fun, but boy does it get mind-numbing. That’s when I have to stop. If your head isn’t in copy editing mode, then you’ll end up overlooking errors. Because I often did my copy editing after work, when I’m mentally exhausted to begin with, this process took a few weeks.

So, I’ve basically missed my end-of-the-year deadline by a month.

If you’re asking why, the answer is burnout.

What is burnout?

Interestingly, the word was first coined to describe the mental state of people suffering from severe work-related stress, particularly of people working in the “helping” professions (i.e. nursing). The term was later expanded to include people in other professions- to any overworked individual. This includes anyone running the career rat race.

So can a writer- one who isn’t under contract to produce- feel burn out? I’d say yes. Writing is a career and is therefore a trajectory that one has to be on. Even people who publish using Kindle Direct Publishing (or want to) will feel burnout. The push to create output is intense.

As for me, I’m not sure what the cause of my burnout is. One possibility is that I’ve been working on this manuscript for more than a year. Maybe that’s just too long.

Symptoms of Burnout

So, what was my experience of burnout like?

Writers report many symptoms such as exhaustion, lack of motivation, negativity, declining memory, and bad writing.

Except for lack of motivation, I’ve experienced all these symptoms to some extent. A lot of these exist separately from my writing, however. Negativity, for instance. Also, I’m a sufferer of chronic insomnia, so things like exhaustion and declining memory go hand in hand. The symptom that made me stop and take notice was the bad writing.

As I did my content editing- deleting what wasn’t necessary and adding what was, I realized that the sentences I was writing/ rewriting/ adding were getting shorter and simpler. It became a struggle to add feeling to them. I eventually got there, but it was a struggle.

What I now mostly feel is depletion. In some sense, this is normal. I can’t find the quote, but I remember reading some article, either in the Guardian or the New York Times, in which a writer says that finishing a manuscript leaves a hole in your head (something like that; I think it might have been Salman Rushdie). I’m definitely feeling that now.

To recuperate, I’m going to just write sentences. Maybe twenty sentences a day, and I’ll work at them until I can feel something. Drawing masters often practice making lines to warm up the muscle memory in their shoulders and their arms. What if writers need to do the same thing? It’s worth a shot.

Anyway, I’ll have fun, regardless.

And who knows? Maybe like a sketch artist I can work alfresco.

(Who am I kidding? There’s a pandemic going on. There’ll be no sitting in a coffee shop eavesdropping on conversations for writing inspiration. I’ll have to stay put, in my gray, gray room.)

Let me know what your experience of creative burnout was like in the comments.

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Why you can’t self-publish everything

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“If I can’t get an agent, I’ll self-publish on Amazon.”

That’s what a writer friend of mine always says.

It’s a good mindset to have- one in which a writer has a choice between traditional publishing and self-publishing- but is it a smart strategy?

Most of the arguments for or against taking one route over another focus on tradeoffs. If you traditionally publish, you lose authorial control over publishing rights, book titles, and cover images. The upside, however, is that you gain a team of experts. Not just an editor, but also professional cover artists, book formatters, and various other industry experts who understand how to market books.

But by far, the greatest appeal to self-publishing is the lure of higher royalties. Blog post after blog post, each with some variation of the title “Why I Choose to Self Publish”, emphasizes this aspect of self-publishing. This isn’t surprising. Many writers going down this path say that self-publishing is akin to starting up a small business. One in which you the writer must take charge of editing, cover design, and marketing. And if that doesn’t seem burdensome enough, you must also take the financial risk as well.

So let’s say you have written a book you love, have money to burn, and are willing to spend the time marketing your product.  Should you then plunge into self-publishing. Well, according to the writing chatterati, it’s your choice. You have to weigh the pros and cons and determine what’s best for you.

But I disagree. I say the choice is an illusion.

And if you’re wondering why, it’s because self-publishing and traditional publishing are two different markets that service two different kinds of readers.

Self-Publishing: the new pulp fiction

When we think of pulp, we think of noir mysteries. But pulp is a much wider field than that. At its most basic, pulp refers to price point. Pulp novels were hastily written, quickly published, and cheaply priced. As an art form, they were written to be enjoyed and then disposed of. To be pulped.

Back in the day, pulp represented a wide range of genres including mysteries, adventure stories, Westerns, and romance. These days, if you walk into your local Target or grocery store, the pulp fiction selection is much smaller. There are only a handful of truly pulp works available, and most of these are romance.

But pulp hasn’t disappeared. It’s only migrated to the eReader. The truth is indie-publishing is the new pulp fiction.

