Pub Rants

Category: conferences

White Noise

(Just a note, this post is from our archives. Some references and links may be from past years.)

STATUS: Last week was just tough. Battling being sick so just didn’t know when I’d be in the office or not. So not pleasant….

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE by Mat Kearney

When I was at the Rocky Mountain Writers Conference, I gave a couple of workshops. In my classes, I always give the daunting statistics on how many queries we get, how many sample pages we read, and how many authors we actually take on from what we read.

Yep, the icky stuff.

Then I tell them to cover their ears and say, “la, la, la I’m not listening” because what it boils down to is that these stats should be white noise to you aspiring writers. You can hear it, but it’s in the background. Know the stats so you have a keen understanding of the reality behind the business of publishing but then don’t let it stop you. .

If you love writing, if you are passionate about it as your dream, then you are going to write no matter what. Publication is one possible end result but whether that happens are not should not be the only determiner of why you write. You write because you have to. It’s like breathing. Absolutely necessary.

Besides, you never know when toughness and persistence will finally pay off so don’t lose sight of that!

Photo by KoolShooters from Pexels

Public Knowledge Now

STATUS: Mondays. I wish we could have Tuesdays without the Mondays.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? PLEASE COME TO BOSTON BY Dave Loggins

For those of you who might not have seen the news, Romance Writers Of America (RWA) has declared that Dorchester cannot attend the 2010 RWA conference in Orlando next week because of past due contractual and financial obligations.

I won’t comment further except to say that I’m glad this is now “public” knowledge and that RWA has taken a stand on it.

Opening Pages–Action

STATUS: Heading to the mountains to ski. It’s supposed to snow. Fresh Powder

What’s playing on the iPod right now? VERTIGO by U2

Because we’ve been talking about openings, what works, what doesn’t, I wanted to show you an example from an author who is the master of action in the opening pages. Nobody does it better than Linnea Sinclair.

I would also recommend reading this author, even if this isn’t your genre, in order to learn about escalating conflict. Beginning writers often suffer from the fact that they don’t have enough conflict to drive their stories forward in a meaningful way.

Linnea is the master conflict, of raising stakes continuously through her novels. In fact, she often teaches a workshop on doing just that.

So let’s take a look at the opening of GABRIEL’S GHOST. Notice how she balances the action with setting (paragraph 1 & 2). Then in paragraph five, she raises the stakes even within this scene. Sprinkled throughout this opening paragraphs are key details on where our main character is (prison planet), who she was (fleet officer), why she is there (the court martial).

Folks, this is top-notch writing. In fact, you have to nail it this well for genre fiction or it just doesn’t work. I’d like to think you need to nail a form of this for literary fiction too—something aspiring literary writers often forget. Learn to write a plot-driven scene. You won’t use it the same way as one does in genre writing but it will teach you solid pacing—something a lot of aspiring literary works lack.

Only fools boast they have no fears. I thought of that as I pulled the blade of my dagger from the Takan guard’s throat, my hand shaking, my heart pounding in my ears, my skin cold from more than just the chill in the air. Light from the setting sun filtered through the tall trees around me. It flickered briefly on the dark gold blood that bubbled from the wound, staining the Taka’s coarse fur. I felt a sliminess between my fingers and saw that same ochre stain on my skin.

“Shit!” I jerked my hand back. My dagger tumbled to the rock-strewn ground. A stupid reaction for someone with my training. It wasn’t as if I’d never killed another sentient being before, but it had been more than five years. And then, at least, it had carried the respectable label of military action.

This time it was pure survival.

It took me a few minutes to find my blade wedged in between the moss-covered rocks. After more than a decade on interstellar patrol ships, my eyes had problems adjusting to variations in natural light. Shades of grays and greens, muddied by Moabar’s twilight sky, merged into seamless shadows. I’d never have found my only weapon if I hadn’t pricked my fingers on the point. Red human blood mingled with Takan gold. I wiped the blade against my pants before letting it mold itself back around my wrist. It flowed into the form of a simple silver bracelet.

“A Grizni dagger, is it?”

I spun into a half-crouch, my right hand grasping the bracelet. Quickly it uncoiled again—almost as quickly as I’d sucked in a harsh, rasping breath. The distinctly masculine voice had come from the thick stand of trees in front of me. But in the few seconds it took me to straighten, he could be anywhere. It looked like tonight’s agenda held a second attempt at rape and murder. Or completion of the first. That would make more sense. Takan violence against humans was rare enough that the guard’s aggression had taken me—almost—by surprise. But if a human prison official had ordered him… that, given Moabar’s reputation, would fit only too well.

I tuned out my own breathing. Instead, I listened to the hushed rustle of the thick forest around me and farther away, the guttural roar of a shuttle departing the prison’s spaceport. I watched for movement. Murky shadows, black-edged yet ill defined, taunted me. I’d have sold my soul then and there for a nightscope and a fully-charged laser pistol.

But I had neither of those. Just a sloppily manipulated court martial and a life sentence without parole. And, of course, a smuggled Grizni dagger that the Takan guard had discovered a bit too late to report.

My newest assailant, unfortunately, was already forewarned.

