Monthly Archives: October 2017

Doc is In: Symptoms of Quality Writing

So, sickness has been running rampant through my house lately, which means I’ve been employing the benefits of Dr. Google. All I had to do was plug in the symptoms: coughing, chills, runny nose, sore throat, low-grade fever and I quickly learned that my family was either dying of tuberculosis or had some variation of the common cold. It was a toss-up really, which wasn’t the best of odds when tuberculosis is on the table, so off to the real doctor we went. One sinus infection and a bottle of amoxicillin later, life is returning to normal. Except for the horse pills, that is. Some unnamed person in my house must somehow manage to swallow them on a twice daily basis. Nothing normal about that. Honestly, it’s worse than giving my dogs a pill. At least then I can slather them in peanut butter.

But I digress.

This is all to say I’ve noticed everything in life — both good and bad — has symptoms. Life is symptomatic of whatever is going on. We cry when we’re hurt. It’s a symptom of pain. We laugh when we’re happy. It’s a symptom of joy. Our heart flutters when we’re in love. It’s a symptom of pleasure. Writing is no different. Quality writing has some basic markers of success.

The Symptoms of Quality Writing: 

  • Every quality house is built first on a strong foundation, and writing is no different. A quality book is founded on a great hook (wow, that rhymed, go me). A hook defined: the unique element of your story that makes it marketable; a strong premise. Querying authors take note: One thing I’m looking for in your queries is this hook. (And I always want to see the stakes of the novel included in the hook, because otherwise why would I care to read it?) Sadly, if you can’t lay out the hook for me in your query, then how can I hook an editor, and finally, how can your publishing house hook a bunch of readers for you? It’s just not gonna happen. So, please make sure you include a sentence or two somewhere in your query that is obviously the hook. You can’t imagine how many people leave this out or bury it. I personally don’t care if you give me this “sizzle” at the end of your synopsis or throw out an old-school “what if” sentence somewhere (though I hear some agents don’t care for them). As long as I can find it, I’m happy.
  • There’s a central conflict that the reader cares about seeing resolved. It is the story problem that the protagonist must solve. This means there’s rising tension to the climax, and a satisfying resolution (unless maybe it’s a tragedy) at the end. Basically you as an author have a problem if your narrative doesn’t have a problem.
  • There are stakes involved for your protagonist. Stakes are the reason your story matters and the reason your protagonist is willing to deal with the conflict around which your story is built. Stakes are what’s at risk for your character. Stakes are something that can be gained or lost. And stakes, maybe most importantly, give your reader something to care about. That’s why stakes are always part of the HOOK. There are three types: personal (directly affect the character), public (affect the world as a whole) and ultimate (when your protagonist’s convictions and motivations are tested). If you can manage to incorporate all three, then you’re awesome and I need to meet you. The higher the stakes, the better.
  • With conflict comes tension. Tension impels people to keep reading. It is the rising action that tracks upward to the climax. Tension is created through a series of crises that get more and more intense as you build to said climax. Visually, rising action is not linear but a series of bumps as each crises should have its own rising and falling action.
  • There’s character development. We fall in love with the hero and hate the antagonist, and they change over the course of the book, deepening our feelings for them, good or bad, as they react to or cause the conflict. Also, secondary characters aren’t just there to be pretty, but give meaning and add depth to the story and main characters.
  • There’s a well-developed setting (which can almost be a character in itself) and world-building (especially for fantasy & science fiction pieces).
  • There’s a healthy balance of action, narration and dialog in the writing.
  • There’s structure to the work, which can take on various forms. The Hero’s Journey, Three-Act Structure, In Medias Res, Seven point story structure, etc. People like structure. They expect it.
  • There’s rhythm to the writing, or sentence fluency, that makes us not want to rip our eyes out for having read 15 eight-word sentences in a row. (Kill me now.)
  • Maybe basic, but it’s edited well. Grammar, punctuation spelling. (ha, did anyone notice I left out a comma?)
  • The writer shows more than tells. (Telling: The blood moon was red and big in the night sky, and I felt scared when I went Trick or Treating with my friends. Showing: I imagined the blood moon dripping from the night sky, cascading down a red shower on all of the little ghosts and ghouls and even princesses running, scattered down the street. We hunted for candy in shadows, but something about that night made me feel like I was the one being hunted.) Feel the difference? I said basically the same thing, but one made you feel something. Also please note, it takes more words to show than tell.
  • Quality writers (especially debut authors) follow publisher expectations for genre. In thrillers, someone dies. In romance, there’s a happily ever after. The protagonist is a sympathetic or likable character we’re willing to root for.
  • There are publisher expectations for word count too — that incorporate age categories (children’s, middle grade, young adult, new adult, adult) with genre (romance, women’s fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc.). If you pitch me a 250,000 word sci-fi novel, it’s an automatic no. Yes, some writers write crazy big, but they’re established authors with built-in fan bases. See http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post.
  • And then there’s voice. VOICE IS PARAMOUNT. You often hear agents say, “It’s all about the voice,” and really, it is. Voice is my main symptom of quality writing. What is it? Voice is the quality of an author’s writing that makes it unique. It is style expressed through words. It’s the difference between a Valentino evening dress (I’d image it written as lyrical, stylized, beautiful, elegant), Alexander McQueen (dark, brooding, edgy, loud, somewhat dangerous, sometimes clipped, sometimes flowing) and Betsey Johnson (colorful, snappy, humorous, fun). Voice is the attitude and personality of a work expressed through (according to Wikipedia) a “combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text.” That sounds rather clinical, but hear me, it’s more than that: Voice is a character in and of itself. Read what you write out loud. Does your writing have its own personality? Is it a character in and of itself? If yes, if you can feel it and it moves you, that’s quality voice. Quality voice grabs hold of you and won’t let go. I imagine that’s why agents and editors get all riled up over voice. It keeps us reading — and that’s the goal.

