Pub Rants

Category: genres

Defining Horror

STATUS: Ah, back in Denver. Now I can actually get back to work…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LOST by Michael Bublé

I have a feeling that attempting to define this term is a whole debate all and into itself, so I’m not even going to offer a definition. I have been thinking about what it is over the last couple of days though and I have a few thoughts to share.

At the very least, horror is, at its most elemental level, the terror created by what goes bump in the night. That is horror boiled down to its simplest form and is often the focus of scary movies.

But it would be a mistake to assume that such a concept alone solely defines horror.

If that’s all your manuscript is, you’re actually missing what true horror is which, in my mind, is the ability to shine a spotlight on the baseness of human nature through a terrifying, grotesque, or horrifying way. Or in such a way that is fearsome for our minds to contemplate (I AM LEGEND comes to mind).

The best horror writers know that what they are really doing is shedding light on the essence of human nature and behavior and exposing the rest of us to the darkness that lies potentially in all souls.

Okay, that might be getting a little deep…

And shedding light into the essence of human nature and behavior is not the sole province of horror. I imagine that all good fiction strives to do the same and using the element of horror is simply one way to reach that place.

A Reflection On Horror

STATUS: Stuck in Glenwood Springs because of a 40-car pile-up on I70 that closed Vail pass. Reminder to self. No driving to conferences in the early Spring…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? Denver Nuggets game on the telly.

The biggest question I received this weekend, and rightly so, is why was I attending World Horror when on my website I clearly state that the Nelson Agency doesn’t handle Horror.

Good question. It was my same question I asked when the conference organizers called to invite me.

Why don’t I rep horror? I’ve certainly read enough in my lifetime so what’s the scoop? It basically came down to the philosophy that I have enough things keeping me awake at night, reading a good horror submission would just scare the bejesus out of me and I need a decent night’s sleep.

But I’m very glad I attended. The definition of “horror” can be pretty broad and lots of things that could be categorized as such would not necessarily alienate me. Maybe I need to rethink our policy as I certainly don’t mind SF&F with horror elements. In other words, dark SF &F. We’ll see.

It also was rather refreshing to chat with some male writers. Whenever I attend conferences, and this certainly isn’t a bad thing, the majority of my pitch sessions are from women writers (obviously this would be true at romance venues) but I’m certainly not opposed to adding some testosterone to my list. So World Horror was a nice change as the pitches were so different than anything else I’ve read or listened to lately. Right now it’s too early to know if any will be a match but I think I’ll enjoy the process.

You Know You Have A Tired YA Fantasy Theme When…

STATUS: I had a great time listening to pitches that had a horror element to them and so different for anything I’ve looked at lately. It’s so rare to have 18 pitches and only three women in the mix. What a different mix-up so I’m enjoying World Horror.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? TOMMY THE CAT by Primus

Tonight I had dinner with fellow blogger and YA fantasy editor Stacy Whitman from Wizards of the Coast.

When you get an editor and an agent together, talk turns to submissions as we are wont to do. And you have to remember, we like to talk shop and even though we might highlight some tired themes in our conversation, any fresh twist on it can change our mind in a heartbeat.

Dinner conversation kicked off with a moment of understanding that it’s really hard to carry off a YA novel where a monster eats a child in the first chapter.

On one hand, it’s immediate conflict. On the other, not sure where the story can go from there….

But here’s our dinner list. You know you might have a tired YA fantasy theme when:

1. Your main protagonist is the “chosen one” and only he or she can save the world.

2. You have a lost magical amulet and that search alone is driving the story.

3. When your main protagonist is waking up and getting ready for the day in the opening chapter.

4. If you have to go through the portal to actually begin the story.

5. If your Mom & Dad are dead (and on top of that, they are dead wizards or something similar) that the protagonist must live up to.

And I would have added, you know you have a tired YA fantasy theme when your characters are on a quest but Stacy says she’s still game for those stories (albeit a little tired of Vampires because she can’t see how a writer might pull of an original story in that realm at the moment).

TGIF. I’m out!

Implications Beyond The Obvious

STATUS: Hey, I’m not blogging after 10 o’clock at night. This means it’s a good day!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? TIN MAN by America

I read this article with dread. Despite how one might personally feel about buying from chain bookstores versus supporting independents (and that’s a whole separate debate I don’t plan to get into with this entry), Borders possibly going out of business is not good news.

Why? Because the general public doesn’t know that the decision about buying books for the chains, which ones, and in what quantities, is in the hands of a very few people who wield significant amounts of power. B&N has A non-genre fiction buyer. Yes, you read that correctly. A decision to carry a book (or not) by that one person can make or break a book.

If Borders is taken out of the mix (or bought by B&N), the decision-making powers about what books will be featured or given shelf space in the store at all will have just consolidated yet again.
This is not good news.

There have been many instances of Borders supporting a book that B&N hasn’t and that making all the difference (vice versa is also true as I’ve seen B&N support a book that Borders took forever to get on board with –Carter’s I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU comes to mind). A Borders closing is particular hurtful news for genre fiction as things like romance and SF&F are often more supported at the Borders store and bought in greater numbers by readers through that outlet.

