QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Friday, April 27, 2012

Publishing Pulse for Friday April 27, 2012

Query Tracker Database Updates

Two agent profiles—Molly Lyons and Paige Wheeler--were updated this week. Please make sure you double-check every agent's website or Publisher's Marketplace page before querying. Also, a new publisher has been added to the QT database: Champagne Books.

If you'rea QueryTracker member (membership is free) then you can be notified whenever an agent or publisher is added or updates their profile.

Success Story

Congratulations to Jamie Wyman, whose success story can be read here.

To the Webs!

Ever wish you can go back and change your book after it had been released? Well, maybe you can. Read about one author's decision togo back and re-write the ending of her book after hearing what her readers had to say about the story. Elle Lothlorien suggests that indie publishing has fundamentally (and perhaps permanently) changed the dynamic between authors and readers.

Starting in early July, the whole Tor/Forge e-book catalog will be free of Digital Rights Management (DRM). What does that mean for readers—and other publishers? 

Do you make your characters bite their tongues because you're afraid of hate mail? Rachelle Gardner ponders whether a writer is responsible for the things a character says or does.

It's nearly fifty years since Whovians began their take-over of planet Earth. Dr. Who is the longest-running science fiction television series…safe to say, the writers know what they’re doing. Their secret to writing riveting episodes isn't smoke and mirrors, either. See why the doctor and his adventures are virtually timeless. You can use their tricks to e your own marketing strategies.

Many writers have turned to blogging to build their platform, attract their audiences, and vent about the crushing humanity of it all. But do all of them consider the long term effects of what they write?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who resides in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region, where she keeps the book jacket for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" in a frame over her desk. Visit Ash's blog at http://www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com/ for news on her newly released urban fantasy "Bleeding Hearts: Book One of the Demimonde" (Pink Narcissus Press 2012).

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The exclusive query?

No, really. I saw this.

A writer on another forum asked about an agent who says she responds faster to queries if you write "Exclusive Query" in the subject line. The writer was interested in whether queriers actually abide by this.

I was able to track down the listing, and this is the second agent I've seen who mentions exclusive queries as if they're a desirable thing. This particular agent does not demand exclusivity (only rewards it); the other one demanded it.

Most agents feel differently:
Here's a thought: any agent who demands an exclusive query must feel confident that s/he is the very first agent you are going to query.  Otherwise, with agencies taking months to review queries, and writers sending out up to a hundred queries (not all at once, please!) and no-response-means-no, the agent would have to accept that s/he was probably your very last choice. By three months, after all the dust had settled.

So, what are exclusives? Some agents, when they request your full or partial, ask for the exclusive right to be the one and only agent reviewing your material. They generally set a time limit on how long that will be, and it's generally much shorter than the six months an agent might be expected to keep your full manuscript. This is fairly rare, but it does happen.

It's fine to tell the agent if you do not want to grant this (for example, if your manuscript is already in front of ten other agents.) Agents should be able to negotiate, right? If you don't want to grant an exclusive, you should also be up-front in stating that if you receive an offer, you will notify them immediately and give them a chance to respond before accepting. Be aware that some agents will rescind their request; others will allow you to submit on a non-exclusive basis. 

I would recommend against sending a query on an exclusive basis, especially in a climate where many agents never send rejection letters. Your query could be rejected in an hour, but you might wait for months. Months during which you could be seeking representation.

Here's another thought, from the inimitable Miss Snark, talking about exclusive submissions:

I NEVER ask for exclusives and most of my fellow agent buddies don't either. I figure if you want to work with me I'd better be able to tell you why I am a great agent for your book and what I bring to the table that those other sloths in the industry do not. I specifically do not want to sign anyone who hasn't queried elsewhere. That's the fastest way in the world to get a client with buyer's remorse the second something goes awry (and the first rule of publishing is that EVERYTHING goes awry).