“Let’s not cause any more trouble, okay?” My voice sounded thin in the encroaching darkness. I wondered what had happened to that ‘tone of command’ Fleet regs had insisted we adopt. It had obviously taken one look at the harsh prison world of Moabar and decided it preferred to reside elsewhere. I didn’t blame it. I only wished I had the same choice.

I drew a deep breath. “If I’m on your grid, I’m leaving. Wasn’t my intention to be here,” I added, feeling that was probably the understatement of the century. “And if he,” I said with a nod to the large body sprawled to my right, “was your partner, then I’m sorry. But I wasn’t in the mood.”

A brittle snap started my heart pounding again. My hand felt as slick against the smooth metal of the dagger as if the Taka’s blood still ran down its surface. The sound was on my right, beyond where the Taka lay. Only a fool would try to take me over the lifeless barrier at my feet.
The first of Moabar’s three moons had risen in the hazy night sky. I glimpsed a flicker of movement, then saw him step out of the shadows just as the clouds cleared away from the moon.

His face was hidden, distorted. But I clearly saw the distinct shape of a short-barreled rifle propped against his shoulder. That, and the fact that he appeared humanoid, told me he wasn’t a prison guard. Energy weapons were banned on Moabar. Most of the eight-foot tall Takas didn’t need them, anyway.

The man before me was tall, but not eight feet. Nor did his dark jacket glisten with official prison insignia. Another con, then. Possession of the rifle meant he had off- world sources.

I took a step back as he approached. His pace was casual, as if he were just taking his gun out for a moonlit stroll. He prodded the dead guard with the tip of the rifle then squatted down, and ran one hand over the guard’s work vest as if checking for a weapon, or perhaps life signs. I could have told him the guard had neither. “Perhaps I should’ve warned him about you,” he said, rising. “Captain Chasidah Bergren. Pride of the Sixth Fleet. One dangerous woman. But, oh, I forgot. You’re not a captain anymore.”

With a chill I recognized the mocking tone, the cultured voice. And suddenly the dead guard and the rifle were the least of my problems. I breathed a name in disbelief. “Sullivan! This is impossible. You’re dead—“

“Well, if I’m dead, then so are you.” His mirthless laugh was as soft as footsteps on a grave. “Welcome to Hell, Captain. Welcome to Hell.”

Opening Pages (While We Wait For Amazon To Quit Shooting Themselves In Foot)

STATUS: It’s 7 pm so I’m ready to head out the door and to home.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SAILING by Christoper Cross

Since I’ve been obsessively checking about every hour, the answer is no, the links to my Macmillan client books have not been turned back on. In talking with an editor at Macmillan this afternoon, she said she had no new news to report. Nor had John Sargent made another company-wide announcement. I hope for news tomorrow.

However, I did derive lots of enjoyment out of reading John Scalzi’s posting on the issue.

Meanwhile while we wait for Amazon to get head out of sphincter since they are throwing a tantrum over earning more money rather than less with the Agency commission model, I figured I’d jump back into our opening pages discussion.

Today’s entry is, thankfully, from a non-Macmillan author whose trade paperback edition just released this week.

Now please remember that when I share opening pages, I’m not sharing the polished final pages one will find in the published novel. I’m sharing the opening pages as I received them upon first submission when I requested the full manuscript. Sometimes that changes for final publication, sometimes not.

I’m going to have a blast with today’s entry. As most agents will tell you, it’s usually a waste of time for a writer to include a prologue when submitting sample pages. The prologue usually has a different voice or approach then the rest of the novel and is often a bad barometer of how the manuscript will unfold.

Not so in the case of Brooke Taylor’s UNDONE. This is an excellent example of how a prologue can completely set the tone. In fact, it can give you chills as a dark prelude of what’s to come. It can completely nail character. In this instance, for our narrator and for her best friend who is the driving force in the novel despite not being there for more than the first third of the work.

In fact, Jay Asher, NYT bestselling author for 13 REASONS WHY calls UNDONE, “A beautifully intense story. Brooke Taylor hooked me with the very first line and never let go.”

As to that very first line, I have to agree with Jay. And I’m sharing it with you right here.

My best friend Kori came with a warning label—a black t-shirt that read: “Don’t believe everything you hear about me.” I was staring openly. Gaping. Gawking my geeky little eighth grade eyes out. I’d expected the bathroom to be empty when I charged in with blue dye from an ill-fated lab experiment soaking through my Ruby Gloom t-shirt. I never expected Kori Kitzler to be standing there, tapping a cigarette out of a red and white box and asking me if I had a light.
My mouth dropped wide open. I don’t know which startled me more— that she really thought I smoked (At school!) or that she was actually speaking to me. From the moment Kori had transformed herself from squeaky-clean cheerleader-wannabe seventh grader to I-puke-cheerleaders-for-breakfast eighth grader, I was fascinated in her beyond any sane boundary.

I looked away, down, my eyes stalling on the warning stretched across her larger-than-most chest. I’d heard a lot of things about her. I’d heard that before school even started, she’d already had oral with half the junior high football team. I’d heard she dropped E with high school boys and had a three-way with two college guys. I’d heard she cracked a Tiffany lamp over Chelsea Westad’s brother’s skull just because he told her she couldn’t smoke pot in their house. I’d heard she threw up on the arresting officer and had lesbian sex while in the holding tank. I’d heard that while the rest of our class was singing Kumbaya and making really crappy jewelry at summer camp, she was pretending to dry out in rehab. And I’d believed it all.

