Sunday, December 25, 2011

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

For those who celebrate it, I wish you a Merry Christmas. And for those who don't, may you enjoy the good tidings of the season. And I hope we all have a peaceful, joyous new year in 2012.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Looking for a Few Good Book Reviewers

I try not to mix my business writing with my pleasure writing on this site, but from time to time I've posted book reviews in the field of nonprofit organizations and foundations, public policy, and fundraising.

Now I have an opportunity for you, dear readers. The Website I edit is looking for new book reviewers. These would be paying jobs, but I can't say we pay a lot. Still, it's a publishing credit, which might be very attractive to some of you.

What's the catch? Well, the books we review are all nonfiction and all related to the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. We'd be assigning the books to you; these aren't books you'd be choosing by yourself. Still, many people find the topic fascinating. You may just be one of those people.

Ok, if you're interested, please send me an email at and in the subject line write "Off the Shelf reviewers." I get hundreds of emails every day and it's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff sometimes, so that subject line at least will help. Also, please include a link or two to show me some writing samples if you have any.

If you're assigned a piece, you'll be given a deadline by which to submit the review. We'd send you the book and cover postage for its return as well. (Sorry, you can't keep the book.) Reviewers will be paid upon publication.

If you have questions, ask away.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Soon It Can Be Told

I'm excited about a project I'm not ready to fully divulge just yet. It saw a deadline pass the other day. A few of you know what I'm talking about.

Suffice it to say, it will involve writing. Quality stuff, I'd venture to say. And at least one writer with a book in traditional-publication production is involved. The final number of participants has not been determined yet, but I believe that when all is said and done, we'll have something to write home about. Certainly something to talk about on our blogs. I know I'll be doing so.

Soon. Soon, my precious....

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A Return to NaNormalcy?

Well, life has quite the repertoire. It throws knuckleballs, sliders, change-ups, as well as hellacious curve balls. Lately, I've faced a bunch of different pitchers who successfully twisted me into knots. The gap of nearly two months between posts should be evidence of that.

Now that baseball season is done, however, National Novel Writing Month has begun. Once again, I've entered NaNo WriMo (see my little "participant" badge?), and I'll take on a new set of knot-twisting challenges. But today I actually did something different: I ate my lunch in a room with an electrical outlet, which enables me to use my archaic laptop. I use the outlet to spark up the gerbils that run on the Intel wheel inside. As a result, I was able to write today.

It only accounted for 400 words so far. Maybe I'll get more tonight after I put the girls to bed. But it feels good to go out of my way to write creatively.

How are you doing? Are you participating in Nano? Are you feeling creative?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

10 Years After

Where I live, the events of 9/11 were not just images on a television or messages of heartfelt sadness. They were those things, of course, but they were also a motorcade of funerals, a stream of floral arrangements, a vital Thanksgiving meal months later. That day led to random moments of pain and sadness when otherwise meaningless things were noticed to be missing. And it also led to phone calls from people whose voices had almost been forgotten, calling..."just because, well, it's been a while, you know?" and we knew.

For me, 9/11 was highly personal for reasons I won't get into here. But it changed things in me about my writing, about what I wanted to accomplish and be remembered for: Writers write.

Those who know me personally or even merely from random lines in places like AgentQuery Connect or From the Write Angle or via Twitter probably get a sense that I like to joke around. Often, I joke because I take most of life so seriously — sometimes too seriously, perhaps. After 9/11 I took my manuscript very seriously. It had been mostly notes before that day. Maybe a few dozen pages of tripe were written. I don't think any of it survives except for its setting. My story took place in Hoboken, New Jersey, which is just across the river from New York City. The attacks were a point of demarcation unlike any other in my lifetime and I needed to decide when my story took place.

