QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, September 30, 2013

Break It Up! How To Reduce Reader Fatigue

Gone are the days when novels were written in long blocks of paragraphs. I remember toiling through more than one Dickensesque epic, my greatest expectation being the end of a chapter. Whew. My eyes would need a breather and a cool-down period after workouts like those.

We have become a nation of short attention spans. If you hand us a tome filled with paragraphs that go on for pages, we will snore. Our eyes will glaze over.

Image courtesy of marin at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Worst of all, we will skim.

And skimming is right up there on the list of Things Writers Fear, along with rejections and bad reviews and computers that fail to back up our files. We crave variety. We desire entertainment. We want to be—nay, demand to be—hooked and hooked hard.

But it’s not enough to write a great story and write it well. True, you become a literary artist when you write a novel, but you can't stop there. You also have to be a visual type of artist and learn how to artfully arrange your prose on the page.

Making the page user-friendly will reduce reader fatigue and prevent skimming. Here’s a few ways you can break up big, clunky blocks of text.

Break up dialog with description/action. Have you ever zoned out while someone went on and on and on without pausing for breath? No matter how good the story is, your ears get bored. Books shouldn’t read like a bad RPG, where characters walk into the room, stand perfectly still, and give a speech. Real people move and gesture and fidget. They do stuff while they talk. My advice: keep it real and mix it up. Animation makes for great reading.

Break up description/action with dialog. I am going to admit that, when browsing in an actual bookstore (where I can pick up real books and flip through real pages) one of my criteria for deciding to buy a book is based on how much dialog it has. Exactly how much dialog should be in a book is debatable. However, if I pick up a book and find a lot of pages without dialog, I’ll probably put it back on the shelf and move on. Long sections of descriptions or setting or even action tend to lose me because I crave dialog or at least internalization. It’s not enough to read about a story. I want to know what the characters have to say or think about what’s going on.

Break up long sections into easy-to-manage paragraphs. One simple way to do this is to give each character the stage by writing only one person’s dialog per paragraph. When another character must speak, hit the carriage return and give them their own paragraph. First of all, it helps lessen confusion when a scene has more than one character. More importantly, it helps the pacing—because smaller paragraphs are easier to read and thereby facilitates reading. Fast reading is part of good pacing. (I know it sounds glib but think about it: if you are asked to read something and are then handed a page that has huge blocks of text, your first impression is probably going to be UGH. This will take forever.)

Less is more: White space is necessary. I’m guessing that, back in the day of hand-setting type and printing individual pages on a mule-driven press, the key to expedience and frugality was cramming as many words on a single page as possible. No more. This is the digital age. Spread it out. Don’t overwhelm a reader by making your novel read like a text book or, worse yet, an eighteenth-century pamphlet. White space gives our eyes room to breathe and gives the words room to sink in.

Vary your punctuation. This is also a great way to make the page aesthetically pleasing. The first two tips above involve dialog—and dialog needs quotation marks. Not only do quotes serve the utilitarian purpose of setting off dialog, they are also artistic embellishments. While you’re at it, be sure to use other types of punctuation. Don’t be afraid of em dashes and ellipses. Parentheses are cool, too, as are italics. (But beware of exclamation marks. Overuse of those pointy buggers is just not cool. And, yes, I know I used one in the title. The irony is not lost on me.) It does mean you have to learn the rules for using each device, but the pay-off? Varying your punctuation is like giving your reader eye candy. Who doesn’t like candy?

Just as your story needs to be broken up into chapters for easy digestion, your chapters need to be artistically arranged into eye-pleasing pages. Reading fiction shouldn’t be a chore. We don’t pick up novels because we want to labor through it. We want to enjoy what we read, not put our eyes through calisthenics.

You, as the author, have to give us a story we want to read…and won’t get tired while reading it.

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Are you guilty of causing reader fatigue? Here's a remedy or two...

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. Visit Ash at www.ashkrafton.com for news on her urban fantasy series The Books of the Demimonde (Pink Narcissus Press) or stop by the Demimonde Blog at www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com .

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Publishing Pulse: September 27, 2013

Success Story

Congratulations J. M. Saint on signing with your agent. For J.M’s querying tale, check out this interview.

Around the Internet

The National Endowment for Arts reported that 45% of adults polled read novels and short stories for enjoyment (i.e. not reading fiction for course work)

Agent Rachelle Gardner asked if you’re in this for the long haul, and provided tips to ensure it stays this way (e.g. don’t ruin your reputation because of something you said on Twitter).