If you query only one agent because that agent demands it, and you are offered representation, you'll never know what other agent interest your work would have garnered; you won't have been able to weigh the different kinds of agencies (a solo agent versus one in a large agency, for example) and you won't have been able to hear how different agents talk about their work. You'll lack perspective, in other words.

So let's say you're researching an agent and it turns out the agent wants an exclusive query. What should you do?

First, and most importantly, DO NOT tell the agent it is an exclusive query if it is not an exclusive query.  An author-agent relationship would ideally be career-long, and it should not begin with deception. Period.

(And think about it: a writer who lies about exclusivity is in a pickle if another agent makes an offer. What's the writer going to do? Dear Mr. Agent-Exclusive: I know I said you were the only one looking at my material, but a funny thing happened.... Sincerely, Liar-Writer. That's not how to increase membership in your personal fan club.)

Secondly, if the agent does not put a limit on the exclusivity, put one on it yourself. State in your query that the agent can consider this an exclusive query for one or two weeks (and then specify the ending date). If the "deal" is that exclusive queries get looked at faster, then it makes sense to advocate for yourself in this fashion.

Thirdly, be prepared that any request for materials will most likely also be on an exclusive basis.

Personally, I hope this kind of request doesn't become an industry standard. But remember, if you come across something like this, play smart. It's your time and your career: manage them wisely.


Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Scavenger Hunt In Reverse

One good thing about being a writer is you can talk about the best ways of burying bodies, and no one phones the local boys in blue.

(True story: I was knitting a sock at a writing convention when a woman said, "May I see?" Ordinarily I'd hand over the sock, but I was with other writers, so I handed over one of the double-pointed needles. The woman balanced it her hand, sighted along it, and said, "You could kill a man with this."  I replied, "I'd suggest a number five straight needle instead.")

There are better things to bury than bodies, however. Let's talk about burying details.

The details are where I have the most fun in my writing, and the majority of that fun happens in the editing phase. If you're one of those writers who hates editing, put down your number five straight needle and hear me out: most of the fun in an edit is the addition of depth.

Whether you're an outliner or a pantser, you don't know your main characters as well at the beginning of the book as you will at the end. That's just a factor of spending a hundred hours writing these guys. It's inevitable that as you go back through the book, you're going to find places where, early on, you just didn't know them as well and you glossed something which became more important later.

That's where it's fun. You find places to bury the details. You use that editorial needle and inject their deepest, most hidden motivations under the surface of the story. It emerges in one verb choice rather than another. In chapter three of the first draft, your MC is reading a book; now you'll know the title. In the first draft, your main character seems to have spent a lot of time looking at the moon; well, now you'll know why, and you can change the things she thinks while she gazes.

This phase is like a scavenger hunt in reverse. You know enough to go back and give the underlay. It's as if we need to know the contours of our characters before we can give them their bones.

Will every reader catch all these little moments? Of course not. In fact, I hope not. If someone does catch them all, you're not being subtle enough. But like real people, your characters will have thoughts and motives they're not aware they possess. There will be lies they believe, only they don't know either that they're lies or that they believe them. A lot of these details are there only for me, like a secret I'm telling myself. Why did Tabris look off at the trees when the other angels were joking about board games? A reader could figure it out, but most probably won't take the time.

In my own edits, my agent cautioned me that a certain change might be too much muddying of the character's motivation. I replied, "It's already there. It was already in her, and it took only a few changes in wording to evoke it."

In other words, sometimes you're not adding. You're just transforming potential into reality. You just needed to find it yourself before you could bury the clues for others.

In my sophomore year of college, my English professor spent the first ten minutes of class annoying the hell out of me. She was asking us why Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra was great literature, and no matter what answer we gave, it was wrong. Finally, I raised my hand. "Did you think it was great?" I said. (If you think I'm arrogant now, you really didn't want to know me in college.)  When she said yes, I said, "Why do you think it was great?"

She said, "Because it asks great questions."

A year later, another professor said that if you want people to talk about your work forever, leave a few unanswered questions. Leave them something to debate.