I decided that it was to be a year in the life of a family: From 9/10/00 to 9/10/01. I wrote nightly for months and most of that ended up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. It was my first serious attempt at a novel, and I made the mistakes that most writers make on such efforts. Too much back story, too many details that don't matter. I ended up putting it aside for months and working on other things. Short stories, mostly. A lot of freelance assignments. Some of which I'm proud of.

Eventually, I went back to my story, took it apart piece by piece, and started to build again. Perhaps too subtly, I wove 9/11 into the manuscript. It's there, but the story takes place before the events, so it must be done with care. I've had people tell me to change the date of the story or to make it more apparent. And I still think about it. The manuscript still has elements I'm uncertain about, and I've put it aside several times to work on other projects and let my mind work through those elements and help me decide if they're flaws or just need a bit more polishing.

By the time the polishing is done and it goes off to agents, I suspect I'll have come close to finishing another manuscript and several other short stories and a bunch more articles I'm proud of. But this story is one that will be with me forever, whether it gets published or not.

In a sense, it will be part of my personal 9/11 legacy. If nothing else, I have that.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Chickens, Eggs, and the Coop

A question has popped into my mind lately. It's one of those odd things that doesn't have a right answer but depends entirely upon individuals and their circumstances. But the question is this: Which comes first, the title of your manuscript, the story or plot, the characters, the setting, or is it something else entirely?

I've been writing short stories lately, and on a couple of them the title came first. But I found that as I was writing, the title stopped mattering, so now their names are changing. I imagine they'll change again as I edit the stories.

I suppose the question isn't far removed from my most recent post, but I'd love to hear what your experiences are. Do you come up with a title first? Do you see characters and work to find a story for them? Do you have a story idea and see where things go? Do you just write by the seat of your pants and let fly with whatever comes to mind? (I know many people like that. Works for them!)

What works for you?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

What's in a Name

Over at AgentQuery Connect, there's a challenge going on: Post a title to see what readers think. Will they pull it off the shelf? Or maybe you can think of it as, if you were an agent and saw this title, would you be intrigued?

There have been many wonderful titles and a few that make you scratch your head — which is better than those that leave you simply passing by and looking for a different title. For writers who've never had a book published (and, yes, that rather large group includes me), it's a good lesson to engage in as we attempt to write a manuscript that attracts the eyeballs of people who pay for books (also a rather large group, thank goodness!)

But how realistic is it? Do you buy a book purely based on its title? Does the title have enough gravitational pull to attract your arm in order to slide the book off the shelf? Maybe, but I'm not 100 percent convinced. I'm one of those readers who loves finding new writers, but I tend to have them recommended to me by other readers. And when they do so, it's the writer's story, not the title, that I'm looking to fall in love with. That's how I met the works of Michael Chabon, Christopher Moore, and John Connolly — three writers whose individual styles and voices all appeal to the reader in me.

Had I been looking for adult books to read in the early 1970s (I was still engrossed in the Richard Scarry and Dr. Seuss collections at that point), would I have picked up Carrie? Probably not. What about Moby Dick? What about that title screams white whale or obsession? Rudyard Kipling's The Elephant's Child? Definitely, but I'm an elephant guy.

Mind you, I am not saying titles are unimportant. Perish the thought! Because people do skim the shelves and find writers they didn't know. A title can attract someone's attention. It's the first step. The hopeful reader slides the book out a little bit. Is the cover art appealing? Yes, off the shelf it comes! Perhaps she stares at the cover a second more, hoping the author's name or the title suddenly ring a bell. If not, the next milestone is turning the book over and reading that back blurb. Remember all that work that went into crafting your query? You have even less time to attract the reader on the back cover than you did when you were trying to ensnare an agent's interest. I've stopped reading before the first sentence was done. Back to the shelf with you!

Perhaps the book has an inside flap. Bonus! Those are great ways to gain a reader's confidence. I've bought books based on the inside flap. It contained the bones of a story. But that half-ream of dead trees in between the covers needed to be filled with flesh and blood, sweaty excitement and tangy irony if the writer wanted me to remember her name and inquire about another tryst.

