Archive for December, 2008

A New Year: Looking Ahead

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008 | The Writing Life | 2 Comments

As 2008 draws to a close, I, like so many, think not only of the year just passed, but of what the new year might bring. With my book sold, I have hope for more progress with my work: more sales, building a readership, finding the people who will benefit the most from my novel, and who will find the most joy in it. But I am also grateful for the year just passed, for its challenges as well as its benefits. Changing agents, learning more about my work and how to make it better, were all challenges that at first seemed like obstacles. But each led me to new places, places I would never have gone, to country I would not otherwise have seen.

I look forward to exploring new country in 2009.

Before I Could Read, I Wanted to Write

Monday, December 15th, 2008 | The Writing Life | No Comments



Before I could read, I wanted to write. Or at least, to type. When I was four years old, I asked for a typewriter for my birthday. I am blessed with amazing parents. They never asked me why I wanted something…if it was a possible request, no matter how odd, they would do what they could. So on my fifth birthday, I unwrapped my first typewriter.  A bright sunshine yellow machine, perfect for the mid ’70’s. And no sooner was it out of the box, that my mom and dad gave me a fistful of paper, and helped me roll it into the typewriter.  They took a photo of me as I sat beside it on the kitchen floor. Already, I am looking off into the distance, one hand on the keys, thinking. I can only imagine that even at that age, I was listening for the Muse.

Staying in the Chair: How Many Drafts Are Enough?

Friday, December 12th, 2008 | The Writing Life | No Comments

Yesterday, I wrote about what the idea of “high concept” means. Basically a marketing term, a high concept idea is a story that editors and agents can not turn their back on. But once inspiration has struck, once a stellar idea has come to you, what then? How does a writer begin to flesh it out, transforming a marketable idea into a well written novel?


Elana Roth of the Caren Johnson Literary Agency mentioned that while she has received many solid query letters outlining marketable ideas, often when she reads the first pages of the manuscript, the novel falls short. Essentially, the writer has honed her idea to a sharp point, but has not finished crafting the novel itself.


This is a trend I heard of for the first time at the San Francisco Writers’ Conference in February of this year. Editors and agents alike were complaining that writers were sending in fabulous ideas without a well written novel to back them up. I think this trend could be turned if writers stayed in the chair for a few drafts more, before trying to market their material.


While I know of one author who pounded out a fabulous novel in the first draft, she is the exception rather than the rule. She also spent years honing her craft of storytelling through other mediums. At conferences over the last two years, I heard people enthusiastic about their stories, but who were essentially trying to sell their novels too soon. If a novel is sent out before it is ready, it ends up getting rejected by agents, and never makes it to editors.


Rejection is an essential step in the process of becoming a published author, but I fear that it is happening more than it needs to. A writer sends out her first draft, has it rejected, then gives up the craft out of the fear that she or her work isn’t good enough. Instead of sending out a novel in its first or second drafts, a writer might consider staying in the chair another year, and honing the book. No writer is good in the beginning. Each one of us has to stay in front of the computer, or blank pad, and keep writing until what we write is interesting to others.


I think in the rush to get published and to get recognition for hard work already done, writers are not enjoying the first years of their craft. The first years when they can find their voice, when they can hone their craft and build their stories, a time when no one reads their work but them. Though there is no glory in this time, there can be a lot of joy. When it was only me and my characters getting to know each other on the page, I loved my work in a way that was different from the way I love it now. I adore my work and characters, but for the last three years I have had a professional audience: my agent and later the editors who read my manuscripts. While my awareness of my audience did not take the bliss from my writing, it did color the experience. It was gratifying to know that someone besides my mother would be reading my novels, but I also had a sense that I was writing for an outside eye, a different experience altogether from writing for myself alone.


My opinion, for what it is worth, is: stay in the chair. Find your voice. Classes and MFA programs and writing groups can help up to a point. They can make a lonely profession feel less lonely; they can help a writer feel less adrift in an uncharted sea. But essentially, the uncharted sea is where we live. The ocean of the imagination, with the land behind us, nothing visible but the sea and sky, is where the stories are. And essentially we must sail that sea alone, pen in hand, riding each wave as it comes, until the book is finished, and we are washed up on shore once more.


Writing is lonely work, which is why we have characters to tell us their stories. They are our companions on that sea, our only ones. No class or group or friend or lover can go there with us. It is our role to sail that sea, and bring our stories home.


The only way to learn to do this, and to do it well, is to keep writing. Reynolds Price once said in a keynote speech for the NC Writer’s Conference, “Go into a room, close the door behind you, and write.” He made this statement years ago, and I am no doubt misquoting him, but his advice spoke to me. It was a beacon on my own uncharted sea. And in truth, the sea is where I prefer to live.


Find your voice. Keep writing. Stay in the chair.

High Concept: Where Art Meets Commerce

Thursday, December 11th, 2008 | The Writing Life | 1 Comment

Last night, a couple of friends took me to dinner to celebrate my long-awaited sale. One of them was Elana Roth from the Caren Johnson Literary Agency. We had an interesting discussion of what makes a “high concept” story. Elana works with Children’s fiction, Middle Reader’s fiction, and YA fiction. My focus is adult historical fiction, but storytelling is storytelling. What makes an agent or an editor hear a pitch or an idea and say, “Yes, I have to read that”?


No doubt it takes more than one thing to catch an agent’s or an editor’s eye: a well polished query and a professional presentation are just the beginning.  Beyond the mechanics of making a pitch, what about the concept itself? What makes one irresistible and another simply one more letter in the slush pile?


To find Elana’s definition of what “high concept” means, please look on the Caren Johnson Literary Agency’s website:


From talking to Elana, I gathered that a high concept idea can be summed up in one sentence, and contains something unexpected, a hook or a twist that is unique and interesting. A writer with a high concept storyline then must have the talent and dedication to execute it. This post is about what “high concept” means. In my next post, I will write about the challenge of making your writing good enough for an editor to buy. As you may imagine, the later is much harder, and often takes years.


A high concept story idea can be handed to a writer by the Muse, or discovered waiting in line at the supermarket, or while reclining in the dentist’s chair. Or, if a writer is very lucky, as I was, an editor or agent will take the time to make a suggestion that will transform a good storyline into one that can not be turned from.


My novel, The Queen’s Pawn, began as a novel told solely from the point of view of Alais, Princess of France. While Alais’ voice was compelling and garnered compliments from various editors, it did not secure a sale. Only when Eleanor of Aquitaine joined the novel, and added her voice to the story, did the book take flight. The story of A Lion in Winter as told from the point of view of the French princess is interesting, but is not high concept. The story of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her protégée, Alais of France, battling for King Henry’s love and for the throne of England is high concept.


Queries can be improved and concepts can be heightened, but ultimately, every writer must follow her Muse in her own way. A high concept storyline just makes a book easier to sell.

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