I'm not telling you how to get into the 2410 edition of the Norton Anthology. But I will tell you that if an agent or editor continues pondering your novel for days after finishing, you've got a better chance than if they close the book and never think of it again.

Not that you want to leave your story muddy. Instead, you want to leave us with the sense that all the answers are right there, right in our hands. That the characters, just like all the other people you know, are multifaceted and complex. That they resonate because of the many layers to their motivations, their thoughts, their decisions.

And so, without ever saying it explicitly, you convey that your character has a sweet tooth, or that she found a home base in her grandfather, or that he never feels entirely comfortable with the comfortable life he's inherited. Maybe she has an enigmatic tattoo you never fully explain. Maybe you never even tell us she has a tattoo, but her reaction to someone else's tells us she's got one somewhere under her clothes.

Editing isn't just fixing your errors. It's also fixing the underpinnings of your characters so that they resonate in our minds.


Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Publishing Pulse: April 20, 2012

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced, but alas no fiction books were award a prize.

According to author Cory Doctorow, the problem isn’t piracy. It’s obscurity.

Lawsuits alleging an ebook-pricingconspiracy, like in the US, have been filed in Canada.

If you’re considering exploring the self-publishing path, agent Natalie Lakosil has put together a Q & A that might address some of the questions you have.

Publisher Liz Pelletier explained the journey a book takes from query to stores’ bookshelves.

Social media is important for writers. But please check out this post by agent Rachelle Gardner to make sure you are not these serious mistakes. Your writing career will thank you for it.

Here is a letter from Norman Maclean to a publisher that had previously passed him over, when they had the chutzpah to ask him for an early look at his next manuscript. 

Have a great weekend everyone!

Stina Lindenblatt writes young adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Figuring Out Your Writing Style

Courtesy of typofi
One of the most important things a writer can learn is what type of writer they are and how they work best.

Writers, like any artist, have their own way of doing things. One way is not *better* than another, just different.

We all have the same tools, but learning how to apply them--and which ones we work best with--can make all the difference.

There really is no One Right Way to do it.

Think of all the water colorists, photographers, or sculptors we'd be missing out on if we insisted that 'real' art or paintings that are worth anything can only be done in oils. Or pastels. Or pencils.

Some writers know how they work from the start, while others have to move around a bit to get a feel for each different technique. The key is to keep learning and trying new things until you find what works best for you. (And even then, it never hurts to try something new, just in case. :))

The following are different techniques for how and when to get the writing done, and are by no means an exhaustive list.

The two groups of writers most often discussed are the outliners and the pansters. There are many shades and subgroups for each type, but for simplicity's sake, I'll be referring to each in their most general role.

Outlining can be strict and detailed or light and loose or anything in between. It can be plotting out a scene, a chapter, a novel, or the entire series. It can be a few sentences to give a flavor or create a mood, or it can catch all the fine details and turnings of the stories. It can even be a work of art in its own right.

Outliners thrive in knowing what comes next. It helps them shape each part of the story if they can see what the overall design is supposed to look like. Seeing the beginning through to the end can also keep the writer from making unnecessary detours or wrong turns. On the other hand, adhering to a plan when the characters and story have grown in a different direction can stifle the spark of magic in the story.

A panster can have a loose plan or a vague idea of where they want to end up, or they can have a blank piece of paper that's just waiting for them to populate a new world. Sometimes they know how the story is going to end, and sometimes they just wing it.

Pansters thrive in getting to know their characters and world as they go along. It's not about the destination so much as it's about the journey. Letting your characters map the story can lead to new and exciting discoveries. On the other hand, allowing your characters to exist without purpose can damage the structure and meaning of your story over all.

Like anything else, it's all about finding the right balance, for both outliners and pansters.

Another useful thing to know about yourself is if you're a day writer or a night writer or a snatch-the-time-whenever-I-can writer.

