Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How Not to Begin Your Novel


Many agents only ask for a query in their sub guidelines. If I did that, I’d probably still end up requesting a partial in seven out of ten cases – simply because so many stories sound (potentially) awesome in the query letter. Of course, there are times when I know straight away that the story isn’t for me (when it’s a genre I don’t represent, the premise doesn’t sound like my cup of tea at all, or there’s no hook), but generally, I find it extremely important to get a sense of the writing, to see if the characters and story in the sample grab my attention. If the partial can keep up with the (potentially) promising pitch. That’s why I ask to see the first three chapters of the manuscript right from the beginning.

Over the years, having read thousands of opening scenes, I’ve developed a list of pet peeves when it comes to the beginning of novels. I thought I’d share some of them with you. Of course, remember there are always exceptions to the rule and you could possibly come up with a great counter-example to each one of the following points. This is just my personal list of pet peeves – either because I’ve seen these openings way too often or because they simply don’t work for me.

The main character wakes up. Let’s be honest… we’ve all been there. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, everyone has done it at some point. The thing is… it’s the easy way out. It’s just one of those things I see so, so often that I’m annoyed and bored the second I see it.

A dream sequence followed by the main character waking up. Especially when the dream is full of action and feels real. The second the character wakes up and I realise it was just a dream, I feel somewhat cheated. And bored by the waking up scene.

The main character looks in the mirror and starts a lengthy self-description. I mean, seriously… who does that in real life? Yes, I look in the mirror and may think, “Oh, I’m not looking my best today…”, but I don’t look in the mirror only to start an internal monologue describing and explaining every little feature of my face.

So, if your manuscript starts with the main character dreaming and waking up, followed by the MC looking in the mirror and describing themselves… congratulations! You’ve written my nightmare beginning.

That is not to stay that you can never ever begin your novel with the main character waking up, but please make sure that it is essential you begin your novel that way. Don’t just take the easy (read: uncreative) way out.

Lengthy descriptions. Whether it's about a sunset, a field, a room, a chair, the weather… any overly-detailed description that doesn’t move the plot forward is superfluous in my eyes. There’s setting a scene, and then there’s… boring. Do I really need to read five lines about the sunset’s different shades of orange? Don’t write what you’d skip as a reader. Especially not on your first page. You don't want to lose my interest before the story has even started, right?

Info. Dump. Please don’t use your first chapter to explain your character’s (or characters’) entire backstory before starting the actual story. I don’t need to know every single event leading up to the story you’re about to tell – at least not in the first few pages. Info dump makes a story slow and dry. Ask yourself which information the reader really needs to know right from the beginning and what other information needs to be weaved into the story here and there. Remember that your readers won’t necessarily need to know every single detail about your character(s).

When I, as the reader, have no idea what’s going on. There’s too much backstory, and there’s no information at all. This is one of those things that can happen when you start off with pages and pages of dialogue between characters the reader doesn’t actually know yet. If the reader isn’t grounded in the story at all, confusion takes over. When I don’t know what’s happening, I’ll lose interest. And you never ever want me, or any other reader, to lose interest in your character or story. I know it’s a fine line between too much and not enough information, and you might not get it right right from the beginning, but that’s what CPs and beta readers are for. They can help you work it out.

Nothing happens. I find this mind-boggling. Why would you ever think that a first chapter in which nothing – and I mean nothing at all – happens would be a good idea? I mean, when have you last enjoyed a first chapter in which nothing happened? Exactly.

If you ask me, writing a strong first chapter is the most difficult part of the whole writing process. We expect a lot. We want to be hooked, not bored. We want to get to know your character(s), but not too much. We don’t want the entire backstory dumped on us, but want enough details to understand what’s happening. We want you to set the scene, but no lengthy descriptions of nature or inanimate objects. 

I can only suggest you take another look at the first chapters of books you've read/ liked/ disliked. How did those authors tackle this issue? Why does this one beginning work better for you than the other? Be an observant reader -- I'm sure it'll make you a stronger writer.

Never forget there’s no right or wrong when it comes to creative writing. I might hate something someone else loves. So much comes down to personal preference, but it’s never a mistake to avoid opening scenes that are clichéd and/ or overused, or just don’t work. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Great by Sara Benincasa: A Review

Goodreads Blurb:
Everyone loves a good scandal.