You know when a title has mattered to me? After I was done. Has this happened to you? Have you finished a book and found yourself wondering not about what would happen next to those characters you just fell in love with, but rather about why the author (or agent, or editor, or marketing department, or publisher) decided to call it That. To me, that's when a title's problems come to the forefront.

What about you? Do you buy a book based on its title?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Familiar Ground

The new blogger interface notwithstanding, I find myself on familiar ground. Or more accurately, I'm there again — staring at a bookshelf filled with books, most of which I've read before, some I never had interest in to begin with, and not a single title is screaming at me to read it. The pile of books on my side of the bed? Same story. The pile next to my wife's side? That's what I've been diving into for the past couple months and there's nothing left but the greasy, fatty skin left from the work of a writer I won't name here. And no, that's not a Voldemort reference; I want to read more of those, actually, but only have the first book.

Sometimes I go through phases. A year ago, I swept through the John Connolly books again, and not long before that I was into Christopher Moore for a second go-round. I can always crack open Tolkein, but after you've read it a dozen times, you start to wonder why you want to make that type of time investment again; the pleasure of reading is very much still there, but ... well, sometimes you crave something different.

So I've decided to dive into short stories again. I've been getting into the One Story items that I don't always have time for when they arrive. The joy of short stories is, even if they're not great, they're not so long that you feel like you wasted your time. And when they're really good, you feel like you've discovered a new element, seen a shooting star, or met the person of your dreams. You're willing to keep learning more about that writer. Of course, sometimes when you do so, you find out that the element was discovered long ago, or it was just space junk, or maybe she isn't nearly as pretty as you thought in the dark bar.

Ah, the joy of discovery!

So, what do you do when you're not sure what to read next?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Return Books by....

I had an interesting experience this weekend: I gave up books I loved. It wasn't a particularly difficult thing; they weren't mine, after all. A dear relative has been one of the most helpful fellow readers, introducing me to Christopher Moore and John Connolly, who have become two of my favorite authors. She's done it again by letting me read her copy of World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kuntsler. Many years ago, she also introduced me to Michael Chabon.

If you're familiar with these authors, you'll recognize that they are three completely different types of writers. Moore writes farce and satire, Connolly has the suspenseful crime thriller (with a dose of paranormal) down pat, Kuntsler may be better known for his nonfiction writing, and Chabon is simply one of the greatest literary novelists writing today.

This weekend, I returned several Connolly novels — almost exclusively the Charlie Parker series (plus Bad Men, which has a couple Parker cameos). I suppose what was odd about this experience is that these were books I would be willing to read many times over. Indeed, I have.

But they're not my books. I've bought other Connolly books since — the later ones in the Parker series — but the ones I handed back to their rightful owner were a little different. Because, in a way, they own me. I became engrossed in the stories and characters. In a strange way, I felt enmeshed within the pages.

I know I have nothing to fear. These books are not only widely available, but I know these stories now. They're part of me.

Are there any books you would refuse to return?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Idle Thoughts While Waiting for the AC to Kick Into Gear

The best laid plans of mice and men... I never had much interest in what mice were thinking, much less what they planned to do. Perhaps that's one reason we have cats. But that's the phrase that came to me from some back nook of my noggin.

There are so many things that cross one's mind when plans don't work out quite as expected. For example, I arrived home today — easily the hottest day of the year, topping 90 degrees not a dozen days after it was in the mid 40s — to discover that the air conditioning wasn't working. It's built into the same system that powers the furnace that went out last winter and which might be older than me.

Apparently, in addition to my oh so necessary jobs of mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, buying diapers, and finding some time to play with the cutest, most loving and loveable girls in the world, I also need to figure out how to deal with a system that's giving up the ghost right before its season debut. And still we write.

It seems that nothing will ever be easy, not even three-day weekends. I realize this sounds whiny. It is whiny. But so it goes.