My right brain is my writing brain, and my left brain is my editing brain. I've found that I write better at night and edit better during the day. Once I figured this out, I had a lot less frustration, because I could plan my writing and editing around when the different parts of my brain are most alert. My writing and editing flow smoother when I do them at my peak times instead of trying to force my brain to accommodate my to-do list.

When we consider what type of writer we are, sometimes we get so caught up in the outliner/panster debate, that we forget there is another subset type: sprinters and marathon writers.

A sprinter does short bursts of writing at a time. They can do a number of repetitions--say, writing 100-500 words at a time or in ten minute increments--but the actual writing time is in small, contained phases.

When I'm tired or just not feeling the writing fire in my veins, I do sprints. Timing myself stresses me out and blocks the words, so I do my sprints in 500-word increments. (Or 250 if I'm *really* distracted.) After I reach 500 words, I get to check my email, a few forums, and anything else I want for about five minutes. Then I go back and do another round. Rinse and repeat until I hit the word count for the day I was aiming for.

Marthon Writer
These are the writers that can sit down and write for as long as they're able. The people that can do 5,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 words in one day. People who can finish novels in a week or so.

Pacing yourself, being well rested, and minimizing your distractions can help. Some marathon writers do short marathons (5k) on a regular basis, while others go for the bigger word counts a little less frequently.

And then there's a whole world in between sprinting and writing by marathon method. The key here is knowing what your limits are and stretching yourself without breaking your brain. For example, right now I can write at least 2k a day, 6 days a week. When I first started writing professionally, I struggled to get down 500 words a day. My goal is to one day be able to do 4k a day, but it's something I'm having to work toward.

Like any muscle, your creative endurance can grow if you work it out regularly within a range that will challenge you without burning yourself out.

Another way to determine how you work as a writer is to examine how your brain works in your creative process. How you get your ideas and how they connect to each other.

Some people have minds like flypaper. Their brains are sticky and have no trouble catching every idea that comes near them. These are the writers that have more ideas than they'll ever be able to write, because there just aren't enough hours in the day.

The problem with this is that it can lead to a lack of focus. A thousand novel beginnings without any middles or ends. Something you can do to combat this is keep an idea journal. When a new idea comes, write it down in as much detail as you have and then go back to the novel you're working on. This allows you to keep all your ideas without distracting you from finishing what you're working on, because you can always come back to it later.

Other writers are more like fishers. Ideas might be harder to come by and/or require more patience to suss out.

This can lead to frustration if you're a fisher, but surrounded by writers who have flypaper brains. The important thing to remember is that it doesn't matter whether you have one idea or a hundred. What matters is what you end up with in the end, and a polished, professional-grade novel requires hard work no matter how you get your ideas. Knowing that it takes you a little longer to find that perfect idea can lessen your frustration with yourself and your story.

Because that's what matters most in the end: the story. Knowing how *you* best get from 'Once upon a time' to 'And they all lived happily ever after' can only deepen the joy of the process.

What kind of writer are you? Any I missed?

Danyelle Leafty| @danyelleleafty writes YA and MG fantasy. She is the author of The Fairy Godmother Dilemma series (CatspellFirespell, andApplespell) and can be found on her blog.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Breaking Point...and Beyond

Have you ever seen the TV show nip/tuck (2003 - 2010)?  It's an unusual show, because you're watching along, and they imply that something really edgy is going to happen.  A main character is feeling kind of turned on by the super-expensive sex doll modeled after his business partner's ex-girlfriend. A plastic surgery patient character has threatened to perform her own mastectomy.

Most writers would turn away, getting their characters out just in the nick of time. Of the few writers who decided to go all the way, most of them would never show the actual event. In nip/tuck, they Go There. All the way. And they show all of it. The sex with the doll. The woman who does the mastectomy on herself with an electric carving knife in the doctors' waiting room. And then they show the fallout. These characters never get a break.

