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Jul. 4th, 2006 | 03:21 pm
mood: hungryhungry

Question of the Undefined Period--most likely a month...

Dear Dragon,

What's with the hook in the very first sentence? Certainly the first few paragraphs should be enticing enough, but do we really need to pick up a 2 x 4 and slam readers over the snout? There is skill in a being quasi-subtle. I pick up a book at the store or online, I don't expect to have the plot crash into me head-on. I know it's a book, I even know what type of book by the section (or website category) I'm on.

I'm glad to await your reply.


Dear John,
Good question! It really depends on the length you're writing, of course. If you're writing a drabble, every one of those hundred words has to count. If you're writing a multi-volume mega-saga, not so much. But here's the rub. many years ago at a workshop, I read a story whose first sentence I still remember and will always remember. Had I been an editor, my reaction would have been, "Eureka!" Sorry I can't reprint it here -- I didn't want to take a couple of weeks to locate the author and ask permission.

As far as novel-length work goes, you may not have as much space to fool around with as you think. Most big publishing houses use slush readers, whose job it is to, er, sweep back the slushpile. Just as with shorter works, they may not go through every single 700 page masterpiece word by word. They may, in fact, only read the first five pages or so before slapping a "Thank you for allowing us to read your work, please never bother us again." form on it.

That said, you do indeed have more space to play around with. Series books sometimes begin with the same line in every book. That's an artistic choice for which you may have to duel your editor with laser printers at ten paces.

Keep in mind Chekhov's rule that if there's a gun on the mantle piece.... Basically, I usually (unless the writer cannot construct a sentence or is so enamored of long place names and odd races that I get lost) will give a new book a chapter or three to interest me. People who are in the business of making money by selling other people's books tend to give it less. However, as long as your first sentence is not, "It was a dark and stormy night." you're probably fine.


Dear John:

Any dragon will tell you: If you want to make a kill, bite fast and bite hard.

That said, not all mortal readers are hunting for the same thing! Some want pulse-pounding plot right from the first sentence. Some want to meet new and exciting people. Some want to explore lush exotic worlds.

The important thing is to decide right off what your book is offering to its readers, and give them such a tantalizing taste of it that they can’t wait for the next bite. Never let them stop asking questions-whether it’s “What happens next?” “How will this person react?” or “What’s around the next corner?” Make your bait tasty, whatever flavor it may be.

Good hunting!

Ol’ B&G



As you know, books you find in the store have already been vetted by an assistant editor and an editor, so you have some reason to believe that what you pick up and read isn't completely awful. A blah first line can be approached with the expectation that it will get better...because it's published, after all. *tongue firmly in cheek*

OTOH, what a slush master or assistant editor sees is about 90% unworthy of notice (by their statistics, not mine). They don't have any reason to believe it will get better. According to Douglas Cohen, he rarely reads beyond page 1 or 2. See his blog on the slush process at ROF. Look for Questions #1 and 2, a little bit down the page. So yes, you've got to make a good impression fast!

Think of it like selling a house: you'll probably clean it up before someone comes to look at it. After all, first impressions do count. Now, it can be a fantastic house, but if someone comes to see it and you have dog hair everywhere, they might get grossed out. It could be an indication of chronic lack of maintenance, which a prospective buyer should give really serious consideration. Either way, the buyer goes in with a mark against you.

Well, the story is the same. If the editor sees a sloppy first line, boring first paragraph, or a bland first page, they're less inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt. Remember, 1 to 2 pages...

Also, you might want to check Robert Sawyer's advice on the beginning:On Writing
Have a nice day!, BOB

Dear Glad:

Hooks catch fish. Large piles of sludge do not. This is not to say that you have to explain your entire world, plot, characters and gist of the story in the first paragraph. No. On the other claw, you do want to set mood, and you should intrigue the reader to go on. If the first five pages of your novel consist of your character getting up in the morning, cut that. Start when something interesting, something important, happens. You can always fill in the details later.


If you have other things to say about this topic, feel free to comment!

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Manuscript Format

May. 29th, 2006 | 03:44 pm
mood: hungryhungry

Question of the Month: June '06
(Yeah, we know it's a couple of days early.)

Dear Dragon:
I’m about to submit my first manuscript, and I really want it to stand out. Should I use colored paper? A 14-point exotic font? Would glitter ink be too over the top?
Bold and Flashy in Nowhere

Dear B&F:
You should use white paper,standard weight. You should use only Times New Roman or Courier 12 pt. unless the markets guidelines specify otherwise. You should put your full (real) name, address, telephone number and email address in the upper left-hand corner of the first page. In the upper right-hand corner, put the approximate word count. Then skip several (10-12) lines and put, centered, the title of the work with your byline below it. On every subsequent page, put a slugline consisting of your last name, the title (or a shortened version) and the page number. I usually put this flush right.
So if your title is "The Man in the High Castle" (which I would not recommend, as a Certain Famous Author might take justifiable exception) your slugline would look like this:

Flashy/ Castle/ 2

Now, why do we do things this way?
And we don't want to melt editor's eyeballs.


Dear B&F:

If I were the editor involved, I’d shred your manuscript and eat it as payment for your damaging my retinas. “Bold and Flashy” is not the way to stand out. Instead, impress editors with your professionalism and ability to follow their guidelines-including using Standard Manuscript Format unless the editor specifies otherwise.

The others can explain STM. I’ve got a paladin to devour.

Old B&G

Dear, try to think of it from the editor's point of view. They get a lot of stuff....thousands of manuscripts...on which they have to make a snap judgment by reading just a few pages.