If Borders goes, so do their buyers. And with the ringing death knells of so many independent stores in the news lately, the future isn’t looking bright—as the independents, as a collective force, could create a balance to this.

So lots of implications beyond the obvious.

Accidental Children’s Agent

STATUS: My hand is tired but the holiday cards are done!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN by Chris Isaak

Two years ago I didn’t even represent anything in the world of Children’s publishing. Now it’s what I’m starting to be known for.

I should have realized this. I love high school movies with a passion (as my husband can attest). I would say that half my DVD collection is high school movies so why it didn’t occur to me that repping young adult and middle grade would be a natural fit is a mystery. I’m just glad that Ally Carter and Jennifer O’Connell insisted on writing for that market and forced me to get savvy. Now I love it.

So genres for the 8 new clients (and funny enough, quite the leaning toward children’s!). If they’ve sold already, I used their name.

Brooke Taylor—young adult
Sarah Rees Brennan—young adult fantasy
Jamie Ford—literary fiction
Helen Stringer—middle grade fantasy
Client 5—young adult
Client 6—young adult fantasy
Client 7—young adult
Client 8—women’s fiction

And you guys know what I want more of, don’t you? Adult science fiction and fantasy. I’d love to take on more romance. I’d love to take on more literary fiction like Jamie.

I don’t suggest querying now (because we close on the 19th) but come Jan. 2nd, bring it on!

TGIF! I’m out.

Agency Anomaly

STATUS: Plugging along. Only two weeks ago I was all pleased because I had caught up on everything. Ah, those were the days…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ROCK THIS TOWN by Stray Cats

Sitting on the panel this past weekend also reminded me of a fact that I often forget—the fact that my agency is a little bit of an anomaly in this business.

The three other agents sitting on the panel all handled mostly nonfiction with an occasionally novel to fill out their roster.

I’m the exact opposite. About 98% of what I do is fiction with an occasional story-based nonfiction project such as Kim Reid’s memoir NO PLACE SAFE or Jennifer O’Connell’s book of collected essays EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT BEING A GIRL I LEARNED FROM JUDY BLUME. This is actually unusual. The majority of agents sell nonfiction because it’s easier to sell (more quantifiable), takes less time to put together (because most nonfiction is sold in the proposal stage), and it usually tends to make more money (more six figure deals are for nf projects).

So why do I just mainly do fiction? Because that’s what I love and that’s where my passion is. And for me, for some reason, fiction is just easy to sell (and I do sell quite a few projects, even for debut authors, for high five or six figures, and I sell almost every project I take on). My nonfiction stats (early in my career when I handled both) couldn’t compare. I liked things that were too quirky for mainstream publishing. Go figure.

Now my agency thrives because I handle all types of fiction—including genre stuff such as romance or sf&f. A lot of agents are only interested in literary or commercial mainstream and let me tell you, literary fiction is one hard sell. When you understand how hard it is to place a literary novel, it becomes clearer as to why most agents concentrate on nonfiction to pay the bills.

All Nonfiction Is Creative

STATUS: I’m behind in reading sample pages in the electronic database. I know there are several people who have waited more than 2 months for a reply. My apologies. I just have a lot of client material that is taking first priority. I’m hoping to get semi back on track after RWA. Thanks for being patient.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ONE WAY OR ANOTHER by Blondie

This is a rant I had totally forgotten about until now. I sat on a panel at the Tattered Cover—Lodo on Saturday morning for the Lighthouse Writers Litfest.

During the Q&A, several attendees posed a question about their “creative nonfiction” work. This, of course, puzzled the agents and editors sitting on the panel. Why? Because there is no such genre as creative nonfiction. All nonfiction (and fiction for that matter) is creative by nature so calling something “creative nonfiction” doesn’t really define it.

And then I remembered. This is a term often used by universities and writing programs but in publishing, we don’t use it.

If you are writing a memoir, it’s called a memoir.

If you are writing a collection of essays, it’s called a collection of essays.

If you are writing a prescriptive nonfiction self-help book, then that’s what you call it.

Seriously. No agent will ever call and editor and say, “Yo Jane, I’ve got a creative nonfiction project to send your way.”

So I would exorcise this term from your writing/publishing vocabulary (and if you head a writing program, see if you can get that terminology changed). It’s actually a disservice to writers trying to break into the publishing world.

Now, don’t worry. It’s not like I’m going to delete every query that uses it but it will raise an eyebrow and show you up as a novice right when you are trying to demonstrate your savvy and professionalism.

But What Is Your Story?

STATUS: Is it really three in the afternoon already? It just can’t be…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? GONNA MAKE YOU SWEAT by C&C Music Factory

Last but not least, I have one last word on the memoir and then I’m going to rant about something else for a while.