Want to find out what agents and editors are looking for? Look no further than Twitter.

I’ve seen arguments lately as to whether or not author branding is necessary. Jami Gold posted on branding and how to make the most of it. It’s a great post that explains what branding is and what it isn’t.

The year is rapidly coming to an end (depressing, huh?). Mary Keely talked about goal setting and planning for the remaining weeks of 2013.

Agent Janet Reid provided insight as to why agents want big advances for their writers (verses royalties only).
You’ve queried your book to small presses and one has offered you a deal. Should you query agents and let them know? Janet Reid answers this question here. And please read it before you accept the offer. If you read it afterwards, it’s too late.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL writes Young Adult and New Adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and can be found at her blog/website. She is represented by Marisa Corvisiero, and finds it weird talking about herself in third person. Her debut New Adult contemporary romance, TELL ME WHEN, will be released Jan. 20, 2014 (Carina Press, HQN).

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Writers' Etiquette: Lesson Two

Dear Miss Rosie:

As an author of some status, I find myself besieged by requests from would-be writers requesting advice, looking to network, or asking me to blurb their tiresome efforts. Frankly, I have neither the time nor patience to deal with such requests.  I would like to add a manifesto page to my website listing the rules and conditions under which readers may be allowed to contact me. May I?

Dear Not So Gentle Reader:

Miss Rosie thinks not.  And while she congratulates you on your success as An Author of Some Status, she is troubled by your attitude toward those who are also pursuing their Authorial Dreams. Your missive puts her in mind of a hairy green character from the pages of Dear Dr. Seuss. (You know—the one whose heart was three sizes too small?) Those who reach out to you see someone they might become; they hope to receive Writerly Words of Wisdom and Avuncular Advice from one who has achieved the seemingly impossible.

And now Miss Rosie has a question for you: Has no one lent you a helping hand along your Journey? Has no other author offered advice or encouragement? Miss Rosie remembers her own timid efforts in approaching Authors of Some Status, and more often than not, those efforts were received with graciousness.  

Miss Rosie still has in her possession a manuscript page from a contest in which the darling Miss Kristan Higgins left lovely comments and a Beautiful Flourish in her signature.  (Miss Rosie’s receipt of said paper sent her into a fit of Rapturous Vapors from which she still has not fully recovered.)  More recently,  The illustrious Miss Louise Penny allowed Miss Rosie to indulge in several minutes of Unseemly Gushing and bore it with noble patience and a smile. Fellow mystery author Mr. Brad Parks sent her a congratulatory note after her deal was announced, and none other than Mr. Tom Perrotta—who, while busy adapting screenplays and accepting Oscar nominations and receiving literary awards—provided encouragement at a time when she needed it. And there are many other writers in Miss Rosie’s life without such Illustrious Names who have supported her in her own Modest Efforts, writers who took time from their own projects to help a colleague.

It’s called Paying It Forward, Not So Gentle Reader. You might try it yourself one of these days. And who knows? You may just find your heart swelling--instead of your head.

A Jersey girl born and bred, Rosie Genova left her heart at the shore, which serves as the setting for much of her work. Her new series, the Italian Kitchen Mysteries, is informed by her deep appreciation for good food, her pride in her heritage, and her love of classic mysteries, from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple. Her debut novel, Murder and Marinara, will be released October 1. An English teacher by day and novelist by night, Rosie also writes women’s fiction as Rosemary DiBattista. She lives fifty miles from the nearest ocean  in central New Jersey, with her husband, two of her three sons, and an ill-behaved fox terrier.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Changes to Goodreads Policies

The last year has featured quite a few dustups on Goodreads, whereby reviewers tussled with authors over reviews. Some of these incidents involved authors who were overly sensitive, and some of them involve reviewers who were downright vindictive. As with every other corner of the human experience, misbehavior has been varied and creative.

As a result, some authors and Goodreads users signed a petition, hoping to get Goodreads to police its review space. And Goodreads listened. You can read Goodreads announcement here.

In short, Goodreads has said they'll police (delete) reviews which are not about the book. If a so-called review is a critique of the author's words or actions, the review will be deleted. (Example: *one star* "Don't buy this author's books, because she argued with my review.")

Likewise, "bookshelves" (really tags) devoted to author behavior will be deleted. (Example: authors-who-criticize-reviewers will no longer be allowed as a bookshelf.)