In response to her smirk, I braved direct eye contact. In the almost black of her eyes—like two shots of espresso, just as dark and just as deceptively calm—I expected to see my fascination for her spat back at me. But I didn’t. Under lazy, half-moon lids, her eyes were soothing, almost hypnotic. And in them I saw a serrated edge that offered its own version of protection and danger.

“You don’t know it now.” She paused to take a drag (she had a light after all). “But you and I are connected.” She held the cigarette out for me. As I took it, a seductive curl of smoke rose up like a ghost between us. “We’re more alike than you think.”

Hooked? Then let’s make a statement. Buy this book today but let’s not buy it from Amazon. I’d like to suggest Powell’s—a wonderful independent bookstore with a fabulous online presence. They even do free shipping!

Opening Pages (cont.)

STATUS: It’s after 7 pm again and I’m getting ready to leave the office.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SHE’S LIKE THE WIND by Patrick Swayze

Today I want to share some opening pages that are all about voice. Some authors have really distinctive voices and often the deciding factor is not whether the writing is good or not but whether the voice fits an agent’s taste.

For me, Gail Carriger’s SOULLESS is a perfect example. This is a really distinctive voice aptly demonstrated by the opening pages. It’s either going to be your cup of tea (pun intended as anyone who reads and loves Gail’s work will get the joke immediately) or it won’t.

It’s obviously fits in my teacup just fine.

Chapter One: In Which Parasols Prove Useful

Miss Alexia Tarabotti was not enjoying her evening. Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters, and Miss Tarabotti was not the kind of spinster who could garner even that much pleasure from the event. To put the pudding in the puff: she’d retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.

She glared at the vampire.

For his part, the vampire seemed to feel their encounter had improved his ball experience immeasurably. For there she sat, without escort, in a low-necked ball gown.

In this particular case, what he didn’t know could hurt him. For Miss Alexia had been born without a soul, which any decent vampire of good blooding knew made her a lady to avoid most assiduously.

Yet he moved towards her.

This would have been unsurprising with any non-vampire, for Miss Tarabotti generally kept her soulless state quite hush-hush. Miss Tarabotti wasn’t undead, mind you. She was a living breathing human, just…lacking. But it was just too much of a bother to explain soullessness to the ill-informed masses. It was a moot point on most occasions anyhow. The members of the social circles she frequented never noticed she was missing anything. Miss Tarabotti seemed to them nothing more than a standard English prig, whose spinsterhood had been brought about by a combination of assertive personality, dark complexion, and overly strong facial features. Miss Tarabotti telling people she lacked a soul would cause general awkwardness at best. It was almost, though not quite, as embarrassing as having it known that her father was both Italian and dead.

Alexia was shocked to find, however, that this vampire appeared not to know the details of her character, and actually continued to approach her. The supernatural set always knew she had no soul. They kept detailed records of those born preternatural. People like Miss Tarabotti were dangerous: soullessness cancelled them out. As soon as they touched her: whoosh – they were no longer supernatural at all.

In this particular instance the vampire came darkly-shimmering out of the library shadows with feeding fangs ready, touched Miss Tarabotti, and was suddenly no longer darkly doing anything at all. Just standing there, the faint sounds of a stringed quartet in the background, foolishly fishing about with tongue for fangs unaccountably mislaid.

Miss Tarabotti, having escaped the jaws of that worst party-going evil – society matrons en masse – was most disgruntled to find herself under attack in her library sanctuary.

The vampire got over his foolish lack of fangs quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia and her unexpected effect on his supernatural state, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Contact broken, his fangs reappeared once more. Clearly not the sharpest of tacks, he then dove forward from the neck like a serpent, going for another chomp.

“I say!” said Alexia to the vampire. “We haven’t even been introduced!”

Miss Tarabotti had never actually had a vampire try to bite her before. She knew one or two by reputation of course, and was friendly with Lord Akeldama. Who wasn’t friendly with Lord Akeldama? But no vampire had ever actually attempted to feed on her.

So Alexia, who abhorred violence, was forced to grab the miscreant by his nostrils, a delicate and therefore painful area, and shove him away. He stumbled over the fallen tea trolley, lost his balance in a manner astonishingly graceless for a vampire, and fell to the floor. He landed right on top of a plate of treacle tart.

Miss Tarabotti was most distressed by this. She was particularly fond of treacle tart and had been looking forward to the consumption of that precise plateful. She picked up her parasol. (It was terribly de rigeur for her to be carrying a parasol at an evening ball, but Miss Tarabotti rarely went anywhere without it.) The parasol was a style all of her own devising: a black, frilly confection, with purple satin pansies sewn about, and buckshot in its silver tip.

She whacked the vampire right on top of the head with it as he tried to extract himself from his newly intimate relations with the tea trolley. The buckshot gave the parasol just enough heft to make a deliciously satisfying ‘thunk.’

“Manners!” instructed Miss Tarabotti.

And since I don’t answer questions often but felt this one was particularly apropos to tonight’s blog entry, I’m making an exception.