This means that writers who want to break out in self-publishing have to think like a pulp publisher of yore. Understand the genre they are writing. Know what is essential and what can be experimented with. After all, readers shelling out their hard-earned $1.99 or $4.99 for a book will come with expectations, and those expectations have to be met. A novel with a bare-chested dude on the cover ought to have a small amount of erotica even if it’s totally vanilla. Likewise, such a book must also end with a happily ever after. Failing to meet these kinds of genre expectations will only lead to obscurity.

So, what does this mean for the writer sitting at their dining room table, typing away at their novel? The kind of book they always wanted to read.

Well, that book you’ve been longing for better be pulp fiction.

Traditional publishing

Of course, an aspiring author can take the other path. Traditional publishing.

A while back, I sampled the first chapter of Donald Maass’ book, Writing 21st Century Fiction. Maass, who is a New York based literary agent, is an industry insider of some repute. His book suggests that there’s been a shift in publishing. Bestselling fiction is no longer just about plot; it’s also literary in style. He envisions “the death of genre” in favor of authorial voice. Books have to “rise above category”, “transcend” genre, maybe even “blend” them. It’s not hard to see that here is the path for writers whose books don’t meet pulp expectations.

Here is also, I suppose, a challenge to self-publishing. As the pulp market slowly slips away from trad publishing’s control, the industry has to focus on quality. Since most agents barely read sample pages submitted during the querying process, traditional publishing also leans towards books with high concept premises.

So you better have that or you’ll be traveling up the creek without a paddle.

The Raven Boys: an Analysis of YA Fantasy

The Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle, #1)

The goal of this blog series is to explore YA fantasy. My plan is to read ten books in the genre and study how they were constructed along thematic lines. Also, I want to determine if they meet genre expectations as outlined here by author March McCarron.

Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys is the second book in this series. Though I finished reading the novel in late September, I’ve been putting off writing about it. A major reason for this is that I just can’t figure out what the book is about.

Thinking back, the lack of discernible themes may be a function of a novel holding its mysteries too close to its chest. The Raven Boys is, after all, part one of a quartet. This means I have to consider all the plot elements and see if I can decipher anything from the book’s arrangement. Warning: spoilers abound.

Novel Setup

The Raven Boys takes place in the small town of Henrietta, Virginia. We’re first introduced to a girl named Blue Sargent, who comes from a family of clairvoyants. A prophecy is made early on in her life that states she will kill her true love with a kiss. Because of this, her mother, Maura Sargent, keeps close tabs on who Blue associates with. In a way, Maura is like the mother figure in a Heroine’s Journey. She hinders her daughter from freely experiencing life and adventure.

Though members of Blue’s family can foresee the future, Blue herself has no such paranormal abilities. She does, however, have one gift, and that is the ability to enhance other people’s magical powers. This is why her mother takes her to a church every Saint Mark’s Eve, when the ghosts of those who will soon die manifest themselves. It is during one of these vigils that Blue has her first paranormal experience. The spirit of a boy calls her name before walking away. Her Aunt Neeve Mullen tells her that the ghost belongs either to Blue’s true love or to someone she murdered. Because of the prophecy hanging over Blue, both can be true.

The other major characters in the novel are the raven boys themselves, all of whom attend a prestigious private school called Aglionby Academy. There are four of them: Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah. While Gansey and Ronan are rich- it’s noted the Gansey is old money- Adam attends Aglionby as a scholarship boy. As for Noah, for much of the book, he remains a cypher.

The raven boys’ story revolves around a quest to find the legendary Welsh King Owen Glendower, a sort-of sleeping barrow king who will grant a wish to anyone who wakes him. Mostly, the quest is Gansey’s and Adam’s passion project. Both desperately seek the sleeping King, but for different reasons. Gansey believes that his search for the King will give meaning to his otherwise un-travailed existence. Adam’s goals are a little less pure. Like the scholarship boy that he is, he seeks an escape from his current life of poverty and parental abuse. He seeks material gain.

The two story threads come together when Blue learns that the ghost she encountered on St. Mark’s Eve belongs to Gansey. She slowly becomes one of the raven boys and joins them on their expedition to find the ley line- the corpse road, as it is called- which will lead them to Glendower. Though Blue has a bias against entitled Aglionby students, she soon warms to them, especially Adam and Gansey. She feels an attraction for Adam and a powerful pull towards Gansey, who might be her true love. This love triangle is the third thread in the novel.