Some authors have received this news with great joy, and some Goodreads users are feeling cranky. Evidence: there are currently 1,991 comments beneath Goodreads' new statement. Some of the comments read like this:
"Will probably be deleting my Goodreads account now if I cannot use my shelves the way I wish. And to think that I have contributed almost 700 reviews to the site. They will be going with me. This is censorship, and it is wrong."
And some is more supportive:
"To be fair, they are cracking down on authors behavior too... did anyone read the new author guidelines? ANY author responses to negative reviews will bring their account under review and even excessive responses to positive reviews will be deemed "spam" and put under review too. Seems like they are just trying to enforce a truce on both ends and frankly, both sides have behaved appallingly at times. (No doubt, I'll get attacked for saying that now)."
Authors, when in doubt, review the published author guidelines. However you feel about the changes, it really isn't so hard to stay on the right side of the law.

Sarah Pinneo
is a novelist, food writer and book publicity specialist. Her most recent book is Julia’s Child. Follow her on twitter at @SarahPinneo.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Publishing Pulse: September 20, 2013

Success Stories
It’s been a busy two weeks when it comes to agent success stories. Congratulations Beth Hahn, David Lomax, Sarah J. Clift, Lindsay Eagar.

There have been a lot of changes with agents switching agencies or the genres they represent, and the addition of new agents. If you subscribe to QueryTracker Premium, you can request to be updated on this information via email. 

If you're interested in a QueryTracker Premium Subscription, we are now accepting credit cards directly as well as PayPal. We are also now offering quarterly subscriptions as well as annual. Find out more here.

Around the Internet
If you’re curious about the 2013 National Book Award longlist, you can check out free samples of the books from the adult and young people’s categories.

SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) has created the Spark Award, which recognizes excellence in children’s books that have been published through a non-traditional route.

Children’s and YA ebooks took a big hit in the past year with a nearly 46% decline in sales. Hardback books also saw dramatic drop. Only paperback sales increased.

 James Patterson pledged to give a million dollars to indie stories.

What happens if youhate Facebook? Kristen Lamb addresses this concern.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL writes Young Adult and New Adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and can be found at her blog/website. http://stinalindenblattauthor.com  She is represented by Marisa Corvisiero, and finds it weird talking about herself in third person. Her debut New Adult contemporary romance, TELL ME WHEN, will be released 2014 (Carina Press, HQN).

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Stereoscopic Writing

One of my online writing groups asked what advice we'd give to the next generation of writers.  I supplied this:
Learn to think others' thoughts. Learn to put them on and take them off again. This develops compassion.

 But more than that, it's the writer's version of stereoscopic vision: you can't write realistically until you can step behind someone else's eyes and see their world exactly the way they do, and then step back out again to see your own vision. The best writers can see both, with all their subtle differences, at the same time.
Stereoscopic vision is how we have depth perception; each eye sees an image slightly different from the other, and how the brain integrates those differences tells us which objects are further away than others. It's the same in writing: respecting the differences between different characters' world views will give your writing depth.

In more recent public discourse in America, we see the lack of empathy, the inability to look out through the other side's eyes in order to understand the world as they do. Instead of understanding the opposition, each side sets up a caricature of the other side, and doing this immediately raises hackles of the ones not-listened to. Check it out: pick an issue (it doesn't matter which) and both sides are doing this.  

It's not working in politics, and it's going to be even more a disaster if you try that in your fiction. Because at some point, someone who thinks like your character (or used to think like your character or knows someone who thinks like your character) is going to read your book. And for them, it had better ring true or you're going to lose a reader.

When writing, it is essential to be able to look out your characters' eyes and understand why they believe what they believe.  It is not enough that your villain wants to take over the world.  You must be able to tell us why. 

Moreover, when writing from your villain's perspective, it is imperative that you the author also believe he is right. Otherwise your fiction comes across as preachy and message-driven, and your character will not make logical choices.

Then once you're out of the scene, you can return again to yourself. That means knowing yourself enough to be secure.

Stereoscopic writer-vision requires listening to people with whom you violently disagree and learning why they believe what they do. You can't just mimic their words: you need to be able to put on that opinion and then shed it again. 

That means reading source material written by people who believe the thing you're opposed to. That means listening to opinions you could never possibly hold and figuring out why a smart person like your character would hold that opinion.

As someone smarter than me once said, Test everything. Keep what is good.

Learn everything.  Keep what is good for yourself, but don't be afraid to share all of it with the people you're creating. If they have a cause, make it a cause worth believing.

No one wakes up and says "Today I'll become an arch-villain." But many wake up and say, "I'm going to make it a better world, no matter what I have to do in order to make it that way."