Naomi Rye usually dreads spending the summer with her socialite mother in East Hampton. This year is no different. She sticks out like a sore thumb among the teenagers who have been summering (a verb only the very rich use) together for years. But Naomi finds herself captivated by her mysterious next-door neighbor, Jacinta. Jacinta has her own reason for drawing close to Naomi-to meet the beautiful and untouchable Delilah Fairweather. But Jacinta's carefully constructed world is hiding something huge, a secret that could undo everything. And Naomi must decide how far she is willing to be pulled into this web of lies and deception before she is unable to escape.


Based on a beloved classic and steeped in Sara Benincasa's darkly comic voice, Great has all the drama, glitz, and romance with a terrific modern (and scandalous) twist to enthrall readers.

I’ve been waiting for this book for months. A retelling of The Great Gatsby? Yes please. Unlike 99% of my classmates, I’ve been in love with that book since eighth grade English lit. Great is a quick read—I devoured it in one evening, kind of like the original. And it certainly was entertaining.

Still, I had a problem with this book, a problem it took me a while to articulate. Since I have a long-standing love affair with the original, I couldn’t tell you if I enjoyed it based on its own merits as a novel, or only because I kept drawing parallels to The Great Gatsby all along.

And those parallels are there, and they’re fun. The book is pretty much a by-the-letter retelling where outdated elements are replaced with the closest modern equivalent. (Naomi Rye (Rye? Seriously??) as Nick, Delilah as Daisy, Jacinta as Jay Gatsby, and so on—all the characters have the same initials as the original.) I had tons of fun retracing the plot lines and story elements.

Maybe that was the problem.

A retelling is supposed to be more than just a re-telling. It has to be a reimagining, a familiar story told in a new way. And in that regard, I didn’t feel like Great measured up.

For sure, there’s the lesbian love affair, a great way of modernizing the class conflict that’s at the heart of The Great Gatsby. A daughter of a well-known Republican politician who falls for a female fashion blogger—ooh, piquant.

Yet that storyline, which should have been driving the novel, was sadly underexploited-- just like many other aspects of the original that could have used some poking around. For example, the blatantly obvious homoerotic attraction between Nick and Gatsby—seriously, read it! But even the central lesbian relationship is about as profound as a sheet of paper, and falls just as flat. It feels like it was written for shock value alone. (That never works. Especially on teens.)

Since the story sticks so close to the original, it leaves no wiggle room for things like developing secondary characters. Myrtle, I mean Misti, was a stick figure, and so was Delilah’s evil, Republican boyfriend and the guy who was the stand-in for Jordan Baker—I forgot his name. I just called him Jordan in my head throughout. As a quick Wiki search will tell you, F. Scott Fitzgerald was far from a model human being himself, and boy do his prejudices and opinions show up in the novel. A true reimagining would have been the perfect way to drag them out into the sunlight and play with them.  I think it could have made for a very complex and interesting deconstruction of The Great Gatsby rather than just a retelling.

I’m conflicted about this book. On one hand, it was an entertaining read, but on the other, it lacked the depth I would expect from the retelling of a book like The Great Gatsby. So I give this book three and a half stars, rounded up to three.

This book should have been Great. Instead, it was… okay.


(Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Want To Join My Street Team?

You're invited, and I'd love to have you! (Kate, here, by the way.)

In case you aren't familiar with the concept, they can work a few different ways, depending on the author, the book, and the publishing house, but basically it's a team of people who sign up to help promote and support a book through word of mouth. You don't have to have a large social media platform-- it's just as helpful to suggest the book to your friends and family and do on-the-ground support. The power of fans is huge, and I'd love to have anyone involved who either has read and loves How We Fall or supports my writing. (Click the image to see the book description.)
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All street team activities will be flexible and optional, but of course I want people who are enthusiastic and genuinely want to help my book succeed. I'd especially love anyone who regularly reads my blog or interacts with me on Twitter, and anyone who thinks How We Fall sounds awesome. A lot of you have been around since I first started writing on this blog and have seen me query, write new manuscripts, query again, and sign with my agent, and I'd love to have anyone who has stuck with me that long! 

What kind of things might you be doing? Asking your library and bookstores to stock How We Fall, telling family and friends about it, placing preorders, adding the book on Goodreads, hosting the cover reveal, sharing teasers on Twitter, Facebook, your blog, etc. 