As writers, it's easy to become despondent. We struggle to gain a foothold in the world, to get some sort of acknowledgement that our work is valued by readers. Heck, I cherish a rejection letter I received some twenty years ago that called the characters in one of my short stories "wispy" because it at least acknowledged that there was an interesting story; it just needed more work.

So that's what we do. We plug away, we edit, we read, we write and rewrite and rewrite some more until we're so sick of these characters that we consider creating a new storyline in which some crazed individual hires a hitman to whack the characters from the other story. Or maybe that's just me; I am from Jersey, after all.

Yes, it pays the bills, but it also keeps us sane — or it's our obsessive-compulsive means to keep the world in order and scare away the monsters. For me, it's the best way to know that I'm alive and making a minor mark in the world.

How about you? How important is writing in your life?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Way Things Work

Recently, I've had a run of bad luck. Not terrible luck. I didn't lose a family member or find a lump. There were no insects crawling through my nasal cavity or strangers in my bed. I'm talking missed train connections, minor disappointments, relatives venturing close to Benjamin Franklin's deadline ("House guests, like fish, stink after three days...") These are just the way things work when life is moving from day to day. And things need to keep moving if you're going to keep a reader's interest.

Indeed, when you write, these things can make all the difference. You might say, bad luck is the new black. Ok, maybe you wouldn't say that, exactly, but without a good deal of tension, your story might get a little ... well, constipated.

So, if you find yourself a little (writers') blocked up, why not shove a little writing laxative into your system. By that I mean, do whatever you need to do to get your ideas moving along. Change chapters. Write from a new perspective. Add a character you know you won't keep. Draw a map of your character's neighborhood. Send your character's boss a nasty letter.

What comes out may not be worth keeping, but at least it's out. And if the ideas that had been in the way were already a little stale, what comes next might be the real deal.

What do you do to keep your writing flowing free and easy?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Getting to Know You

If you haven't seen it yet, my latest post on From the Write Angle went live earlier today.

Please check it out and let me know what you think. In the meantime, I'm finishing off a new post for the Elephant's Bookshelf. Hope you come back soon!

Friday, April 01, 2011

Now It Can Be Told

I'm one of those rare people who is fortunate enough to love what he does for a living. I write. Always have, and I hope I always will.

You know what one of the things I love about writing is? The ability to time travel. You can go backwards and forwards — even sideways if you want. In fact, you can go forward in time on blogs, too. I'm doing it right now, actually.

You see, I'm setting this post to go live later than what my watch is telling me right now. It will go live at 12:01. On press releases, you often see things embargoed until 12:01 on such and such a date. Why not 12:00 midnight? I suspect it's because people get confused as to which day that actually is; a minute later, there's no doubt involved.

And what, pray tell, could be so darned important that we've embargoed it? And who the heck are "we"? Well, now it can be told. And no, despite the date, this is not an April Fool's Joke.

If you click on this link, you will go to a new blog that's just gone live. It's called From the Write Angle. It's not your typical blog. It's more of a writers' collective.

You see, writers don't always know exactly what it is that makes them who they are — at least, that's how I see it. We perceive things in our own particular way, and sometimes we experiment with other ways of seeing things. Points of view are important. Context is crucial, except when it isn't. And as in Roshomon, different people can see the same thing and interpret it in a completely unique way.

We Write Anglers — the fourteen of us — are writers who do what we do in our own unique way. Some write thrillers, others write for young adults. There are writers of erotica and there are writers of paranormal fiction. (And I bet some of those paranormal characters get downright kinky in their own ways, too.) There is even a literary fiction writer who also does a fair amount of nonfiction writing. Hmmm, now I wonder who that good looking guy might be?

The idea of From the Write Angle is to share our perspectives on not just the writing process but the publishing process — and beyond. When you visit, you'll find a good baker's dozen or more articles already in place in various genres and discussing a bevy of topics, and we'll be filing new posts on a regular basis. If you're a writer, I think you'll find it helpful, insightful, even entertaining. And we're already talking about new ideas to pursue as a group.