Going There is what intrigues me. Not what happens when the hero gets there in the nick of time, but when the worst the hero can possibly imagine happens. And then sometimes...that's not all. Next come a few things the hero couldn't possibly have imagined in his worst nightmares.  And then, of course, there's the fallout.  Shattered relationships. Grief. Nightmares. Depression. Post-traumatic stress disorder.  Suicidality. And the humiliation of having had all those reactions in front of other people.

Maybe it's having been on the frontlines and counseled people who have had things worse than they could ever imagine happen to them. Maybe it's just having lived through a few things in my own life.  But I Go There in my fiction. A lot.

I don't see it as torturing my characters. I see it like this: Life can really, truly be that ugly.  Human beings do horrible things to other human beings, and sometimes they even do them intentionally.  I don't pretend otherwise when I tell a story.

One of the best ways to learn about the dark side of life is to be willing to be open, and to listen. Everyone has suffered indignities, and some have suffered horrors.  But those things are invisible unless you're open and willing to other people, including the really nasty, awful bits.  Like Mary Lindsey once said to me, the people who seem the most benign are often the ones who hide the most.  Because they've had to learn to seem benign to be accepted by a world too horrified by the realities of their lives.

The same thing is true with your characters.  You have to be willing to really listen to them, and if they have to Go There, you need to be brave enough to go with them. Carl Jung talked about how we all have a dark side to our personalities (which he called the Shadow), but only a few of us are willing to confront that side and integrate it into the Self.  I've always believed that part of what makes Stephen King so great is that he faces his own Shadow and then writes about what he finds.

So how do you do that , avoid giving in to the urge to look away from the dark stuff? 

The most important word in your story is NO. Whatever your character wants or needs, the answer must always be NO. Once in a while, it may seem that the character is getting a yes, but in reality that yes must ultimately drive them farther from what they want or need. I believe strongly in the NO.  It always leads to a better story.

Have you ever seen Cool Hand Luke?  No matter how many times they drag Luke back to the chain gang, he always takes off again. He can't seem to help it. After the second time he escapes, the boss makes him dig a trench.  Then fill the trench.  Then dig the trench.  Then fill the trench. Over and over and over, until Luke finally breaks down, half dead, and begs to be allowed to stop.  But they keep pushing him. The other inmates turn away, horrified by what's left of this free spirit they all admired.

Still, later in the film, Luke escapes again, this time with another inmate.  The friend laughs, crowing that Luke's groveling was so convincing that "They didn't know you was foolin!"  And Luke says "Foolin, huh? You can't fool them about somethin like that.  They broke me."

So forget a little spilled milk, a few broken eggs. For me the real question is...what does it take to break your character, and what happens to him after he's broken?

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+

Friday, April 13, 2012

Publishing Pulse: 4/13/2012

Success Stories

Congratulations to our fellow QueryTracker's newest success stories:

Michelle Krys and Julie Murphy

Also, congrats to Pat for QueryTracker making Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers!

Publishing News and Around the Web

From Publishers Weekly, a good overview of the Hatchette, HarperCollins, and S&S Price-Fixing Settlement. In related news, an open letter about the lawsuit from Macmillan's John Sargent.

From The Bookseller, a few of the major US publishers are refusing to renew their contracts with Amazon.

New details on J. K. Rowling's new book via Galleycat. Also from Galleycat, Smashwords is going to keep its agency pricing model.

Author Nathan Bransford has an awesome post on the Ten Commandments for Editing Someone's Work.

From Writer Beware, Poetry.com is making its comeback and the reasons why some small publishers fail.

Author Patricia C. Wrede has some great ideas on what to do when you run out of ideas.

Have a great weekend!

Danyelle Leafty| @danyelleleafty writes YA and MG fantasy. She is the author of The Fairy Godmother Dilemma series (Catspell, Firespell, and Applespell) and can be found on her blog.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Taming the Dreaded Synopsis

We'd all like to live in denial that this thing exists at all, but you need one if you're querying. The synopsis. The 800-word summary of your 95,000 word novel.

(Nonfiction writers, you may breathe easier: you do not need to produce one of these monsters.)