Here’s the last point that I want to make. Often when writers pitch their memoirs, they often focus on the fantastic/dramatic element that, in their mind, is the unique impetus that drives the story, such as the disabled sibling (or the genius sibling), the psychotic mother (that’s a popular one), the drug addicted brother, father, sister or whoever–you name it, the daughter who accused the father of abuse (and it’s the mother’s memoir) that I’m often left asking, “but what is your story.”

I have often asked this question to aspiring memoirists and have stumped them. And the answer might be that they don’t really have one—and hence, what they have won’t really work as a memoir.

A simple question but an important one if you plan to write in this genre.

I’ve Got A Memoir But It Could Be Published As A Novel

STATUS: TGIF. Fun weekend planned as the in-laws (whom I adore) are in town for Father’s Day. Coors Field here we come.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? 50 WAYS TO LEAVE YOUR LOVER by Simon & Garfunkel

I love the memoir. I could talk about this genre for weeks but I imagine some blog readers are thinking, “move on already.”

Seriously though, I read a lot of recently published memoirs on my own, for fun, because I just love that thrilling inside look into another person’s life. If I found more “just blow me away” ones, I would take them on. So I’m going to continue talking about this genre until I’ve exhausted all rant-worthy topics associated with it (and don’t worry, my arsenal is starting to run low).

So the above title to this blog entry is yet another kiss-of-death-otherwise-known-as-an-automatic-NO-from-an-agent for any aspiring memoirist. I cannot count the number of times I’ve chatted with a writer in person who has finished a memoir but when pitching the project to me will often say, “I wrote it as a memoir but it could be published as a novel instead.”

The answer to that is no it can’t.

And yes, I’m going to tell you why because this misconception is definitely a rant-worthy topic.

Although a memoir often shares certain similarities to a novel (as in there are scenes, dialogue, development of characters, and sometimes world-building) a memoir is not the same as a novel. They are two, distinctly different creative processes in how they are crafted and written.

So an already written memoir can’t be “published” as a novel or even vice-versa. It’s like saying my nonfiction self-help book can double as a novel. These are two wholly different entities. Apples and Oranges (James Frey, non-withstanding, but even A Million Little Pieces would have to be redone completely to make it stand as a novel because the crafting of a novel is not the same as the crafting of a memoir). Repeat after me: they are not interchangeable.

Now, I’m not talking about writers who have yet to begin the writing process and are wondering if they should simply take the real-life experience and use that as inspiration for writing a novel. That’s a different ball game altogether (but I also want to point out that such a direction has a whole different set of pitfalls). The key words here are “use it as inspiration.” Let’s just say when writers try to take a real life event and fictionalize it, something gets lost in the translation because the writers get too attached to what “actually happened” versus writing an original scene with developing characters and so on. Usually, but not always, the writing of this “novel” is just terrible because the writer doesn’t have any distance to the material nor are they using the elements of writing good fiction to create it.

But as I said, that’s actually a whole other blog entry. A memoir is a memoir—not a novel. A novel is a novel and can’t easily be “revised” into a memoir.

So don’t approach me with, “I’ve written a memoir but if it would be better, you could submit and publish it as a novel instead.”

Writing A Memoir Is Not The Same As Writing “My Memoirs”

STATUS: I’m going to be bald by the end of this week because S&S makes me want to pull my hair out. I’m ready to channel my inner Miss Snark…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? RAPTURE by Blondie

In other words, what is the difference between writing a memoir versus writing an autobiography (and there’s a huge difference, trust me).

When I’m at a conference, it makes me cringe when writers announce that they are writing their memoirs. Why? Because that means they are writing their life story (including “I was born in 1940 (or choose a year) in Biloxi, Mississippi–or choose wherever”) which is an autobiography not a memoir.

In publishing, famous people have biographies written about them or they may write their own autobiography (Personal History by Katharine Graham comes to mind) but the keyword here is “famous.”

For publication purposes, if you aren’t famous, there is no market for your “memoirs” and a large publishing house will not buy it. Now that doesn’t mean a person shouldn’t write his or her memoirs (what a powerful way to document the family history etc.) but don’t imagine that it’s going to be appropriate for publication to a wider audience.

Once again, I’m not trying to be harsh or mean. I’m simply trying to clarify the difference because it’s obvious in the query letters that we receive that a good majority of people don’t understand that there is one.

An autobiography is a chronicle of a person’s life history.

A memoir is a story (with a story arc not unlike what occurs in a novel) told through a prism of one particular life experience and it usually focuses on a finite period of time and not the person’s life as a whole. A memoir has crafted scenes that build on one another to reach a pivotal moment. An autobiography has remembrances of important events throughout the author’s life and how it unfolded from that person’s unique, inside perspective. They can be separate from each other and don’t need to build to a climatic moment.

Big difference. And here are some suggestions for those interested in writing a memoir. Read the top ones out there. Study how they are crafted. What makes them powerful? What stories did they tell that captured national and international attention? How are scenes created? What is the climatic moment? But most of all, pay attention to the author’s distinctive voice. By doing so, you’ll see what made the most successful memoirs popular and publishable.