A.L Sonnischsen asked:

So here’s my question: when is it okay to let a character tell about him/herself? Why did this particular example not make you, as an agent, stop reading? Is it because it’s so well-written? Or does an excellent writer know instinctively how much to tell (a little narrative to get an idea of the voice, but not too much)? Or, maybe I don’t understand what telling vs. showing really is?

A.L. You have answered your own question. Telling vs Showing is all a matter of balance in the narrative. We need enough tell to orient the reader so we aren’t confused but then we need enough show so that whatever has been told about the character is revealed completely in the unfolding scene.

Gail does this marvelously in these opening pages. Paragraph 1 has a light touch of telling to set the scene. Then she leaps right into showing her spinster in a action. Five “paragraphs” later (as some are just one sentence long), Gail dips into quite a bit of telling but note she keeps her distinctive voice and all the info given is necessary for the rest of the scene to unfold.

That might be the biggest answer to your question. Only tell when it’s imperative to do so in order to move the story forward. Here Gail knows it’s imperative to explain a bit of Alexia’s soulless state. If she doesn’t, the reader might not understand why this vampire attack is such a surprise—in the context of this world she’s building.

When agents pass on sample pages becuase of too much telling to start, it’s because the writer hasn’t understood the importance of telling and when it’s best to interject it.

And as an aside, isn’t Alexia captured absolutely perfectly on the cover?

Opening Pages (cont.)

STATUS: It’s late. Chutney is curled up on the couch cushion behind my back. She has her nose resting on my shoulder. Unasked is the question of when I plan to stop working tonight.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? Nothing at the moment.

Back in 2007, I went out on submission with a YA novel from an established author. In fact, it was her fourth novel (but her first with me as her agent). It was an option book that her then publisher had declined to take on.

It’s a tough space for an author to be in.

But I loved the novel. It has two protagonists with the story told in revolving first person POVs. One character white; the other not.

A fact Walker Books did not shy away from on the cover.

Bless them.

A lot of publishers said PERFECT CHEMISTRY didn’t feel “big” enough. In retrospect, I could see where they were coming from because the novel is basically a romance—a retelling of West Side Story set in a contemporary Chicago High School.

But I think what those publishers forgot was how a great romance (well told) could really hook readers and sell like crazy.

And the opening pages are what sold me initially. For this blog entry, I’m giving you the opening pages of the novel itself as well as the opening pages for the first shift in POV to the other main narrator on page 6.

Chapter 1

Everyone knows I’m perfect. My life is perfect. My clothes are perfect. Even my family is perfect. And although it’s a complete lie, I’ve worked my butt off to keep up the appearance that I have it all. The truth, if it were to come out, would destroy my entire picture-perfect image.

Standing in front of my bathroom mirror while the new Linkin Park CD blares from my stereo, I wipe away the third crooked line I’ve drawn beneath my eye. My hands are shaking, damn it. Starting senior year of high school and seeing my boyfriend after a summer apart shouldn’t be so nerve wracking, but I’ve gotten off to a disastrous start.

First, my curling iron sent up smoke signals and died. Then the button on my fave shirt popped off. Now, my liquid eyeliner decides it has a mind of its own. If I had any choice in the matter, I’d stay in my comfy bed and eat warm chocolate chip cookies all day.

“Brit, come down,” I faintly hear my mom yelling from the foyer.

My first instinct is to ignore her, but that never gets me anything but arguments, headaches and more yelling.

“I’ll be there in a sec,” I call down, hoping I can get this liquid eyeliner to go on straight and be done with it.

Finally getting it right, I toss the eyeliner tube on the counter, double and triple check myself in the mirror, turn off my stereo and hurry down the hallway.

My mom is standing at the bottom of our grand staircase, scanning my attire. I straighten. I know, I know. I’m eighteen and shouldn’t care what my mom thinks. But you haven’t lived in the Ellis house. My mom has anxiety. Not the kind easily controlled with little white pills. And when my mom is stressed, everyone living with her suffers. I think that’s why my dad goes to work before she gets up in the morning, so he doesn’t have to deal with, well, her.

“Hate the pants, love the belt,” Mom says, pointing her index finger at each item. “And that noise you call music was giving me a headache. Thank goodness it’s off.”

“Good morning to you, too, Mother,” I say before walking down the stairs and giving her a peck on the cheek. The smell of my mom’s strong perfume stings my nostrils the closer I get. She already looks like a million bucks in her Ralph Lauren Blue Label tennis dress. No one can point a finger and criticize her attire, that’s for sure.

“I bought your favorite muffin for the first day of school,” Mom says, pulling a bag out from behind her back.

“No, thanks,” I say, looking around for my sister. “Where’s Shelley?”

“In the kitchen.”

“Is her new caretaker here yet?”

“Her name is Baghda, and no. She’s coming in an hour.”

“Did you tell her wool irritates her skin? And that she pulls hair?” It’s better to avoid disasters than letting them happen on their own. Disasters in my house are about as pretty as a car wreck.

“Yes. And yes. I gave your sister an earful this morning, Brittany. If she keeps acting up, we’ll find ourselves out of another caretaker.”

I walk into the kitchen, not wanting to hear my mother go on and on about her theories of why Shelley lashes out. Shelley is sitting at the table in her wheelchair, busily eating her specially blended food because, even at the age of twenty, my sister doesn’t have the ability to chew and swallow like people without her physical limitations. As usual, the food has found its way onto her chin, lips and cheeks.