Doubling of the love triangle and the quest

The fourth thread is the mystery behind Blue’s parentage. We learn that Blue’s father originated from the ley line, a magical path that amplifies magic, which explains the origins of Blue’s own gift. In a sense, Blue is a walking-talking ley line. Thus, the love triangle reflects the quest for the ley line itself. Like the female character in early Trollope novels, Blue almost exists a prize. Who will she give herself to- a man pure of heart or a man after material things?

The fifth thread in the novel is a mystery. As the raven boys search the ley line, they find a skeleton which belongs to Noah, meaning Noah is a ghost. We learn he attended Aglionby seven years before the other boys, and that his best friend, Barrington Whelk, another seeker of Glendower, murdered him in a failed ritual sacrifice. Thus, Barrington Whelk and Noah mirror Gansey and Adam, and for an exciting second, I thought The Raven Boys was going to enter David Lynch territory, with its dreamy world and character obverses. Who knows? Maybe that’s what the book is going for.

Doubling of Gansey, Whelk, Adam, and Noah?

Too many competing plot threads

The Raven Boys thus has five plot threads, but which is the novel’s through line? Let’s look at the book’s major plot points.

Plot point 1: The inciting incident of the novel is the church scene on St. Mark’s Eve. Blue meets Gansey’s ghost, which means he is (1) either her true love and will die soon, (2) she will murder him, or (3) she will do both. This sets the novel rolling, putting Gansey and Blue in each other’s paths. Thus, plot point one belongs to the love triangle and main quest plot.

Plot point 2: The Raven boys and girl take a helicopter ride and find the ley line. This is a strange, dreamy place where time and space are altered. This is a part of the Quest plot.

Plot point 3: Gansey and Blue discover Noah’s bones. This is the mystery plot.

Plot point 4: The Raven crew goes after Barrington Whelk to stop him from finding Glendower. This is the conclusion of the mystery plot.

For me, there is a disconnect between the mystery plot and the first half of the book, which explains why the book bored me. On the other hand, you can see how Stiefvater uses of shifting plots to keep all the mysteries intact. Indeed, a reader on Goodreads said that while they reread the series, they found so many “Easter eggs” littered throughout the text. I’ll never know because I won’t be reading the rest of the books. A shame really because The Raven Boys has all the things I like in paranormal urban fantasy.

Genre Expectations

YA fantasy is a genre I’m not too familiar with, but I’ve blogged about it before (here and here). Most of what I know comes from March McCarron’s blog post on the subject, which delineates some hallmarks of the genre. As a writer, I thought it would be fun to see if The Raven Boys conforms to genre expectations.

1.) be character driven rather than plot driven.

The Raven Boys is character driven. Blue’s and the boys’ relationships to each other takes up a lot of the narrative. For me, these explorations of character were mostly one note, especially as far as the boys are concerned. Gansey’s character tends towards largess (the pure of heart theme), Adam is always poor, Ronan is always doing his girl-interrupted act, and Noah is just there. These character aspects are just on repeat for most of the book. We do, however, get a sense of their loyalty to one another at points.

2.)  be set in a world that is only as big as it needs to be.

The Raven Boys is a semi-portal story. And while the world of the ley line feels like the world of dreams, it isn’t explored much in this book. So, the fantasy world is small. Really small. Even the real world is small. After reading the book, all I know about Henrietta, Virginia is that it is full of trees and has a pizza joint.

3.) be fast paced

This book is the opposite of fast paced.

4.)  ease you in

We don’t need too much easing into the story since it takes place in the regular world.

5.) make you feel SO many EMOTIONS!!!

The characters are too one note and mysterious. I didn’t feel any of their emotions.

6.) be more focused on inter-character drama.

There is drama between Adam and Gansey since Gansey want to help Adam monetarily, but Adam doesn’t want to be a charity case. Gansey also mothers Ronan while he is going through his punching the walls moments. Ronan resists Gansey as well. In all, most of the drama is about showing what a great guy Gansey is (pure of heart).

7.) feature dramatic character growth.

Definitely does not. Once again, the characters are too one note for this.

8.) be anachronistic.

Not applicable, since the novel is a semi-portal story.

9.) have some unexpected twists.

Noah being dead is the only twist (an unsurprising one).

10.) have pretty covers.

The cover is just okay. Some of the fan art I’ve seen is cooler.

Final score: The Raven Boys has 4 out of 10 hallmarks of YA fantasy.