Truth is, when you get enough creative firepower together, you start to believe you can achieve just about anything you put your minds to. That's what writers should believe.

At least, that's how I see it. What do you think? Let us know. We look forward to hearing from you.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

New York Writers' Workshop Fiction Pitch: Meet the Agents

I’ve been feeling and sounding more intelligent lately, at least as far as it relates to the publishing industry. No, I didn’t take a special pill that enabled me to know that the line about only using 10 percent of our brains is a bunch of BS — I knew that already. It’s actually because I recently had an opportunity to attend an agent panel session of the New York Writers’ Workshop Fiction Pitch earlier this month.

Let me just say, if you’re in the NYC area, you should check out their "perfect pitch" conferences. They offer writers opportunities to workshop their pitches with folks who are active in the industry. The workshop is the teaching division of an organization called New York Writers’ Resources, and they also have a webzine called Ducts that publishes personal stories — both fiction and nonfiction — and a publishing arm called Greenpoint Press, which is about to publish The House on Crash Corner and Other Unavoidable Calamities.

Anyway, the agent panel that morning brought together three agents who shared their insights on what’s happening in the industry. Being one of those annoying reporter types, I asked a bunch of questions — especially during the "meet the agents" discussion afterward. I came away feeling that I learned a lot more than I knew going in, and I don’t think of myself as ignorant.

The agents were Jenny Bent, Erin Cox, and Sarah Dickman. Bent, who set out her own shingle — the Bent Agency — after working at a few places, has been an agent since the mid-'90s. But she was no industry curmudgeon; rather, she struck me as being very much on top of how things are changing. In fact, since attending this workshop, I started following her on Twitter (@jennybent) and have found her to have interesting things to say and share about "independent publishing" (a term she prefers to "self-publishing"; don’t you prefer driving a "pre-owned" vehicle to a "used car"?) as well as about traditional publishing.

Like the other agents on the panel, Bent stressed the importance of voice in the manuscript. She also loves comp titles. (Who doesn’t?) She made a few interesting comments that led me to believe she foresees some major changes happening. One question was raised about the importance of agents as the industry changes; she commented that agents aren’t as vulnerable as publishers are in this new era of e-publishing. And she also called the e-publishing and digital revolution "the Wild Wild West" a view I hold also, but it means a lot more coming from her.

Erin Cox hasn’t been an agent for very long, but she’s been in and around the book industry for more than a decade. She’s with Rob Weisbach Creative Management and has been a publicist for several years after working in advertising. In fact, she’s still does freelance publicity on the side. The Weisbach group sounds very intriguing to me.

Apparently, Rob Weisbach was a publisher and wanted to provide more for the writers he worked with to help them advance their careers — and presumably his own — so he went to the agent side to create a team with a variety of talents (such as publicists) to help train writers for the long haul in the industry. Sounds good to me!

Cox said that about 75 percent of her authors are first-timers. She, too, was looking for a great voice in the work. She spoke of needing to love the work. "And you can’t just write. You need to sell yourself to me." And she’s willing to find out quickly if there’s chemistry. She said writers should send their whole manuscript right off the bat. If she’s intrigued by the query, she doesn’t want to have to wait.

Speaking one-on-one with her, Cox sounded as though she thought e-publishing was just about to burst. She said she expects that it won't be long before it's a major area within publishing. Frankly, I've been seeing changes in the weeks since I met her.

Dickman works for the Nicholas Ellison Agency, and if I’m reading their website correctly, they represent one of my favorite writers, Christopher Moore. (And they inked a movie deal for his vampire trilogy of Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck and Bite Me. I can’t wait.) The thing that really sank in for me about what she said was that Ellison is absolutely concentrating on traditional publishers at this point, as that’s where the money is. It’s an honest answer, and she didn’t share any insight as to how long she thinks things will stay that way.