“Hey, Shell-bell,” I say, leaning over her and wiping her face with a napkin. “It’s the first day of school. Wish me luck.”

Shelley holds jerky arms out and gives me a lopsided smile. I love that smile.

“You want to give me a hug?” I ask her, knowing she does. The doctors always tell us the more interaction Shelley gets the better off she’ll be.

Shelley looks up, signaling the word for yes. I fold myself in her arms, careful to keep her hands away from my hair. I have no clue why, lately, she’s fixated on pulling hair. Is it the texture she craves?

When I straighten, my mom gasps. It sounds to me like a referee’s whistle, halting my life. “Brit, you can’t go to school like that.”

“Like what?”

She shakes her head and sighs in frustration. “Look at your shirt.”

Glancing down, I see a large wet spot on the front of my white Calvin Klein shirt. Oops. Shelley’s drool. One look at my sister’s drawn face tells me what she can’t easily put into words. Shelley is sorry. Shelley didn’t mean to mess up my outfit.

“It’s no biggie,” I tell her, although in the back on my mind I know it screws up my ‘perfect’ look.

Frowning, my mom wets a paper towel at the sink and dabs at the spot. It makes me feel like a two-year-old.

“Go upstairs and change.”

“Mom, it was just peaches,” I say, treading carefully so this doesn’t turn into a full blown yelling match. The last thing I want to do is make my sister feel bad.

And skipping several pages now and going to the next chapter….

Chapter 2

“Get up, Alex.”

I scowl at my little brother and bury my head under my pillow. Since I share a room with my eleven and fifteen-year-old brothers, there’s no escape except the little privacy a lone pillow can give.

“Leave me alone, Luis,” I say roughly through the pillow. “No estés chingando.”

“I’m not fuckin’ with you. Mamá told me to wake you so you won’t be late for school.”

Senior year. I should be proud I’ll be the first family member in the Fuentes household to graduate high school. But after graduation, real life will start. College is just a dream. Senior year for me is like a retirement party for a sixty-five-year-old. You know you can do more, but everyone expects you to quit.

“I’m all dressed in my new clothes,” Luis’ proud but muffled voice comes through the pillow. “The nenas won’t be able to resist this Latino stud.”

“Good for you,” I mumble.

“Mamá said I should pour this pitcher of water on you if you don’t get up.”

Was privacy too much to ask for? I take my pillow and chuck it across the room. It’s a direct hit. The water splashes all over him.

“Culero!” he screams at me. “These are the only new clothes I got.”

A fit of laughter is coming from the bedroom door. Carlos, my other brother, is laughing like a frickin’ hyena. That is, until Luis jumps him. I watch the fight spiral out of control as my younger brothers punch and kick each other.

They’re good fighters I think proudly as I watch them duke it out. But as the oldest male in the house, it’s my duty to break it up. I grab the collar of Carlos’ shirt, but trip on Luis’ leg and land on the floor with them.

Before I can regain my balance, icy cold water is poured on my back. Turning quickly, I catch mi′amá dousing us all, a bucket poised in her fist above us.

“Get up,” she orders, her fiery attitude out in full force.

“Shit, Ma,” Carlos says, standing.

Our ma takes what’s left in her bucket, sticks her fingers in the icy water, and flicks the liquid in Carlos’ face.

Luis laughs and before he knows it, he gets flicked with water as well. Will they ever learn?

“Any more attitude, Luis?” she asks.

“No, ma’am,” Luis says, standing as straight as a soldier.

“You have any more filthy words to come out of that boca of yours, Carlos?” She dips her hand in the water as a warning.

“No, ma’am,” echoes soldier number two.

“And what about you, Alejandro?” Her eyes narrow into slits as she focuses on me.
“What? I was tryin’ to break it up,” I say innocently, giving her the you-can’t-resist-me smile.

She flicks water in my face. “That’s for not breaking it up sooner. Now get dressed, all of you, and come eat breakfast before school.”

So much for the you-can’t-resist-me smile. “You know you love us,” I call after her as she leaves our room.

Publishing Is Not Color Blind

STATUS: Ready to head home. It’s after 7 o’clock.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? RESPECT by Aretha Franklin
(I’ll admit I did pop her on just to write this entry.)

In order to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, I blogged about three terrific African-American authors and suggested that folks might want to check them out and even potentially buy an African-American author to honor the day.

One commentator admonished me with “there’s an unspoken implication that readers only need to think about books by black authors on a particular day, kind of like Black History Month.”

I actually don’t disagree; however, I still would have recommended some great AA authors on MLK day regardless of the unspoken implication that they might “need” the extra help by highlighting them on a special day.

Why? Because publishing, sadly, is not color-blind and despite some big AA break-out authors, books by people of color are not published equally.

It’s the truth.

And now I’ll explain.

First off, I want to point to yet another recent controversy spawned by the Publisher Bloomsbury Children’s. They didn’t quite learn their lesson the first time around with the cover fiasco involving the novel LIAR. They had to do it again with a debut novel called MAGIC UNDER GLASS.

Maybe I should assume that in this case they thought any publicity was good publicity because really, are they this inept?