Three UNSPOKEN Dont’s of Deep POV

When it comes to writing in deep POV, there are so many things you shouldn’t do. So many, in fact, that writing in deep POV often feels constraining. Still, every writer today should consider using the technique. One reason is that traditional publishers prefer stories told in deep POV. A second reason is that deep POV is now the new narrative voice. In fact, if you come upon a writer these days talking about voice and fiction, they are usually discussing deep POV.

So What Is Deep POV?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, deep POV emphasizes character and their relationship to the story’s plot, whereas narrative voice favors looking at characters in their milieu. Thus, a novelist writing in deep POV has to stick close to a scene’s story arc while interweaving descriptions and character revelations into the text. In a way, it’s much like plot driven fiction. The aesthetic also discourages narrative digressions, which is another reason why writing in deep POV feels so limiting.

So Many Don’ts

A major reason deep POV is so hard to master is that there are more don’ts than do’s. Here are the classic ones you can find on/in most Writing Blogs/ AuthorTube videos.

  • Don’t use filter words
  • Don’t use emotion tells
  • Don’t use narrative tricks/ Don’t break character
  • Don’t flash back
  • Don’t make characters explain their thoughts, beliefs, and world view
  • Don’t tell

But having to follow these rules can frustrate a writer, especially ones who are used to writing in a more traditional style. You might start asking yourself, does it really matter if I break the rules just this once? Such a writer might even start taking shortcuts to achieve deep POV in their writing.

Don’t Take Shortcuts

As I study other writers using deep POV and practice it myself, I’ve discovered that the overwhelming desire to attain deep POV often leads to sloppy writing. So here are three more don’ts for the list.

  • Don’t Ignore Paragraph Flow

Paragraph flow is the one facet of writing people rarely ever talk about. It is, however, the most important aspect of writing. Good flow connects individual elements into a unified whole and creates meaning. Smoother connections also keep the reader under your narrative spell.

Prose written in deep POV, however, is often choppy. I suspect this occurs because writers are trying to transform traditional narrative styles into deep POV. When they see a “tell” in their writing, they merely replace it with a “show”. Here is a paragraph from K. M. Weiland’s post on choppy prose, This is her “improved” version:

Ariel arrived at the train station only two minutes late. She ran down the platform and screamed at the train to stop. She had to get on! Finally, she gave up and stopped short. Tears welled. This was so unfair. Now, what would happen to her? She was doomed, of course. The strength melted out of her legs, and she sat down on her suitcase. Maybe the next train would leave soon? Or perhaps someone would take pity on her. A kind man in a fedora stopped beside her and asked if he could help. She sniffed and looked up. Maybe this was her lucky day after all—or maybe it was a miracle?

As you can see, the writing is in deep POV, but clearly, the main character’s introspections are tossed into a paragraph with no consideration for the sentences that come before or after it. After reading a lot of choppy deep POV fiction, I’m starting to suspect that well written deep POV will require a different ordering of information in paragraphs.

  • Don’t Just Delete Filter Words

Mavens of deep POV often imply that filter words exist to create distance between a reader and the character. Nothing is further from the truth. Filter words are mostly used to create transitions in a paragraph, a shift from the panoramic to the personal. Willy-nilly deleting them often leads to choppy prose.

Experts often advise writers to search their manuscript for filter words and then just delete them. For example, transforming “He saw a body floating in the pond” to “The body floated [or was floating] in the pond” is easy enough, but make certain that the revised sentence flows with the rest of the paragraph. That “He saw” might be a transition.

  • Don’t Infodump in Dialogue

One lazy way to write in deep POV is to move everything- from setting description to a character’s thoughts and feelings- into dialogue. The logic is that dialogue is always a part of a scene and therefore always showing. And while this may be technically true, infodumping in dialogue is still a form of telling. It will also bore the reader. I recently read a traditionally published novel where the main story was told in dialog infodumps. It wasn’t fun.

So in conclusion

  • Deep POV requires a different approach to storytelling
  • There are no shortcuts when writing in deep POV

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment!

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Help! Can I Transform My Plot Driven Novel into a Character Driven Novel?

Altered screenshot from an article posted on The Writing Cooperative

If you fully flesh out a character before sending them off on their journey or adventure, have you then created a character driven story?

The answer is not necessarily. Not even if you know what’s in their closet or under their bed or in their purse.

That’s because plot driven stories and character driven stories focus on different things. A character driven story focuses on the illumination of a character or some aspect of life, while a plot driven story focuses on telling a story. Even the ways a writer goes about writing the two types of books are different.