Give us different people to read about.  Give us differences, and differences give your stories depth depth.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or swatting mosquitos. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Project Writer

If you're like me, you've spent several hundred hours in front of Project Runway, admiring the sartorial hits, dissing the fashion misses, and fantasizing about having lunch with Tim Gunn. In fact, it was Runway that rekindled my childhood passion for sewing. Not long ago, I treated myself to a new sewing machine, and set out to refresh my skills with the easiest pattern Vogue had to offer (an unfashionable A-line skirt that would give Tim a case of the horrors). And as I struggled with pattern adjustments and bias cuts, I had an epiphany: sewing is an awful lot like writing.

A new piece of fabric laid out flat is a lot like the story in my head, and the pattern is the outline. A cleanly executed seam is akin to a polished, fluent sentence. The garment takes shape in much the way a plot does, piece by piece. Even the language is similar. You start a project. You cut. You edit. You adapt and revise for fit.

Back in the day, I learned most of what I know about sewing from my Italian grandmother. A fine seamstress and frustrated designer, she spent most of her professional life working in a garment factory in Newark. And she was a tough taskmaster. She had no compunction about handing a piece back to me, saying, “That's a bum job. Take it apart and start again.” Sometimes she would just silently hand me the seam ripper. Nothing seemed as daunting as starting over.Nothing seemed as painful as taking apart all my hard work.

During my search for an agent, many of whom passed on my first project "with regret," I could practically feel Nonna Mary at my elbow, looking over my shoulder and shaking her head. While my book was not exactly “a bum job,” it wasn’t a good fit. It needed to be picked apart, redesigned, and reworked. So I got to work. And got an agent as a result.

Since then, I've completed a second and third novel, and I'm currently at work on my fourth. It's in the first draft stages, so I'm beginning to piece the story together. So far, it's taking shape nicely. It feels like a fit. But I won't know for sure until it's tried on by my editor, who is very likely to send it back for alterations.

Let's just say I'll be keeping that seam ripper handy.

An earlier version of this post appeared on rosemarydibattista.com.

A Jersey girl born and bred, Rosie Genova left her heart at the shore, which serves as the setting for much of her work. Her new series, the Italian Kitchen Mysteries, is informed by her deep appreciation for good food, her pride in her heritage, and her love of classic mysteries, from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple. Her debut novel, Murder and Marinara, will be released October 1. An English teacher by day and novelist by night, Rosie also writes women’s fiction as Rosemary DiBattista. She lives fifty miles from the nearest ocean  in central New Jersey, with her husband, two of her three sons, and an ill-behaved fox terrier. Visit her at www.rosiegenova.com.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

In Loving Memory of Carolyn Kaufman

Carolyn Kaufman, QT blogger, author, valued colleague and dear friend, passed away yesterday, September 7th, after suffering a brain aneurysm. 

Her passing is a great loss to the QueryTracker family and the entire writing community. 

When I sat down to write this, I knew it would be difficult. But I had no idea just how difficult. Not only because she was a dear friend, but also because she was so talented, funny and kind. How can I possibly capture all that in a mere blog post? It can’t be done, but I will try to give her memory the justice it deserves.

She was a writer, of course, but she was also a talented photographer and artist, a doctor of psychology and a college professor. Yet somehow she found the time to blog about her writing experiences and, as she put it, “help writers become authors.” Although she never fulfilled her dream of publishing a novel, she did publish books to help other writers  (such as the Writer’s Guide to Psychology, http://www.archetypewriting.com.) 

I first met Carolyn in 2008 when she joined QueryTracker. She went by the screen name of Archetype, and it wasn’t long before I was affectionately calling her Archie. A short time later, she and a group of other authors approached me about the QT Blog. You see, back then, the blog was floundering. Mostly because I’m a terrible blogger. Anyway, her and her group volunteered to take over the blog. They had written a detailed proposal and presented it professionally and with confidence. Little did they know that that kind of delivery was not necessary. I would have handed it over to the first schmuck to come along. But they soon showed me they were not schmucks. They knew what they were doing, and for the first time (and ever since) I was proud of the blog.

As time went by, the other bloggers moved on and were replaced. But not Carolyn. Once she starts something, she doesn’t give up. She loved being able to reach out to other writers and share with them the things she had learned on her journey. The blog became her baby, and I was thankful for her and always assured that she would do the right thing with it. She never let me down.

So it is with the greatest of sadness that I say good bye, Archie. You will be missed.