Category : The Writing Craft

  • February 20, 2017

    Ask the Agent: Does a novel have to be historically accurate?

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    Someone wrote to ask, “What is the author’s responsibility to the facts when writing a historical novel?” She noted she was writing about historical events, but wanted to know if she could change them. In a related note, someone else asked, “What is the ethical line between historical fiction and history?”
    As I’ve said on previous occasions, I don’t think there is a line connecting fiction and history. Really. A novelist who is creating a story and weaving in actual people and events probably owes some debt to the reader to try and get the basic historical facts correct, I suppose (though even that is a questionable supposition, and many authors have altered facts and dates in order to tell a better story), but a novel isn’t a textbook. It doesn’t have a restriction that “you must have all your facts correct” or “you must accept the commonly held notions about a character’s motivations.” The author is inventing a story to entertain, or to explore themes and motivations, not to teach history.

    So, while I wouldn’t create a story in which the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on July 11, I see nothing wrong with an author creating a story depicting an interesting twist — that Roosevelt knew about the attack ahead of time, or that the attack was a rogue group of Japanese military, or that it was all a mistake done by aliens who were looking for Hawaiian shirts and a great recipe for mai tai’s.

    It’s a novel. You can choose to tie events closely to historical facts, or you can choose to recreate history as you see fit in order to entertain readers. Have a look at the Quentin Tarantino movie Inglourious Basterds — in which the patrol sent to kill Nazis take out Adolph Hitler and the entire leadership of the Nazi party in a fire they set in a movie theater. (Um, for those who

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  • January 31, 2017

    Ask the Agent: What do you look for in a query?

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    I recently had an online discussion with a writers’ group, and they had several questions for me…

    What are the three most important things you look for in a query?

    A strong writing voice, clarity of argument (if nonfiction) or story (if fiction), and author platform.

    How important are queries to your agency? 

    I use them as ways to look for talent. Of the queries that come in cold (that is, not introduced by authors I already represent, and not someone I met and spoke with at a conference), the percentage of queries that turn into clients is very, very low.

    What experience is worth mentioning in a query?

    Anything you’ve had published is worth mentioning. Anything that reveals a big platform is worth mentioning.

    Do you think going to conferences and making connections is a better way to meet agents than querying them?

    Absolutely. Being face to face with someone, in order to gauge personality and likability and trust, is far more important than choosing someone off the web. I think going to conferences is a GREAT way to connect with agents and editors.

    What subjects and genres are currently overdone in the queries you see?

    I don’t know that anything is overdone at the moment. Tastes change. Every generation needs its own voices. We see new ideas break out, and we’re always surprised. I know some people will say “dystopian is overdone,” or “Amish fiction is overdone.” They might be… until somebody creates one that sells well. (Having noted this, I’ll admit I hate the question, which get frequently. The fact is, we’re always surprised at the latest breakout hit.)

    Which genres do you think deserve a comeback? What genres would you like to see in queries?

    Beats me what deserves a comeback. Chick-lit is making a comeback, now known as romantic comedy. I suppose I’d like to see westerns and spy novels make a comeback.

    Which genres

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  • December 20, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 6 (Accents and Dialect)

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    brick green no smile b:wToday’s post is dedicated to Lois Gladys Leppard, author of the Mandie books. If you weren’t a preteen girl in the 90s, you may not be familiar with the Mandie books, but they were a middle-grade series set at the turn of the century about a teenage girl living in North Carolina, and their chief charm, if I remember correctly, was that Mandie was rich and there were a lot of descriptions of her dresses. Yeah, they weren’t the deepest literature, but I DEVOURED them as an 8-and-9-year-old. Twenty years later, I couldn’t tell you much about what happened in the series (other than what her dress looked like for President McKinley’s inaugural ball), but one thing about the writing has stuck with me all this time…

     