"There’s a decrease in profit margin, and the volume of e-books hasn’t caught up with digital rights," she said. But given what Cox and Bent were saying about e-publishing and digital rights, I have to believe Dickman and the Ellison Agency are preparing for the future too.

Overall, I found the workshop very informative and helpful. I think it had something to do with the caliber of the agents as well as the people attending. You could tell by the questions that these were writers with experience, and some were looking to learn about what pioneering might look like in the Wild Wild West of e-publishing.

When it comes to taking on unpublished or "debut" authors, they couched their answers a little: Bent readily admitted that she takes on "fewer (debut authors) than other people," but she also spoke about how exciting it is for her to help new authors get their initial sales. I was impressed by Bent in general, but I think she was trying to put a sunny smile on the debut author thing. She's been in the industry for a good fifteen years and she probably doesn't have to work with anyone she doesn't want to work with (which I think says something for the NYWW group, frankly).

With fewer years as agents, the other two were far more likely to take on first-time authors. Cox said 75-80 percent of her writers were pitching their debut and the numbers were a little lower for Dickman but in the same ballpark. But both of them might receive requests after they've been vetted by an assistant.

Even if an author gets signed, getting their books sold is difficult. I happened to ride down the elevator with Cox and the man who moderated the panel. She reps one of his nonfiction writers and she's having a very difficult time selling the woman's book. She thinks the woman has a decent platform, but publishers aren't buying it.

During the Q&A, I asked Cox about the agency model and how it's different than most agencies. While she talked about how Weisbach wants to develop writers for the long haul, I also had the sense that they were able to manage costs differently by having a variety of talented people involved when needed. I didn't have a chance to delve too deeply into the cost structures of the services they provide their writers, but I do think it's something that deserves more investigation.

Still Cox talked about the challenges that were going on in the industry: smaller royalties, fewer payments, which meaning a different cash flow for authors and it probably means the cash flow is a challenge for the agency.

I can't help but wonder what the industry will be like by the time the fall event comes around.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Platform and Credentials: The Other Side

In the comment section of a recent post, newly minted Elephant's Bookshelf follower Angela Ackerman suggested I look at when a writer has a marketable book concept and a great platform but no credentials for writing the book.

To me, it begs the question: How has this person developed a platform? Well, one obvious way is that he or she is a celebrity. Think Snookie of Jersey Shore infamy. Now, I'll admit that I can be a little snobby at times and I see no value in that particular show, but it's clear that many people love watching morons who put themselves into stupid situations. Heck, the fact that the Jackass movie brought in millions of dollars helped prove that point almost a decade ago. So, Snookie's placement on the bestseller list should shock no one who keeps an eye on American pop culture these days.

Perhaps a better example came to light more recently. Kelly Oxford, who writes the Eject blog. I've never read it, and just now as I checked it out, I saw nothing worth digging into. (Top post was about her book deal, the next posts were about how ill she was feeling, and other gossipy stuff I didn't care about.) I'm not sure what she's selling, but the Canadian writer now has a publishing deal with two HarperCollins imprints.

My initial impression is that this is just more noise added to the cacophony (or should it be "caca-phonies"?) And publishers have every right to produce books that are likely to sell. This is a business, after all. If nothing else, it helps buttress the belief that we writers who don't (yet) have agents or publishing deals need to work on our platforms as well as our credentials. But I can't help but ask myself — and you, dear readers — can't we find better people to write books that will attract an audience?

And platform is no longer just a nonfiction term (though I still feel most comfortable thinking of it that way). But in the fiction world, what is generally meant by platform is having multiple access points for readers to find you; I think of them as conduits rather than platforms.

I suspect this is a topic I'll return to often. Anyone care to suggest any other points on this or other matters?

Monday, February 28, 2011

Archaic Points of View?