The query and the synopsis are different animals. Your query needs to entice and leave tantalizing questions. Your synopsis needs to tell a story and provide us with answers.  And despite the three-times-greater word count, your synopsis has more than three times as much work to do, so you still need to write tight.

Like the query, the synopsis is primarily a selling tool. It will give a quick overview of your entire novel from soup to nuts, proving to the agents and editors that you understand story structure, that your story has both a plot arc and a character arc, and that you know how to pull together a satisfying ending. Your synopsis will also need to show how the stakes increase during the course of the story. It will need to hit all the major plot changes and introduce the major characters and their issues. Readers of your synopsis will need to care about your character and root for the character to succeed. For SF/Fantasy writers, you'll need to include world-building as well.

Many of the techniques you use for writing fiction will have to come to bear in the synopsis. Powerful verbs, sentence rhythm, saying a thing once and not needing to repeat it. And other techniques will just have to go by the wayside.

The synopsis should run between 500 and 1000 words, unless the agent or editor requests a different length. (I've seen several who want a one-page synopsis. Give them what they want.)

A synopsis is not a chapter-by-chapter outline of what happens. I've tried that, and it's a mess. Instead you need to focus on the frame of your story and give us the "story beats," (as Blake Snyder would say in Save The Cat) and give us only what we need.

1) Your main character's inciting incident, with a description of your main character worked into that description.

2) What your main character decides to do about that.

3) Descriptions of other main characters as necessary, but worked into the story.

This is how I opened the synopsis for the revised edition of my first novel, The Guardian.
The Guardian opens as a guardian angel stands trial for murder. Although the other angels, and even Tabris himself, expect God to send him to Hell, God inexplicably grants Tabris mercy and a second chance. On probation, Tabris is deployed as an assistant guardian to a ten-year-old girl named Elizabeth.
Where does this fall flat? I didn't give any description of Tabris. I could have said everyone was shocked because Tabris was considered one of the most conscientious angels until this happened. I could have said Tabris was a former commander in Michael's army. I felt the setup here was compelling enough that the description could wait.

You'll need also to establish the stakes.
Although Tabris tries to fit into the new routine with the family's other guardian angels, he's torn by grief and guilt. His new companions don't want him around, speculating that he must have hated his previous charge and wondering if he might harm Elizabeth--or the other family members. Tabris still loves God but can't bring himself to pray, convinced that when he does, God will refuse him. The only one who does seem to want Tabris is, unfortunately, Zeffar, a demon who changes names every time they meet but always presses for the same thing: he wants Tabris to join him in rebellion so he'll fall forever.
So we've got stakes (both internal and external), we've got both internal and external opposition, and we've got an antagonist. 

And after that, I set out to follow the threads of the A-story (how Tabris adjusts to guarding Elizabeth, and what Elizabeth's guardian does about his presence) and the B-story (how Zeffar begins seducing Tabris in order to assure his fall.)

As you go through your synopsis, think broad strokes. Your novel is the Mona Lisa, but your synopsis is going to be a coloring book rendering of the Mona Lisa. Give us the outlines. The novel will have to provide the shading and the contours.

Make sure your synopsis mentions the midpoint of the novel (where the plot probably takes a major turn, along with the false-high or a low,) the point where "the bad guys close in" (or the situation takes a sharp turn for the worse,) the main character's darkest hour, the "help from outside" (or however your character manages to get his groove back) and then the climax. Make sure to mention how both the A-plot and the B-plot are resolved.

If you're not sure what I'm talking about with some of these "story beats," here's a brief summary of Save The Cat.

While in a query you must not answer all the questions (all the better to tantalize) you must do so in your synopsis. If there's a secret ending, for the synopsis it should not be secret anymore. All the major plot twists and turns must be included. Yes, Luke, I am your father, and all that stuff no one suspects while they're going through the book? It'll have to be in there.

In eight hundred words or thereabouts.

It's not fun, but it's doable. Good luck!