    The series is set in North Carolina, and various characters (the African-American servants, in particular) were written as speaking with a strong Southern accent. The way you knew they spoke with a strong Southern accent was that practically EVERY line of dialogue spoken by those characters had the accent written into it phonetically, to the point that you sometimes had to sound it out to figure out what Liza was saying. “Yous sho’ did, Missy Manda! Now don’t yous go gittin’ that dirty, you heah?” This is a made-up line, but it’s representative of the way the “strong Southern accent” was written into the dialogue. Did it clearly communicate the speech patterns/pronunciation of those characters? Mmmmyes, but was it also distracting and clunky? Also yes. I’m probably remembering the extreme examples, but the point is, if that method of conveying an accent/regional speech style was conspicuous enough that I picked up on it as a 9-year-old and remember it 20 years later, it was probably a bit overdone.

     

    Now, Ms. Leppard is off the hook, both because in writing for children she probably felt she needed to be a bit more

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  • December 18, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 5 (Character Voice)

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    brick green no smile b:wI did a lot of theater in high school and college, and still act in local productions from time to time– I know some people would rather lick a battery than perform onstage, but I think it’s some of the most fun there is to put on a costume and pretend to be someone and somewhere else for a couple hours, and theater is one of the few socially acceptable ways to do this as an adult. Having spent so much time performing and teaching theater, I’ve played (or been forced to play) some pretty dumb games in the name of “character development” — many of which, I’m convinced, existed for no other purpose than to entertain the teacher who, bitter that his own acting career didn’t pan out, derived all his joy in life from watching teenagers pretend to be earthworms and vending machines. A couple of those theater exercises, however, bore a remarkable similarity to the kind of brainstorming that authors can do to fully flesh out their characters, and a fully fleshed-out character is going to have a more distinct voice on the page, and, by extension, will “speak” more compelling dialogue.

    One of the theater exercises we’d do during high school was to interview each other in character using a list of biographical questions designed to make the interviewee put some thought into her character’s history and life. Answering these questions for your characters forces you to think about your character as a 3-dimensional person with a past instead of just a puppet in the scene you’re currently writing… and a 3-dimensional character is always going to have something more interesting to say than a puppet.

    Consider answering the following questions for each of your main characters. You might be surprised how giving some thought to seemingly trivial information about a character’s past (even information that may never come to light in the novel) informs the

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  • December 15, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 4 (Punctuating Dialogue)

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    brick green no smile b:wIf you’re new to the blog, you may have missed my previous scintillating posts on writing effective dialogue. Today’s topic is slightly less scintillating but just as important to creating readable dialogue which draws the reader into the story rather than pushing him away.

    I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from authors who say their biggest struggle in writing dialogue is punctuating it correctly, and I’ve read too many manuscripts where the author’s incorrect punctuation and/or indentation distracted me from the actual content of the dialogue.  The good news is that the majority of dialogue punctuation rules are very straightforward and easy to apply, so punctuating your dialogue doesn’t have to feel like some mystical roll of the dice if you take some time to familiarize yourself with the rules and practice using them. Here are some basic rules to remember when punctuating dialogue:

    • Always put periods and commas INSIDE quotation marks. It doesn’t matter if the quotation marks are single or double, whether the quotation marks are setting off dialogue, quoted material, or the title of a work; periods and commas go inside the quotation marks.
      “I love chimpanzees,” she said. “I’m also afraid of them.”
      Caesar looked around at the trees, and then back at Will. “Caesar is home.”
      “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape,” he said angrily. (I watched “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” this weekend, in case you were wondering.)
    • Put colons and semicolons OUTSIDE quotation marks. These aren’t used as frequently in dialogue as other punctuation, but if you have occasion to use them, always put them outside quotation marks.
      Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage”; if that’s the case, we’re in desperate need of a stage manager.
    • Put exclamation points and question marks INSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a line of dialogue and OUTSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a sentence as
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  • December 12, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 3 (Realistic vs. Natural Dialogue)

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    brick green no smile b:wToday I’m continuing my ongoing conversation on dialogue and discussing the difference between realistic and natural dialogue, and the way each can strengthen or sabotage a story.