What are the perks of being on my street team? Sneak peaks, a chance to have a character in a later book named after you, a chance to win an annotated ARC, awesome swag like bookmarks and buttons, updates about what's going on behind the scenes, and of course, my sincere gratitude and appreciation. I'll have a few surprises in the works, too!

Thank you to every one of you who has been reading our Pub Hub posts, following me on Twitter, and making a space for me to talk about my books and hear about yours. The community of writers and readers is a wonderful place to be. 

How can you join? Contact me at katebrauning(at)gmail(dot)com

Friday, April 18, 2014

Release Week for THE BONE CHURCH by Victoria Dougherty

I'm so thrilled to be interviewing my client, Victoria Dougherty, about her debut novel, The Bone Church.

Victoria Dougherty writes fiction, drama, and essays that often revolve around spies, killers, curses and destinies. Her work has been published or profiled in The New York Times, USA Today, International Herald Tribune and elsewhere. Earlier in her career, while living in Prague, she co-founded Black Box Theater, translating, producing and acting in several Czech plays.  She lives with her husband and children in Charlottesville, Virginia. She's represented by Josh Getzler at Hannigan Salky Getzler.

Kate: Welcome to the blog, Victoria! I'm so excited for you and for The Bone Church. What inspired you to write this story?

Victoria: The Bone Church is without question my most personal work of fiction. While it’s not based on specific events per se, it’s certainly inspired by them and heavily shaped by them. It is a wild tapestry of the real-life World War II and Cold War stories my family told at the dinner table, of my experiences living in Prague during the 1990s, of my Catholic youth and my return to faith after a very long dry spell, and the influence of every great thriller I’ve ever read – from Joseph Conrad to Raymond Chandler to Alan Furst. I really am a sort of thriller junkie.

Kate: And all that comes across so well in the book; it's riveting. What about the story itself is inspiring to you?

Victoria: As both a reader and writer, I’m definitely partial to stories that involve high stakes. It’s why I love thrillers so much. I’m especially interested in how ordinary people can get caught in history’s massive tailwind and get blown to the other side of the world. How love and a person’s intimate journey of faith – however one defines that – is marked and shaken by these enormous events. That, in essence, is what The Bone Church is about. The story revolves – quite simply - around a man and the woman he loves. But their lives are turned upside down and rerouted by war, by circumstance, and by how an individual comes to see his life’s purpose in the light of such significant occurrences. But I don’t mean to get all high-falutin here. The Bone Church is a thriller, tried and true. It’s not Macbeth.

Kate: It sounds like there's a lot of your life woven into it. Does the story have personal significance to you?

Victoria: It has huge personal significance. Magdalena, my female protagonist, is actually based in part on my mother. She’s my mother and me rolled up into one person, actually – with a few other flourishes thrown in - so in that regard she’s the most intimate character I’ve ever written or will write, I suspect. She has my mom’s looks (while I was growing up, my mother was so beautiful that cops used to pull her over to ask her out on a date – while I was in the car!), she has many of my mom’s experiences (my mother was a political refugee) and she has our combined grit (we are both like a dog with a rag). But I think Magdalena looks at the world very much the way I do. She has a cautious skepticism about what’s going on around her at all times and tends towards being a mile deep and an inch wide – sometimes to her detriment. She tends to get very intense when it comes to her interpersonal relationships. My husband will laugh when he reads this. “No kidding?” he’ll say.

Kate: Thanks so much for chatting with me on Pub Hub, Victoria! So many congratulations on releasing The Bone Church.
____

In the surreal and paranoid underworld of wartime Prague, fugitive lovers Felix Andel and
Magdalena Ruza make some dubious alliances – with a mysterious Roman Catholic cardinal, a reckless sculptor intent on making a big political statement, and a gypsy with a risky sex life. As one by one their chances for fleeing the country collapse, the two join a plot to assassinate Hitler’s nefarious Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Josef Goebbels. But the assassination attempt goes wildly wrong, propelling the lovers in separate directions.

Felix’s destiny is sealed at the Bone Church, a mystical pilgrimage site on the outskirts of Prague, while Magdalena is thrust even deeper into the bowels of a city that betrayed her and a homeland soon to be swallowed by the Soviets. As they emerge from the shadowy fog of World War II, and stagger into the foul haze of the Cold War, Felix and Magdalena must confront the past, and a dangerous, uncertain future.