Two Goals, Two Approaches

In a plot driven story, each scene moves the story forward. This doesn’t mean that characters in a plot driven novel are cardboard cutouts. It merely means that characterization is woven into the novel’s narrative. On the most basic level, how a character pursues her goal or reacts to a plot development shows who they are. This is inherent to all plot driven fiction. Besides this, authors can also embed snippets of backstory into the narrative or allow us to meet the character’s friends and family. An additional option is to use character driven subplots.

On the other hand, a character driven story is built entirely differently. The author must first decide what they want to say about a character or what aspects of a character’s life they wish to explore. After that, they must devise scenes and sequences to illuminate that aspect of a character’s life. The key is to choose a perspective for your portrayal (have something to say). The sky’s the limit in terms of themes. A character driven novel can be about handling grief or falling in love, betraying a loved one or sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

Right about now, you’re probably thinking: “But wait! Since all plots require active characters, can you really separate the two?”

The Plot Driven-Character Driven Story Combo

Some very confused writers will answer no. They will argue that if a character drives the plot, then the novel is character driven. Here’s a link to an article featured on The Writing Cooperative that suggests just that. The argument here is not about different narrative compositions (as outlined above). The argument is more hierarchical. Character based stories are more literary and therefore better. An added carrot is that publishers prefer books that are character driven.

That said, it’s easy to find examples in which fleshed out characters inhabit a strong plot. The novels of Gillian Flynn are good examples. The question is, how do we categorize novels like Dark Places and Gone Girl.

Ultimately, I’d say they’re mostly character driven fictions.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment!

The Heroine’s Journey: Disillusionment, Alchemic Transformation, and Philip Marlowe

The Heroine’s Journey

While researching the Hero’s Journey for my last blog post, I came across an alternative called the Heroine’s Journey. It was devised by psychologist Maureen Murdock, and like Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the Heroine’s Journey was never meant to be a primer on writing novels. Murdock’s book, The Heroine’s Journey, Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, is about redressing our society’s unbalanced value system, which privileges rapaciousness and greed over kindness and compassion. The character going through the Heroine’s Journey will first become disillusioned by the male sphere she has entered, after which she will be reborn as a spiritual warrior with the “male” and “female” aspects of herself reconciled and in harmony (wholeness).

While the Heroine’s Journey is interesting as a concept, using the problematization of the “feminine” as a framework for every female centered story seems too rigid for general use. I also object to story outlines that tell you what your book should be about. By contrast, the midpoint section (the dark cave) in the Hero’s Journey is open enough to let a writer explore any theme as long it is binary Alchemic transformation: “despair to hope, weakness to strength, folly to wisdom, love to hate” (Vogler). While the Hero’s Journey still makes demands on theme, the transformation can be anything you want, including a return to the feminine.

Since the publication of The Heroine’s Journey, Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, many writers have adapted the Heroine’s Journey for fiction much in the same way Vogler adapted The Hero with a Thousand Faces. One version appears in Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s book, 45 Master Characters. I haven’t read it, but it is summarized on the Heroine’s Journey’s Wikipedia entry. Here is a condensed, side-by-side comparison of the two:

Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey

  1. The heroine actively enters a sphere outside of the domestic (the “masculine” sphere)
  2. The heroine becomes disillusioned
  3. The heroine seeks the feminine
  4. The heroine reconciles both sides of her nature

Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey

  1. The heroine becomes disillusioned
  2. The heroine will react to disillusionment
  3. The heroine’s reaction will be a failure; she will react again by reconnecting with the feminine
  4. The heroine reconciles both sides of her nature with a little help from a friend

Like Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey, Schmidt’s version is also about disillusionment. The chief difference is that the heroine in Murdock’s version becomes disillusioned at the story’s midpoint, while Schmidt’s heroine learns that the world isn’t perfect at the inciting incident point.

I think I prefer the original Murdock version. Because it follows the heroine’s journey into a “masculine” world, the narrative framework gives ample space for world building and the layering of themes. It is also closer to the original Hero’s journey because the return to the feminine feels like a transformation. By contrast, Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey produces a heroine that is very reactive and one that seems to fail a lot.

I also love the idea of characters finding balance and synthesis, but how exactly do you get character to this destination?

This prompted me to think about stories that fit the Heroine’s Journey pattern. I couldn’t really come up with one. I suspect if anyone ever wrote a back story for my favorite detective, Philip Marlowe, he or she might use the Heroine’s journey. He’s very masculine and feminine, a compassionate strongman. But I suppose his transformation into a spiritual warrior would be incomplete. He still has an asymptotic yearning for perfection- the alchemic transformation. The final destination of the Heroine’s Journey wouldn’t be enough.

And that is the secret to writing noir.