Notwithstanding this recent issue, in general when you browse the bookstore fiction shelves and there are people depicted on the cover, how often are they non-white?

Perhaps iconic images for all books are the way to go….

But here’s another case in point. Let’s go back to my author, Kim Reid, and her debut memoir NO PLACE SAFE—which is an amazing read by the way.

This is a memoir. Logically speaking, where do you think this book ought to be shelved in bookstores?

Gee, I don’t know. Maybe it should be shelved in memoir—say next to Mr. Frey who might have been better represented in fiction? Or, how about in the same section that houses THE GLASS CASTLE or EAT PRAY LOVE—both of which are memoir books.

Nope. Barnes & Noble shelved this book in African-American studies.

Yes, you read this correctly.

And go find the AA Studies section in your local BN store. See what other titles are there. That’s like shelving A MILLION LITTLE PIECES under drug addiction and nowhere else.

Yep. This despite the fact that Booklist called it a gripping memoir, “Part mystery thriller, part coming-of-age story, and part civil-rights history.”

Shelving like that can kill a book.

So I don’t care what my suggestion implies on MLK day, I’m darn well going to highlight Kim’s fantastic memoir and I’m going to do it again here by giving you the opening pages–especially since we’ve been talking about opening pages that grabbed an agent’s attention. If this doesn’t compel you to buy it, well, I’m not sure what will.


The summer before I started high school, two boys went missing and a few days later, turned up dead. They were found by a mother and son looking for aluminum cans alongside a quiet wooded road. It was already ninety degrees at noon, even with an overcast sky, because it was the end of July in Atlanta, Georgia, which I imagine is similar to the heat in hell, except with humidity. The mother thought she saw an animal at the bottom of a steep embankment that started its descent just a couple of feet from the road. The combination of heat and damp created a smell that frightened her. Something about the odor must have told her it wasn’t an animal at all, must have made her call her young child to her lest he discover the source. They left off the search for discarded cans and walked to a gas station where the mother called her husband, and he called the police.

The boys were friends, one about to celebrate his fifteenth birthday, the other had just turned thirteen, same age as I at the time. One went missing four days after the first, but they were both found on the same day, not two hundred feet apart in a ravine just off Niskey Lake Road. The two detectives first on the scene, responding to a signal forty-eight (person dead), noted in their report that either side of the road was bordered by trees, like most streets were in Atlanta at the time. Loblolly pine, white oaks and the occasional stray dogwood that played unwitting hosts for the creeping kudzu vines that threatened to take them over completely. The officers also noted that the woods and ravines lining both sides of the road were “used as a dumping ground for trash.” This was where they found the first body. A vine growing from a nearby tree had already wrapped itself around the boy’s neck, unaware that his last breath had been stolen from him days ago.

While making notes of how the child’s body lay among other thrown-away items littering the road’s shoulder, the detectives caught an odor on a small hot breeze coming from the north. Being detectives, they knew the smell immediately and it led them to the second boy’s body. At the time, no one knew the boys were friends because the police didn’t know who they were. By the time school started, only one boy had been positively identified. More than a year would pass before a name could be given to his friend.


It wasn’t much more than a blip in the news – two black boys being killed in Atlanta in 1979 didn’t get much news coverage. The only reason I knew what I did was because my mother, an investigator with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office at the time, told me to be a little more careful. She said it was probably just a coincidence, but just as likely not, that the boys were close in age, black and found in the same wooded area.

Warning me to be a little more careful because those boys were killed was a waste of words. By my thirteenth summer, I’d learned to be nothing but careful, whether I wanted to or not. I couldn’t help but think like a cop. Even though they were my favorite, I rarely drank frozen Cokes because I avoided going into the convenience stores where they were sold (an off-duty cop still in uniform is a sitting duck if she walks in during a robbery). At restaurants, I never sat with my back to the door (you need to be aware of everyone who comes in and out, and know your entry and exit points). I always tried to carry myself like I wasn’t scared of shit (even if you are, don’t let them know or they have you). My friends called me Narc.

Ma told me about the boys while we got ready for work, sharing her bathroom mirror. I combed my hair while I studied her use of blush – the sucking in of cheeks to find the bones, the blowing of the brush to prevent over-application. This girly part of her never seemed to go with the other part, the other woman – the one who, as a uniformed officer, carried a .38-caliber service revolver in her thick leather holster, along with other things difficult to associate with a woman, especially a mother: handcuffs, nightstick, and the now illegal blackjack – solid metal covered in leather for handling an uncooperative perpetrator, or bad guy as I called them. Perpetrator filled my mouth in an uncomfortable way.

My use of cosmetics was limited to tinted lip-gloss and a brush to tame my thick and unruly eyebrows. But I watched her anyway, filing away the technique for the time she’d let me use real make-up to turn my face into something that resembled hers.

Opening Pages That Caught Our Attention

STATUS: I didn’t even get to tackle the contracts I wanted to.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SNOW by Loreena McKennitt

As I mentioned on yesterday’s blog, both Kate and I wanted the attendees to hear some openings that worked, so we brought in the opening 2 pages from clients we had signed.

And today, I’m going to share those openings with you.

First up, the opening 2 pages from Janice Hardy’s THE SHIFTER. HarperCollins published this debut novel in September 2009. New authors often have to revise before publication but these were the original opening two pages when I saw the submission. They did not change for publication.


Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack and make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don’t like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it’s close. And they squawk something terrible.

The trick is to wake the chicken first, then go for the eggs. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to figure this out.

“Good morning little hen,” I sang softly. The chicken blinked awake and cocked her head at me. She didn’t get to squawking, just flapped her wings a bit as I lifted her off the nest, and she’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm. I’d overheard that trick from a couple of boys I’d unloaded fish with last week.

A voice came from beside me. “Don’t move.”

Two words I didn’t want to hear with someone else’s chicken under my arm.
I froze. The chicken didn’t. Her scaly feet flailed toward the eggs that should have been my breakfast. I looked up at a cute night guard not much older than me, perhaps sixteen. The night was more humid than usual, but a slight breeze blew his sand-pale hair. A soldier’s cut, but a month or two grown out.

Stay calm, stay alert. As Grannyma used to say, if you’re caught with the cake, you might as well offer them a piece. Not sure how that applied to chickens though.

“Join me for breakfast when your shift ends?” I asked. Sunrise was two hours away.

He smiled, but aimed his rapier at my chest anyway. Was nice to have a handsome boy smile at me in the moonlight, but his was a sad, sorry-only-doing-my-job smile. I’d learned to tell the difference between smiles a lot faster than I’d figured out the egg thing.

“So, Heclar,” he said over his shoulder, “you do have a thief. Guess I was wrong.”

Rancher Heclar strutted into view, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the chicken trying to peck me—ruffled, sharp beaked, and beady eyed. He harrumphed and set his fists against his hips. “I told you crocodiles weren’t getting them.”

“I’m no chicken thief,” I said quickly.

“Then what’s that?” The night guard flicked his rapier tip toward the chicken and smiled again. Friendlier this time, but his deep brown eyes had twitched when he bent his wrist.

“A chicken.” I blew a stray feather off my chin and peered closer. His knuckles were white from too tight a grip on so light a weapon. That had to mean joint pain, maybe even knuckleburn, though he was far too young for it. The painful joint infection usually hit older dockworkers. I guess that’s why he had a crummy job guarding chickens instead of aristocrats. My luck hadn’t been too great either.

“Look,” I said, “I wasn’t going to steal her. She was blocking the eggs.”

The night guard nodded like he understood and turned to Heclar. “She’s just hungry. Maybe you could let her go with a warning?”

“Arrest her you idiot! She’ll get fed in Dorsta.”

Dorsta? I gulped. “Listen, two eggs for breakfast is hardly worth prison—”

“Thieves belong in prison!”

From Kate Schafer Testerman:
This is the opening page (or so) from Julia Karr’s XVI, which will be published by Speak (Puffin) in Spring 2011. Here is Julia’s website and I actually blogged her original query letter just a few weeks ago.

Chapter One

“Nina, look.” Sandy jabbed me in the ribs.

I glanced up at the AV screen expecting to see the latest vert of back to school fashion for sixteens.

“No, there.” Sandy jerked my arm, bringing my attention to the doorway.

Four guys approached us, lurching and swaying through the moving express. They sat across the aisle, immediately crowding together in a knot. A low buzz of unintelligible words, accompanied by the occasional rowdy snort, rose from their cluster.

“They’re eighteen,” she whispered. “I bet it’s that one’s birthday.”

By the way he kept admiring the tattoo on his wrist and fingering the band-aid behind his ear, I knew she was right. I involuntarily touched my own GPS. The tiny grain-sized pellet imbedded beneath the skin barely registered on my fingertips. What would it be like to be able to go some place where no one could track you?

Before my thoughts went any further down that path, Sandy said, “They’re going into the city to celebrate. I wish—”

“No, you don’t.” My stomach turned at the thought of eighteenth celebrations. I’d heard all about them, particularly the Angel affair. I quickly blocked the images from my mind.

Sandy “humphed” back into the seat, crossing her arms over her chest. “Those stories aren’t true. They’re made up to scare us. Guys wouldn’t do stuff like that. I mean, look at them…” She leaned towards me conspiratorially, but I saw her peeking at the boys from under her bangs. “Someone that cute could never do those kinds of things.”

One of them, not the birthday boy, noticed us. He ogled Sandy the way I’d seen her stepdad do when he thought no one was watching. I grabbed her wrist and thrust it toward him, showing the absence of the obligatory XVI tattoo. He shrugged and turned back to his friends.

“Hey!” She pulled her arm away from me. “He was going to talk to me.”

“It’s not talk he wants. Sandy, those stories aren’t all made up. Ginnie said that ever since they started the tattooing, girls aren’t safe. She thinks that—”

“Yeah, well, your mom doesn’t trust anything the government does.”

She was right. Ginnie didn’t talk much about her views on the Governing Council, but when she did, there was no mistaking that she loathed them.

Sandy snatched a retractable zine chip from the rack on the back of the seat in front of her. She let go and it snapped back in place. She grabbed another, doing the same thing. If she’d reached for a third, I would’ve stopped her. Sometimes I felt more like Sandy’s mother than her best friend.

Her mood suddenly changed, which it often does thank goodness. “Scoot over,” she said. “We’re almost to that big farm and I want to see the cows. Can you believe people used to eat meat? Makes me want to puke just thinking about it.”