Buy The Bone Church, add it on Goodreads, follow Victoria on Twitter, follow Victoria on her blog, Cold.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

SP Library: We Won't Feel A Thing by JC Lillis + The Music Behind The Story


Today in SP library, we've got a self published author, a young adult romance, and all the music for all the feels. Trust me, you want to stick around for this!

We Won't Feel A Thing
by JC Lillis


Blurb: Seventeen-year-old best friends Rachel and Riley are in forbidden love.

Their situation’s. . .complicated. And their timing couldn’t be worse—in just one month, he leaves for California and she starts college in New York. The absolute last thing they need is a reckless secret-love confession mucking up their perfect plans.

There’s only one logical option: scientific intervention.

Desperate for a quick fix, they sign up for WAVES, an experimental self-help program led by mysterious scientist David A. Kerning. He swears his Forbidden Love Module can turn passion back to safe platonic friendship in “six easy steps.”

But when you arm yourself with an untested program, side effects are unpredictable.

And sometimes when you fight love—love fights back.

The Music Behind The Story

I’m a total playlist nerd. So I owe KJett a couple dozen bacon cupcakes for letting my inner music geek share the soundtrack for my new YA contemporary fantasy, We Won’t Feel a Thing.


My husband told me someone on Goodreads shelved WWFaT under “teenage hipster card” (compliment? not? *shakes Magic 8 Ball*), so now I’m worried I’ve created a hipster-doofus playlist. I promise I’m not a real hipster. Most of my clothes are from Target and I listen to Pat Benatar unironically.  



“Octopus’s Garden” | Eric Vel





“Octopus’s Garden” is one of those songs you’re born knowing—it’s like the entire Beatles catalog is imprinted on you at birth. So I’d never given it much thought until I stumbled on this ukulele cover of it. (I realize this makes me sound like Zooey Deschanel in a cotton commercial. I’m really sorry.)


If there was a WWFaT movie, this would be the opening-credits song. The lyrics sum up where the characters are at the beginning; that whole idea of building this safe, innocent kingdom with someone. Rachel and Riley are sort of each other’s private hideaway, but there’s a sense that Rachel’s growing out of that faster than Riley, and it’s sad to watch. That’s why I like this cover. It strips away some of the whimsy of the original and mines the wistfulness in the lyrics.



“I’m Sorry I Love You” | Magnetic Fields





If John Irving can have a bear in all his books, I figure I can have a Magnetic Fields song on every book playlist. I love how the music is dense and relentless but the lyrics are attempting this cool (unconvincing) detachment: let’s pretend it’s a work of art/let’s pretend it’s not my heart. It’s a great denial song. Almost everyone in the book is in deep denial, so it really fits.



“Hiding ‘neath My Umbrella” | God Help the Girl





I associate this song with David, the leader of the WAVES program that Rachel and Riley sign up for so they can stamp out their unwanted attraction. He’s all about emotional control: taking the safest route and not committing to love, like the lyrics say. He’s got his own subplot simmering in the background, because he’s totally infatuated with his coworker. I think of this song as a little dialogue between him and his secret hopes and fears about love.



“Apply Some Pressure” | Maxïmo Park





Rachel’s obsessed with this (fictional) band called Thirsty Herd—she puts them on when she needs a release. She kind of has anger issues and music’s a safe outlet: it yells so she doesn’t have to.
In my head, their music’s aggressive and snide, with a bratty intelligence. This song was a good stand-in musically, and the lyrics are a bonus—they really get at the jagged, twitchy, reckless side of wanting someone you can’t have.



“You Can Do Magic” | America





Some songs just take you to a different place the second you hit play. For me there’s something weirdly special about this slice of 70s AM-radio cheese. It reminds me of sun struggling through rainclouds; I wish I knew more about music theory so I could pinpoint why. I hear the first five seconds and I’m in the lobby of a gently run-down inn off the California coast. It’s called the Mermaid’s Mirror. The chandeliers are shaped like tentacles and on the seventh floor, there’s a mysterious room that’s been shut up for years. In chapter 5, you find out what happened there when Rachel and Riley were nine, and how it set their whole story in motion.  