    Realistic dialogue is conversation that occurs exactly the way people talk in real life, complete with hems and haws, boring filler/minutiae, mundane back-and-forth, sound effects,  etc. The small talk and discussions over where to go for dinner that really do populate our everyday conversations usually serve next-to-no purpose in fiction, unless your purpose is to put your reader in “skim” mode for the rest of the book. I read all too many manuscripts where the author seems to have painstakingly transcribed real-life conversations directly onto the page in places where I have no need (or desire) to hear them. The pleasant small-talk at the beginning and end of a phone conversation, the back-and-forth between a husband and wife over breakfast, the dialogue with a waitress at a restaurant– these are all exchanges of dialogue that happen on a daily basis, but who wants to open a rom-com novel, get to the big date, and have to sit through the waitress listing the specials? Those exchanges don’t drive the story, and they usually slow it down. Unless an exchange like this reveals something important about a character– the main character’s date is incredibly rude to the waitress, or he orders four rare steaks and that’s when she first suspects he’s a werewolf, etc.– this sort of dialogue can be culled from a story and will never be missed.

    Also falling into the realistic-dialogue category is dialogue punctuated with sound effects/hems and haws. The only thing more awkward than a character running into an ex while on a date with someone new is having to read their conversation in which every line starts with “uh” or “er.” You can communicate that a character is uncomfortable much more effectively (and cleanly) by telling the reader that

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  • December 3, 2016

    8 Common Usage Errors, or: How to Make Me Judge You, part 2.

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    brick green no smile b:wErin again, just trying to confuse you by posting my picture right under Amanda’s name. Last time, I started to share some of the common mistakes I see in manuscripts and why such seemingly minor usage errors can incur such harsh and swift judgment on my part. (The short version is: agents are cranky. Usually because we’re hungry.) Several readers commented to add their own pet peeves, and as it turns out, agents aren’t the only ones who are judging you for your grammar and punctuation mistakes. Felicia and Rick are judging you for apostrophizing your plurals (here are your menu’s, the Smith’s live in this house, etc.), Ted can’t stand when you use “I” as an objective pronoun (she went to the park with Kim and I), and April, Brian, and Sally judged ME for not proofreading the blog I typed on a touchscreen the size of a postage stamp in the gol’ dang middle of the night after a 16-hour day at Disneyland, and are henceforth banned from this blog. (Okay, fine. This is an equal-opportunity judging zone. Consider yourselves on probation.)

    Several folks commented on it’s/its confusion, your/you’re transposition, and the there/they’re/their problem, and I thought it was worth mentioning that those are probably the three most common mistakes I see, but strangely, they don’t bother me as much as some of the other errors I cited, maybe because I’ve become desensitized to them from overexposure, or because I assume that, nine times out of ten, the offenders really could use each correctly if they were to think about it long enough and are just writing lazy. Laziness doesn’t bother me as much as ignorance, apparently. The mistakes I selected for my list (using a painstaking scientific ranking process in which I wrote down the first eight things that popped into my head) aren’t much more confusing or complicated than the more common problems, but I read