I was poking around the various bookshelves in my house recently, trying to find something I'd not read before (or at least not in a while), when I found a Robin Cook novel that came with my wife. (A bookreading spouse is a definite plus in my opinion, and one who doesn't mind when I attempt to be funny is even better!)

The book, Godplayer, was not one I was familiar with, but within 35-40 pages, I had a fairly good idea what was going on and who the probable bad guy was (turns out I was wrong, which is a good thing.) But what I'm writing about today isn't about whether a story is predictable or not. Rather, I'm speaking to the passage of time.

A long time ago, in a readership far, far different from what we see now, it appears that commercial fiction allowed things to happen that are frowned upon by we sophisticated 21st century readers. Two points in particular caught my attention: dialogue tags and shifting points of view. First a couple of definitions for those Bookshelf readers who might not be familiar with the jargon of writers.

A dialogue tag is the stream of "he said, she saids" that sometimes accompany dialogue. It can also include those annoying Tom Swifties. For example, "I won't wear the snow plow," Thomas tooted haughtily. The adverbial descriptor is not only unnecessary, it distracts the reader from the story.

Elmore Leonard is a proponent of using "said" almost exclusively. But Leonard also doesn't add words that needn't be added. The following would probably piss Elmore off:

"I shot him," she said.
"But why?" Crispy asked.
"Because I couldn't stand the idea of him leaving me," she replied.
"But he wasn't leaving you. He was breaking up with her. He told me so himself," Crispy said.
"Oh no! What have I done?" she sighed.

Ok, aside from it being terrible dialogue, I think you'll understand what I mean. This conversation takes place between two people, so we don't need to identify who is speaking each and every time. Context means something.

The other thing I wanted to address was point of view shifts. Perhaps this helps:

Without turning on the light, Sandy threw her coat on the bed. She missed Derrick, and it pained her to have to spend another night alone. As she unbuttoned her blouse, she stroked her hand along her cleavage.

"I would be happy to help you with that, if you'd like," Derrick said.

She jumped at his voice and stumbled into the closet door.

Derrick smiled. He wondered whether she was happy to see him or whether she'd forgive him for sneaking into her apartment. ...

Did you see that? All of a sudden, we're in Derrick's brain. How'd that happen?

While I've read lots of older books in which perspective hops from head to head in subsequent paragraphs, the approach is frowned upon these days — at least by many readers I know and talk with. One reason is because it's annoying. A reader likes to feel like she's in the character's mind, seeing everything from that perspective. Then, faster than you can say "Being John Malkovitch," you're in someone else's head!

Back to Godplayer. What I noticed in Cook's book is that not too many years ago, head-hopping was publishable. Today, not so much. You can still jump from perspective to perspective, but you need to show breaks — asterisks between paragraphs or empty space between paragraphs — to allow a reader to understand that things were changing.

Like I said, sometimes the tool can be effective. It can help show a scene in a camera-like manner. But if you do it too much, it's more annoying than the hand-cam view that's become popular in films since The Blair Witch Project.

Will head-hopping and flagrant dialogue tags ever come back into vogue? I doubt it. What do you think? And what other literary tools do you think have outlived their usefulness?

Monday, February 07, 2011

Platform vs. Credentials

This was originally posted in the nonfiction forum I moderate on AgentQuery Connect. I thought I'd share it here. Comments are always welcome.

While reading through agent blogs recently, I came upon a wonderful distinction that sums up quite well one of the challenges that frustrates writers of nonfiction: Platform vs. Credentials.

For example, say you're the president of a small company that produces widgets. You started in the field as unpaid internship in widget making, got a full-time job after graduating widget school, and worked your way up the ranks to be chief widget operator and finally president. You're a big wig in your little widget world. Congrats. You have credentials.

But do you have platform? Not necessarily.

You're running a small regional operation that until recently was struggling to make payroll, remains virtually unknown outside of the widget world, and makes decent widgets but is not recognized as an innovator. To make matters worse, you cancelled your subscription to Widget World Times ten years ago. I mean, who does that?