Jane Lebak's novel The Guardian will be re-released this September by MuseItUp Publishing! She is also the author of Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Being Subtle With Subtext

Fiction is like an iceberg. Only twenty-five percent of it is visible (the words on the page). The other seventy-five percent is known as subtext. Subtext enables your reader to see that more is going on than what is in the text. It enables you to create a richer, more emotion packed story. It’s the part that is tricky to convey, but when you do it right, it makes for a compelling story. 

There are numerous ways to show subtext, this post will cover three of them.

Action and Dialogue

Imagine your character has an issue with his car. The door has a major design flaw that the automaker knew about, but while the character’s car was under warranty, he was never warned it might be an issue later on. Naturally, the door’s status deteriorates after the warranty expires, and he’s left with a hefty repair bill. He goes back to the dealership and asks if anyone during his regular service appointments checked the status of the doors while the car was under warranty.

The last thing the service guy wants to do is answer the question. He’s been coached on how to approach it. He keeps avoiding a direct answer. Meanwhile, he’s shifting nervously on his feet and shooting panicked looks at his co-workers while they pretended he doesn’t exist. He knows he’s failing miserably at keeping to the script, and this makes him more nervous. 

When you write dialogue, ask yourself what is really happening that the character isn’t saying. Then show it. Have your main character interpret the other character’s actions and body language. Occasionally have your character misinterpret them to misdirect the reader. But make sure it’s believable. If your reader can guess the truth behind the subtext, your misdirection will come off as contrived and your character will sound like an idiot. Nothing irks a reader more than when he feels manipulated.


One way to create a richer story is by weaving symbolic subtext into it. This is also a great way to reveal the story’s theme. It’s not hard to do when you consider how many things in our world have been assigned different meanings. For example, we associate red with passion, anger, embarrassment, danger, power. 

Subtext works both at a conscious and unconscious level. When we read a book or watch a movie, some symbols will jump out at us, especially if the creators have done a good job drawing your attention to it. With other symbols, you won’t stop to analyze it. For example, if the scene takes place in a room with green walls, you won’t be thinking that the director wanted to reveal the subtext of life. But you can guarantee someone behind the scenes purposely picked that color because of what it symbolized and not because it was her favorite color. 

In the book Where the Heart Lies, Billie Letts used a tree to represent life and growth. Pregnant seventeen-year-old Novalee is abandoned by her boyfriend at a Walmart store. With nowhere to go, she secretly moves into the store. A woman mistakes her for a young girl she once knew and gives Novalee a Welcome Wagon gift of a buckeye tree. When the tree starts dying, Novalee tries to return it to the woman, who suggests they plant it in her garden, but only if Novalee comes by regularly to take care of it. This is the turning point in Novalee’s life. Ruth Ann’s actions are the first act of kindness Novalee has experienced in a while, and under the mothering of Ruth Ann, Novalee turns her life around. And of course (during the movie), we are reminded this with regular shots of the growing tree. 


The use of imagery, such as a metaphor or simile, can enrich your story by adding subtext. For example (Whispers by Dean Koontz): 

“ . . . Mr. Frye believed that his mother—I think her name was Katherine—had come back from the dead in someone else’s body and was plotting to kill him. He hoped that the Marsden journal would give him a clue about how to deal with her.”

Joshua felt as if a large dose of ice-cold water had been injected into his veins. “Bruno never mentioned such a thing to me.”

If Joshua had said, “Hey man, you’re spooking me here,” the scene would not have been as powerful. He doesn’t want the other person to know just how unnerved his is about the situation. But the reader needs to know this.

It isn’t always necessary to spell out the subtext for your readers. Often it’s more satisfying for the reader if you let him figure it out for himself. That’s the beauty of fiction. It exercises our brains. However, if the subtext is confusing and is going to frustrate the reader, then definitely have a character spell it out. 

Do you enjoy writing subtext? Is it something your focus on when editing a draft?

Stina Lindenblatt writes young adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative.