Saturday, November 19, 2016

Finding a Literary Agent to Query (Part II)

Copyright © 2016, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I wrote earlier some tips on where and how to compile a list of literary agents who you can query for your novel (see Finding a Literary Agent to Query). I wrote it because I was doing just that for my latest novel: looking for agents who were interested in cozy mysteries.

Well, I must have done something right because last August an agent I queried asked to see the full manuscript! That is, of course, just the first step toward signing with an agency and then getting published. But it feels like a big step. Especially since, up to then, all I received for this novel from other agents was a terse, "It's not for me" response.

Now the hard part: the waiting. It is now November, and the agent has told me she's finally going to get around to reading my manuscript soon.  Hopefully, "soon" is sometime this year.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Finding a Literary Agent to Query

Copyright © 2016, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

The subject of literary agents came up recently with some of my aspiring writer friends. Specifically, "I'm ready to send out a query, but where do I look to find agents?"

The first and standard answer is to buy a copy of one of the Writer's Market series of books by Writer's Digest, such as Guide to Literary Agents 2016: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published. In addition to listing tons of agents, it has tips on queries, synopsis writing, and other how-to articles.

Another place to find agents is online information for writers conferences around the country. The organizers often prominently list the agents who are attending and what kind of works they wish to represent, such as non-fiction subjects or certain fiction genres. This will lead you to that agency's website, and once there you may browse its whole stable of agents to find an even better fit.

Another source is published authors themselves. You might attend an event at a local bookstore, where the author's work matches your genre and, if you can get some facetime with her afterward, ask for an agent recommendation. Alternatively, some authors list their agent in the book's acknowledgements up front.

Some online resources specialize in agents and agencies. One I've used is AgentQuery, which bills itself as "The internet's largest free database of literary agents." It has a cool search feature that allows you to specify a genre. It also has query tips and success stories. The site Preditors & Editors is popular and useful for checking out an agency's reputation. Its format is primitive, but it can give some comfort that the agency you're considering seems reputable. The Science Fiction Writers of America maintain a Writer Beware site that not only has great information about bad agent practices, but also has a Resources for Agent Hunting section.

Of course, you can search Google for terms like "literary agent thriller" or whatever and see what you get, then use some of the resources above to narrow down the choices.

However you choose to search, once you start looking, you should find a dozen or more prospects quickly. Then, it's a matter of researching each one to make sure they've had recent book sales, no complaints of scams, they're actually accepting queries, and the genre/subject still seems like a good match. Sometimes, you can find a recent interview with the agent posted online that may give you better insight into their likes and dislikes, their dos and don'ts, and personality.

Summary of Writing Craft Posts

Copyright © 2016, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I've posted a lot of articles with my observations about the writing craft over the years, so figured I should post a summary of them here so they're handy in one place.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Observations About Literary Contest Submissions

Copyright © 2016, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I was selected again this year to evaluate manuscripts submitted by aspiring writers to a local literary contest. My task was to read the submitted pages and provide a critique and a score for a half-dozen aspects, such as Dialog, Plot, Synopsis, etc. Here are some observations about what I read.
  1. Following contest guidelines is half the battle. Of the five manuscripts I was assigned, three were disqualified! The most common mistake: the author's name was included. The manuscript is supposed to be anonymous. Hello! The next mistake: too many pages were submitted. If the guidelines say 25 pages max, don't submit 30 or 40. Another: placing page numbers at the bottom, when rules called for upper right corner. Bottom line, if you simply sumbit a clean manuscript that follows all the rules to the letter, you'll jump past half the other entrants right out of the gate.
  2. Know how to properly format a manuscript. An author who wishes to be taken seriously (let alone win a contest) ought to know standard manuscript formatting rules. One entry did not indent paragraphs, but did insert blank lines between them. Another did not understand the punctuation and formatting of dialog tags. These are basic things any aspiring author learns quickly simply by reading books or having their work critiqued by a local writers group.
  3. Write a compelling synopsis. A couple of the authors clearly did not understand the concept of a synopsis. One gave an introduction for a couple of main characters, and then launched into a glowing bio of himself and his remarkable talent. And, yes, exceeded the page limit. Another introduced the main character and her conflict well, but gave vague generalities about how the plot unfolded. Most of the authors just couldn't bring themselves to give away the story's ending, which is what contest judges and literary agents expect to see. I wrote a blog article some years back about synopses ( What's In a Synopsis?) that discusses some of what I have learned about them.
  4. Some writers don't understand viewpoint. This is common for newbie writers: they don't understand the concept that a scene is normally told inside the head of one particular character. I know, because I, too, got it all wrong when first starting out. The reader should only know, see, hear, smell, feel, and think through that character's brain and senses. A few contest authors' character viewpoint wandered all over, one becoming so omniscient the narrator expounded on what will happen in the future. A corollary to wandering viewpoint is the verb tense used by the narrator: one entrant mixed present tense with past tense.
  5. Overuse of backstory. Often, the author has a good grasp of the main character, but decides to tell the reader all about the character's life and history and miserable angst in the first couple of chapters. Unfortunately, the actual plot and storyline are trampled like a cat in a stampede. One entrant used so much backstory, it was difficult to figure out what was happening in the "Now."
  6. No scene setting. I'm a big fan of telling the reader "who" and "where" and "when" in the first paragraph or so of each scene. Where are we? Who is there? What time is it? Added to that, what does the character see, hear, etc? What does the room or street look and sound like? In most of the entries, setting the scene was done poorly. Often, the author supplied reams of narration about the character's pitiful life, or launched into unbroken dialog. For me, this gives the story a disembodied feel, as if the scene takes place in a wispy white netherworld.
I could go on about trivial dialog, lack of gestures or facial expressions by characters, and slow pace. But you get the picture. Don't get me wrong. A couple of the manuscripts I read were excellent, and might even end up a contest finalist. For the others, I hope my gentle critiques encourage them on to better things. Good luck to them all.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Book Review: The Hot Country

Copyright © 2016, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

This novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Olen Butler is the first in his series billed as "A Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thriller."

The story's setting is Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1914 where Chicago reporter Christopher Marlowe "Kit" Cobb is assigned to report on the various rebel factions that are vying for power in an unstable Mexico, made more complex by America's invasion of the southern port city of Vera Cruz.

While there, Cobb meets a pretty Mexican woman, Luisa, who turns out to be a sniper for an unknown rebel group. Also in town is a German ship filled with armaments that also disgorges, in the dead of night, a mysterious German official who Cobb thinks may be trouble for the Americans. Following the German eventually leads to Panco Villa's rebel camp, but not before Cobb has to fight alongside some Villistas to save his own skin - thus earning Pancho Villa's respect. The German is there, too, to urge Villa to invade San Antionio, Texas, and possibly unite all Mexicans under arms for the fight. Cobb learns of this and must escape to tell the story.

The author does a great job immersing the reader in the place and time of 1914 Vera Cruz, peppering the story with the smells and tastes and emotions of the locality. Each chapter bubbles with tension and suspense and action. Cobb lives on the edge at times, taking chances more suited for a secret agent than a reporter, while he tries to determine the mystery German man's mission. And along the way, he hopes to reunite with the lovely Luisa, despite the fact she once held a gun to his head.

My only negative critique of the book is a writing device Butler uses that I find annoying and ineffective: he lapses into ultra-long sentences - some spanning a page or more - for the purpose, I assume, of creating a frantic sense of action or thoughts for the character. I often found myself just skimming over those sections, having gotten the gist in the first few lines. This is done repeatedly, and I think detracts a little from the overall excellence of the story.

All in all, The Hot Country is a great read that is hard to put down. The hardcover is about 325 pages.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Book Review: The Nomination

Copyright © 2016, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

This suspense novel by William G. Tapply employs a story technique I used in my first novel, Linear Descent, that I think of as the "character spiral." If you consider a spiral shape, such as a galaxy in space, it consists of numerous far-flung entities circling a center point, all drawn toward the center. At some point, they swirl inward and converge at that center, crashing together. In a character spiral, the entities are a cast of characters separated by distance, time, or unfamiliarity (i.e. strangers).

In The Nomination, the main characters are out at the edge of the spiral, living separated lives, with only tangential relationship. The center point, or the inciting incident in novelist terms, is the impending retirement of a Supreme Court justice. The president wants to appoint Massachusetts judge Thomas Larrigan, who is considered a Vietnam War hero with a squeaky-clean record. But Larrigan has a secret past: during the war, he abandoned a child bride and a gave away their baby for adoption. He connects with an old Marine pal, Eddie, who knows all about it. Eddie's old girlfriend knows, too, and Larrigan sends him down to Florida to take care of her.

In New York, that former child bride, Simone, is now a dying woman who agrees to let a ghostwriter tell her story. She'd had a brief acting career in the 1980s, becoming a cult celebrity before retiring due to her illness. She has the documents from her past, and a just-arrived package of photos sent to her by Eddie's girlfriend, who has been spooked by his sudden appearance in Florida.

Out in California, former police detective Jesse Church fears for her life after sending a mob boss to jail. After her picture appears in the paper, she goes on the run, but not before receiving a letter from Simone who believes Jesse to be her birth-daughter. So, Jesse heads for New York, thinking the mob hit-men won't find her there.

Writer Mac Cassidy gets the job to ghostwrite Simone's biography. He meets her and leaves behind a tape recorder that she'll use to dictate the story. She has no idea Thomas Larrigan is a judge and that he's been nominated for the high court. But, Eddie has found out about her from his long-ago girlfriend.

And so the characters spiral in toward one another, and the reader anticipates the impending crash that will happen when they meet. Mac has the tapes and photos, Eddie wants to silence Simone and get the photos (unaware of the book project), and Jesse wants to meet her mother and hide out, and the mob is on her trail. The reader has an inkling about what will happen, yet the outcome isn't exactly as expected. All in all, The Nomination is well worth the read. The hardcover is about 300 pages, so not too long.