Image result for betsey johnson fashion design Image result for alexander mcqueen fashion

Well folks, the doctor was in today, and I hope you enjoyed the check up. I’m also quite sure I’ve missed something because a) I never really went to medical school and b) admittedly, I stayed up late bing-watching CW shows last night. (Ahem, don’t judge me. I rep YA. I must be a kid inside to some degree to do this and this requires me watching shows chock full of “chosen ones” and teenage angst.)

So, please my friends, comment away on your favorite symptoms of quality writing. Every reader has the right to determine their own markers of success! 

 

 

 

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Top-10 Things You Should Know About Me

What’s up buttercups? Nothing munch, Captain Crunch? Then stay a while and get to know me! I can tell you plenty about the kinds of projects I like to represent, but sometimes don’t you just want to understand who someone is and what makes them tick? Maybe I can help. Whether you are pitching to me or considering me as your agent, these are the TOP-10 things you should know about me.

  1. If you didn’t catch the Big Bang “Penny” quote above, say because you haven’t watched thousands of episodes of the most incredible show on TV (ahem, Big Bang Theory) over and over like me, then we can still be friends. But you really ought to consider setting your DVR. Truth be told, if I could be those boys’ neighbor, I totally would be. Not just because they crack me up, but because I’d want to pick their brain about the nature of the universe. Maybe I should have been a physicist, but alas I snagged a B.A. in journalism instead. But still, I’m happy. And Google can answer some of my questions even if Sheldon can’t.  And my friend who worked at the Large Hadron Collider can answer the rest. And yes, I rep sci-fi…
  2. I was raised on Star Trek and Jane Austen and anything in their related genres in equal doses. I used to stay up reading said novels until 4 am with a flashlight, hiding under my sheets. I’m pretty sure my parents knew what I was up to, but figured if that’s all I was doing wrong, they didn’t have much to complain about. Then my uncle introduced me to Dune and I got wrapped up in the infuriatingly heart-rending Little Women. And the rest is history.
  3. I’m sort of a nerd. Don’t judge me. I like my A’s all neatly lined up. I graduated college with a nifty little 4.0, and got to give the commencement speech because of it. But don’t think I just sat around studying the whole time. I’m not boring. In college, I loved playing laser tag at Frost Chapel, got caught swimming in the reservoir (naughty, naughty) along with everyone else on campus (right of passage, anyone?), and I did this thing called “running” that college girls tend to do to stay slim enough to catch a boyfriend. Though unfortunately for me, it worked. I caught one. But I had to throw him back one month before graduation when he started to stink, which makes me so happy because I caught the right one not too many years afterward. I also loved mountain biking on my beautiful campus with the wind racing against me, and I pretty much joined every committee they would let me on. Yes, overachiever. Also, Waffle House lover. That’s where I did most of my studying — over hash browns scattered, smothered and covered. And coffee, lots of coffee.
  4.  If I were a plant: I was potted in California (If you can’t infer what I mean here, I can’t help you), this while my Navy pilot dad flew anti-submarine warfare missions a la Tom Cruise, (he had the glasses and everything) but we moved to Georgia when I was quite young, so most of my roots are in the South. I met my husband on vacation in Florida (I spied him reading a book poolside and he happened to know the friend I was vacationing with). He took me jet skiing in the ocean the next day and called me “darlin'”and you could have stuck a fork in me and called me done. I’m not usually one for “automatic” attraction in a romance novel, but it worked out well enough for me! One husband, a set of twins and a bonus baby later, my branches found the sun in the Northeast where we had moved. While there, I free-lanced and eventually interned at Talcott Notch Literary Agency. But not to be outdone, Georgia called and we’re home again, living on a farm, with more animals than are necessary for modern-day living — though I’m thoroughly happy I won’t have to shovel 2 tons of snow from my driveway ever again.
  5. I’m jealous of the person behind the idea for a time travel mailbox in the romantic movie, The Lake House. Then I googled it to see if I could read the book, and found out it was taken from a South Korean movie called Il Mare. 1) Not so jealous anymore since it wasn’t from a book, and 2) If I find out the directors of Il Mare did get it from a Korean novel, my best friend will have to read it to me in English. Also, I love kimchi. Her mom made me eat a kimchi pancake when I was 9, and the rest is history, which is surprising because you wouldn’t think kimchi and pancakes a good match. Moment of contemplation here: Maybe that’s why I’m interested in books that don’t always fit the mold, because sometimes the ones that are best are the ones that break all the rules. Those are the kinds of books I want to fight for.
  6. In first grade, I won a blue ribbon for a writing contest. It’s one of the most precious memories of my life, that and what it felt like to read Charlotte’s Web or The Box Car Children for the first time. There’s nothing like those first books that captivate you and transport you, or those first teachers who motivate you. I hold those memories quite dear. Books have been in my blood ever since. And that’s why I love to rep Middle Grade.
  7. When I got my first job editing, my boss told me the college professor she called for a reference told her one of the reasons she should hire me was because of my humor. “It’s different. You’ll like it.”  I wasn’t sure what I thought about that statement at first, but different can be good, right? I sure hope so! Because I still have a weird sense of humor. Red Dwarf and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are right up my alley.
  8.  I’m a very editorial agent. Because I have worked professionally as an editor and dabbled in writing myself in the past, I believe I have the capacity and the compassion to help make people’s work sing while helping them stay true to their convictions as a writer. And as a new agent with a smaller list, I also have the time and enthusiasm to move these writers with such great promise to publication, and hopefully establish wonderful relationships with them as we advance their careers. I believe in professional but personable relationships with my clients. I always have an open ear, and believe kindness goes incredibly far. Oh, and completely blatant personal promotion here, if you’ve ever wondered why you should choose a new agent over an established one, check out this blog: www.upstartcrowliterary.com/new-vs-established-agents/.
  9. Back to the banal: Did I mention I like Kimchi? I’m convinced that hot hOT HOT, spicy foods are the best kind on the planet. Sweet gets second place. (And they go well together.) I kind of  want to cry when I have to eat pizza without Tabasco or copious amounts of hot pepper (powder). It just takes the fun out of it. Of course, I still cry when I eat the pizza covered in the hot peppers too, but then the tears are the happy kind. Give it to me hot. (And no, I don’t rep that genre.)
  10. I play the piano. By ear mostly, though my old Southern Baptist pastor’s wife of a piano teacher did try her darnedest to get me to memorize the notes, God rest her soul. Try as she might, nothing stuck but the rhythm and the emotion (the woman had some passion). And somehow I figured out that you could tap into that and then the keys would write their own music. I like to create beautiful things. The piano helps me do that.

I’d love to get to know you too! So comment away and tell me something that makes you you.

-Ali

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