“Et Pourtant” | Charles Aznavour





This song—hee! I first heard it in high school; Madame Beebe was desperately trying to enliven French IV by bringing us pop songs to memorize for credit. One of my favorites was “Le Temps de L’Amour” by Francoise Hardy, which Wes Anderson already yoinked for Moonrise Kingdom. My other favorite was this spectacularly melodramatic ode to bad romance, which my friend and I used to sing the way the gods intended: in horrific French accents, with the backs of our hands pressed theatrically to our foreheads. Rachel and Riley hear it in a French restaurant where they do Step Two of the WAVES program and meet a nosy fake-French waiter who tragically serves them aphrodisiacs. (That is actually what happens. What is wrong with me?)



“Heads Will Roll” | Yeah Yeah Yeahs / “You Can Call Me Al” | Rough Island Band




In Step Three of WAVES, Rachel and Riley put these special goggles on and have separate visions of their ideal futures without each other. I associate these two songs with the personas they try on in the visions. I’d love to hear a mashup of this. It’d be like a duet between a Disney villainess and a shaggy artist waiting in line at a taco truck.



“Love is an Arrow” | Aberfeldy





I wrote the first version of WWFaT back in 2003, and this is the only track that survived the original playlist. I made a stop-motion book trailer and if I could’ve used this song without selling my left kidney to Aberfeldy, I totally would’ve. This song is the book to me. Love is an arrow and it points at me, it tells me how it’s gonna be. There are several literal arrows in the book. I won’t tell who they’re pointed at, and whether they hit their mark.


Riley’s music all sounds like this and the official story is that it drives Rachel nuts, although she secretly plays this album when he’s asleep.



“Bleeding Love” | Leona Lewis







In Step Four of WAVES, there’s a set piece structured around a song that holds special meaning for Rachel and Riley. The whole chapter tries to simulate how a popular song—even one that annoys you at the time—can become this magic memory charm that recreates exactly how you felt at a specific time in your life. I had to make up the song, which was really fun. It’s called “Bleed My Love,” but it’s inspired by “Bleeding Love”—I played the song over and over while I was writing the scene and used it as a blueprint for the vocals and music. You can actually sing some of the “Bleed My Love” lyrics to the tune of “Bleeding Love” and it works. And I can put on this song now and see an entire video set to that chapter. Every shot. I wish I could film it.



“The Union Forever” | White Stripes






There’s one part where Riley’s really mad, and he’s been watching a bunch of his dad’s bad action movies and trying on this tough-guy persona that doesn’t fit him at all. I imagine him blasting this song and singing at mirrors in this totally embarrassing way. Well I'm sorry but I'm not interested in gold mines, oil wells, shipping, or real estate. You’re made of stone if you can resist doing that part out loud. (It was between this one and Jack White’s “Love Interruption,” but this song is constructed entirely from Citizen Kane quotes, and weird always wins with me.)



“Dancing in the Moonlight” | King Harvest





This is played at an unhappy wedding reception by a band that’s having a Buckingham-Nicks-style interpersonal meltdown. They do a version of this easy-breezy celebration song that gets increasingly harrowing as it goes along. Everyone in the book is pretty much falling apart at this point.



“I’ll Be Your Mirror” | Velvet Underground




Lots of mirror imagery in WWFaT, so I couldn’t leave out this song. It’s weird and awkward and sweet, just like Rachel and Riley.



“The Richest Kids” | This Is Ivy League



Every soundtrack needs a happy-montage song, right? What I love best about this one is that judging from the title, you think maybe it's a jerky bragging song, and then the chorus is Though we haven’t got much money/You must admit it’s pretty funny/How they think we are the richest kids in town. It’s all about letting go of the things that keep you down and hold you back from happiness, so it’s just right for WWFaT.



“Butterfly Nets” | Bishop Allen



I knew of this song for about two years before I picked it for the playlist, and I actually used to skip over it in the car; I don't like listening to airy, wispy songs while I'm driving. But then one day I left it on and listened closely to the words, and it was a total gut punch. It’s like the song was commissioned for the end of this book. Like, if you don't want to know how WWFaT ends, don't listen to this. (If you do listen, buy tissues first.)


***


Huge thanks to Kristen for having me over today, and to you for listening. Hope you enjoy the book if you decide to check it out!



Book Trailer
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Thanks for the tunes, J.C.! I know I've got all the feels!


Kristen is the co-founder of Pen and Muse Press, and mostly writes YA + NA.  You can find her at Twitter (likely discussing author marketing, bacon or book boyfriends), Facebook, or her website