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  • December 1, 2016

    8 Common Usage Errors, or: How to Make Me Judge You, part 1.

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    brick green no smile b:wErin here again today, while Chip is sunning himself in Hawaii (and I’m still working on getting my own blog credentials so I can stop using Amanda’s.) Okay, listen: I have a superpower. Most agents do, actually. It’s not terribly useful unless you’re trying to decide whether or not to stake a large amount of time and energy on a person’s potential as a writer, but it comes in real handy in that situation. My superpower, which I share with many agents and editors, is this: I can pass judgement on a person’s writing after reading just a few pages. A few paragraphs, in some cases. Heck, I’ve read some opening sentences that have deterred me from reading any further (see Tuesday’s post for the discussion on effective opening lines), and generally, the criteria that make it easiest to say no to a project are recurring errors in how words are used or spelled and a complete “spray and pray” approach to punctuation (in which the author loads a machine gun with commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, sprays the manuscript with them, and prays everything lands in approximately the right place). That doesn’t seem fair, the general public may cry, my writing gets really good in chapter two! Or, my story is so compelling, you won’t even notice the mistakes once you get hooked.
    People, people.
    I got my degree in English. In case you don’t know, English majors basically do two things in college: read and write. This means that we not only become very familiar with the rules of grammar and mechanics that some of the rest of the world forgets after middle school, but we SEE those rules in action in book after assigned book, and the main result of that language-based education is an inability to read anything– books, cereal boxes, instruction manuals, the birth announcement for our best friend’s baby (“Its a boy?” Really?)–

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  • November 29, 2016

    Thinking about writing: What makes a great first line?

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    brick green no smile b:wIf you’re not familiar with me from my previous blog posts here (I stopped months ago) or my wildly popular Twitter account (where I’ve tweeted exactly six times in the past two years), my name is Erin Buterbaugh and I was an agent at MacGregor Literary working out of beautiful Denver, Colorado. My favorite piece of the agenting process, apart from the vast cash payouts, of course, was the editing/story development aspect of the job—I loved helping my authors make sure their manuscripts were in the best possible shape for showing, so the craft/mechanics side of writing seemed like the perfect area to focus some of my blog efforts on.

    First lesson—never end a sentence with a preposition, the way I just did. (Second lesson—once you know the rules, do whatever the heck you want, the way I just did!) So with Chip on vacation and taking a bit of time away, I’m going to share a series I did on his blog a while back. I’ll try to split my time pretty evenly between the mechanics side and the story/writing side of things so this doesn’t become “just” a grammar series, but until people stop sending me submissions in which the commas are outside of the quotation marks, I’m going to carry on reminding people of the rules Miss Stinson tried to teach them in 9th grade.

    Since this is the first post of my new blog presence, I thought it would be fitting to look at what makes a great first line of a book. I’m sure you’ve read the same lists I have on Buzzfeed of the “21 Greatest First Lines in Fiction” or “The 100 Best Opening Lines of All Time,” etc., so rather than re-print all of those tired old “It is a truth universally acknowledged that it was the best of times and the clocks were striking thirteen” lines that everybody picks for

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  • May 3, 2016

    Ask the Agent: How can I create great memoir?

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    For a month now I’ve been doing “Ask the Agent” — your chance to ask anything you want of a literary agent. We had one person write in to say, “A memoir is a deeply personal story covering many avenues of thought. My tell-all of escaping the mental imprisionment of American Fundamental Extremism (having been inadvertently exiled because I admitted to being gay) is hard to pigeonhole. How do I determine how to present it to its broadest advantage, and find an agent who can appreciate the scope of its message?”

    Yeah, that’s too long. (The fact is, the comment was actually much longer, and meandered a bit.) But what you’re basically asking is, “How do I write a great memoir?” And the secret of success with memoir is to write it like a novel. A memoir isn’t an autobiography — who reads autobiography these days? An autobiography is a careful retelling of everything that occurred, so you’ll be spending a lot of time researching sources, and making sure each date is correct. A memoir is a reminiscence — the stories and themes that capture a place, a time, an event, a lesson, a life. So instead of writing it like a history textbook, you write it like a novel.

    That means you’re going to need to create a story arc. Not all the details will fit. You figure out which details we need in order to see your story. And the story will reveal to you where to start, and where to end, what stories will be told, and what will be left out. There will be an inciting incident, and decisions that lead to changes, because that’s what creates a story. It will have characters, whom we care about, and they’ll say and do things that matter in some way. You’ll not just talk about what you did, and what it was like, but what you

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