Sandy’s almost as crazy about cows as she is about boys. And, she’s never mad at me for too long. I’m sure that’s how come we’ve stayed best friends.

Post Workshop Debrief

STATUS: Slow but steady. Have two contracts to tackle tomorrow.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? PAPERBACK WRITER by The Beatles
(I’m not even kidding! Strange coincidences on what is actually playing when I’m writing up my blog entry.)

So how did it go last night? Well. I think. Somebody who attended might actually want to chime in here.

Here’s what we did:

1. We began the evening with our customary warning. That we are going to be bluntly honest but we will also try and be encouraging and helpful. Also, if anyone decided they didn’t want their piece read, they could opt out at any time. No one took us up on that offer. That always surprises me.

2. Once we did the disclaimer, we jumped right in to reading the pages. We had one of the workshop organizers, Denise, do the reading aloud of the entry. Kate and I followed along with the copy we had. I can’t just be read aloud to. I need to see it on paper or on screen and read along with it. As Denise read, if we would have stopped reading, Kate and I spoke up and said “stop.” Then explained why.

I actually don’t know how many 2-page entries we were able to get to in the 2-hour segment we allotted for the workshop. I think we did around 20. Here’s the general breakdown:

–out of the 20 we read, Kate and I would have asked for sample pages from just 1 of the projects read. That’s actually pretty good! I have done this workshop where I wouldn’t have asked for any. And what was really interesting is that everyone in the room knew it while it was being read. The audience’s attention was caught and engaged. You could tell by the reaction. People leaned forward in their chairs a little while listening. They reacted when it was funny. People just paid closer attention. So the workshop attendees sensed it just as we did. Fascinating. You folks know more than you think you do.

–of the 19 we would have passed on, I’d say that for at least 12 of those, we did not reach the second page before we would have stopped. For some of those 12, we knew by the second paragraph that the project wasn’t going to work for us. Reasons for that? Level of the writing wasn’t where it needed to be yet.

Some interesting things to note.

1. Kate and I had one entry that was read to the second page before we stopped the reader. But when we did say stop, it was at the same time. We both said that something was off about the entry and it was hard to put our finger on the why of it. It wasn’t because the writing was bad or anything like that. It was because we didn’t feel engaged in the story unfolding. Hard to give feedback on such a vague reaction but it’s often true. There is nothing technically wrong with the piece. It’s just not something that makes us read on.

2. Many of the NOs were because the writer started with one of the following:
–starting the story in the wrong place
–opening with a scene that was just too mundane (like a person waking up in the morning)
–action scenes that weren’t going to play a part later in the story. In other words, writers have been told to grab our attention right away but they weren’t given any other guidance on how to effectively do that. Starting with a huge action scene and then on page 2 having the reader realize that it was just a dream is not very effective. Also, the action scene has to be integral to the central conflict of the story. Otherwise, it doesn’t serve a purpose. A great action opening is only going to take you so far if it’s not connected to the plot.

So remember, action with a purpose….

After about 8 entries were read, I stopped the session and took the temperature of the room. How was everyone doing? Had we destroyed any dreams forever because that’s not what we wanted to do. Should we continue?

Everyone wanted us to push on so we did.

We also wanted the attendees to hear some openings that worked, so both Kate and I brought in the opening 2 pages from clients we had signed.

We thought that would be a nice change of pace from the carnage. Grin. Not to mention it might help demonstrate when writing works.

There it is in a nutshell.

The Toughest Workshop To Give

STATUS: I know it’s hard to believe but I just forget to blog yesterday. It hit my mind around 4 pm. I told myself I needed to do 2 more things and then pop on to blog. I did my tasks, left for home, didn’t even think about it later as I often blog from home. I just totally forgot.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SOLITARY MAN by Chris Isaak

Tonight, along with Agent Kate Schafer Testerman, I’m speaking at the Smiley library for our local chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators). The workshop is full so if you’re local, you won’t be able to just pop in.

Kate and I are going to do the two pages workshop. This is the class where participants bring the opening 2 pages of their manuscript. We pretend that we are sitting in our office reading the slush pile. If we would have stopped reading, we say “stop” and then we explain why.

I always do this workshop with much trepidation. You got to be ready for brutal honesty. It’s so not for the faint of heart. There’s a big difference between getting a rejection letter by email versus being told so at point blank—regardless of how nice or helpful we try to be when being so bluntly honest. And that is our goal tonight. Encouraging, helpful, but not pulling the punch.

A lot of what we’ll hear tonight will be from writers who aren’t quite ready for agent time. That’s not to say that these writers won’t ever be—just that they haven’t reached the spot yet. The only reason I continue to do this workshop is that I get tons of emails from participants afterwards that tell me how helpful it was. I’m always stunned. Really? I think it would just be painful but okay.

They say it was tough and it took time for them to process but in the end, they wanted to hear what wasn’t working rather than continue on without knowing why.

That’s valid. Still, I think I might be more nervous than the writers who will be there! Okay, maybe not but I’m going to run a close second.

And speaking of this workshop, I’ll be doing it at the Backspace Conference which is coming up at the end of may. There are two weeks left for the general public to register so if you are interested, you might want to check it out.