You don't have a great platform. As far as the widget world is concerned, you're a dinosaur. In fact, if it weren't for your son, you might be facing difficult decisions about the future of your little company.

Your son, who you hired a year ago after he earned his masters in widget management even though he followed at your heels since he was a kid, not only gets a subscription to Widget World Times, he's been quoted dozens of times in its competitor publications and has a column in the Widget Gazette. In addition, his blog,, is quickly becoming a must-read for the widget cognoscenti. Not only does he boast of his hundreds of blog followers, his frequent Twitter posts get retweeted regularly by the 4200+ followers he has there. And comments? Jeez, he pays your teenage son $10 a week (and supplies him with a six-pack of beer on occasion -- but you didn't hear that from me) to moderate the comments on Widgetwatcher.

Your son is developing a strong platform. If he can help you grow that company, then his platform becomes even stronger. Because he doesn't quite have the credentials yet. Maybe you and he could write a book together.

Does that help?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Stretching Out

As January closes, I look back on a blur of a month. Maybe it was all the snow and ice that distorted my vision, but I can't believe we've had a month of days already this year. On some of those days, I ran some miles and established a nice — albeit tenuous — foundation in my exercise plan for the year. In a similar fashion, I've been building up my freelance writing "miles." But before I get too far on my running or my writing, I need to pause and make sure I'm not about to injure myself.

To me, writing and running are a lot alike: Once you know how to do them, you can pick them back up without too much difficulty, but to get the most out of them you need to keep doing them consistently. That's how you stay in shape. When it comes to my legs, now that I've got a simple base down, I'll make sure that I stretch out my muscles, keep proper form. I'm concerned more about the long haul than reaching a random goal. In the same manner, I'm approaching my freelance — and my novel writing — by ensuring that I keep my tools (interviewing skills, grammar, language, voice) all sharp and ready for action.

Sometimes just a quick blog post is enough for me to feel I'm ready to bear down on finishing a profile or to get my mind thinking of questions to ask.

What do you do to keep your writing tools sharp?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

New Year, New Challenges, New Inspirations

Not wanting to rehash the same old "resolution/goal" post, I found what I didn't know I was looking for in the blog of another aspiring author. The blog is Tikiman1962, which I only saw because I follow N.M. Kelby on Facebook. I don't know the guy who writes Tikiman. (Is he familiar with Martel's Tiki bar at the Jersey Shore? Or does "tiki" mean something else for this guy?) But I already feel a bit of kinship with him. He writes, he's done NaNoWriMo for several years, he's married and appreciates the help his wife can provide him in his writing. And he appears to speak with his own voice on his blog.

Good qualities all.

His 2010 wrap-up piece made me think about what I accomplished in the year that's already packed in a Hefty bag and lying on the curbside. I posted 30 items on The Elephant's Bookshelf in 2010 — more than some years, fewer than others. A couple were book reviews by writing friends. Some were very short pieces that I slapped together on the fly. What I really loved about the majority of them, however, is that they seemed to find an audience. I thank all of you who commented and hope I inspire you to do so in 2011.

To be sure, the largest contingent of commenters came from the community of writers I belong to at AgentQuery Connect, which I think is the most honest, critical, and supportive writers' site on the Web — at least those I'm familiar with. I also say thank you to Caroline Hagood, whose witty, wonderful blog Culture Sandwich has been a joyful discovery for me. Caroline shared a book review on the Bookshelf, and I wrote a blog post in the Sandwich. In between, we both seemed to enjoy what the other was writing. I call that a great example of how the Internet can expand your horizons and help you develop opportunities. Plus, creating friendships with other writers always strikes me as good karma.

If the opening days of 2011 are any indication, the new year is replete with such opportunities, too. So, whether you're looking forward or peeking in your rearview mirror, I wish good luck to my fellow writers as we all look to typing, scribbling, or scratching out word after word after word.