One thing they don't want to do is work is someone who can't follow simple instructions. There are plenty of resources out there that explain what editors want to see in a manuscript, and the best way to approach them is not with your individuality, but with a professionalism that tells them you have done your research and respect their expectations. You're supposed to be impressing them with your words, not the fact that you have a Party Galaxy credit card.

Skip over to William Shunn's site and look at his wonderful demonstration of good manuscript format. Manuscript Format

Dear Flash,
The only way to positively get an editor's attention is with good writing. That, or a real spaceship, live mythic animal or dimensional portal. Gotta tell you, the dimensional portal gets 'em every time. Strangely, editors don't appreciate a good slab of meat anymore. Pressed fairies also not as popular as you might think. So, stick with their guidelines and forget the flash. It's for dandelion eaters anyway.


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Manuscript Queries

May. 9th, 2006 | 04:27 pm
mood: hungryhungry

Question of the Month: May '06

Dear Dragon:
I sent a manuscript to a Certain Publisher ages ago -- it's been twice as long as their guidelines say. What should I do?
Out of Postage.

Dear OoP,
It's usually considered acceptable to query, with a SASE, or in the case of email, without. Sometimes subs get lost, regardless of the medium they'e sent in. Speaking of mediums, they can be very helpful in tracking lost subs. If you get no response to your query, check for an alternate address and try again (wait about a month before doing this, particularly if you're using snail mail.) Or you could just curse the Certain Publisher and all their progeny unto the seventh generation. This is not considered a good idea if you plan to work with the CP again.

Dear OOP:
I suggest thumbscrews. Or very sharp...oh, wait. You want to be professional about this.

Query them. Breifly and politely mention that you sent them Story X on Date Y, and since the time mentioned in their guidelines has passed, could they update you on your work's status?

Most publishers will respond to a civil query with an equally civil answer. Humans are funny that way. Old B&G

They give times in their guidelines? Really? My first inclination would be to go to the Black Hole and check out what other authors have recorded as their response time for my magazine or book publisher. The Black Hole
Sometimes the guidelines they publish aren't in any way related to reality. If your manuscript has gone way beyond the average, do as B&G suggests.
I have had an editor totally ignore a query...until I sent a second one four months later. It happens. Persist. If you just can't wait any longer, send a polite letter withdrawing the manuscript from consideration. It's about all you can do.

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Book Recommendations

May. 1st, 2006 | 09:25 am
mood: hungryhungry

Question of the Week (5/1/06)

Dear Carpe Libris:
I need guidance. Since I'm not able to afford a life-size blow-up muse, perhaps you could suggest a book that might help me figure out what to do to perfect my writing. Please remember, if I can't afford an LSBUM, I can't go out and buy a dozen books either! What do you think the best few are?
Clueless Aspiring Writer

Dear CAW,
I would recommend Mathew Costello's How To Write Science Fiction, which contains useful exercises in writing and worldbuilding; Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint-- an essential guide to the basics of writing in any genre; and James Gunn's Science of Science Fiction Writing, which includes valuable tips on writiing as well as a history of the genre.

Also, consider getting a library card.

Books, eh? I’ve always been partial to Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction, (Even the picture of that rainbow brain on the cover of my edition spurs all manner of…juicy thoughts) and Beginnings, Middles and Ends, by Nancy Kress. Not EVERYTHING can be chaos, after all. Even Ol’ B&G sometimes has to stop and ask for directions.

OK, this isn't particularly about writing so much as it is about publishing....
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction by Cory Doctorow and Karl Schroeder. This is a fantastic book and is especially good for people with short attention spans. It gets right to the point.
Anyway, this puppy isn't in print right now, but it's definitely worth trolling the used book market for, OR you can pick it up at Amazon in digital format.

Good Luck, CAW, we were all there once (and some people will tell you we still are!)

Look Clueless,
Seize the library. Borrow the writing books. Capiche?
Look who's writing the book- if the only book they've ever written is the book about writing, don't waste your time.

Books that have actually helped me (and remember that taste is individual):
No plot? No Problem by Chris Baty
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Writer's Market, current year

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Convention Newbies

Apr. 24th, 2006 | 09:22 am
mood: confusedconfused

Question of the Week (4/24/06)
Dear Dragon:
I am an aspiring writer going to a convention for the first time. What do I need to know to get the most out of the experience?
Sincerely, Newbie

That's a great question! The answer is at the link below, but in brief, know what you want to get out of the experience and have fun!

Plan ahead. Sit down with the program and figure out what sessions you want to go to...AHEAD OF TIME.
Oh, and figure out where the bathrooms are....seriously.

Remember to sleep and eat occasionally. Bring snacks if necessary-consuming other con-goers is severely frowned upon.
When you meet Famous Author, be honest but polite in offering comments on their work. Even if you ARE a Razor-Fanged Demon from the Abyss, shredding another’s work is . . . unbecoming. On the other claw, don’t gush, either.

First and foremost-Enjoy yourself!

First of all, make sure you reserve room at the hotel. It's very difficult to sleep in the parking garage. When you see Mr. Famous Writer at a distance, do not push aside other fans to get to him. Most particularly do not trample over the 4'2" tall woman on crutches. This never sits well with Mr. Famous Writer.
The ConSuite is a good place to meet and greet and speak casually with other writers. Make sure you don't eat everything in sight, though. Other fans have to eat there, too. Some cons combine the Con Suite and the Green Room (where the panelists can grab a bite and a rest between panels.) If the con you're attending does this, you have an excellent opportunity not to spill Pepsi all over Ms. Award-Winning Editor. While spilling your drink over her will guarantee that she remembers you for many years to come, it might not be the kind of memory you want.
If you get into a conversation with Ms. Award-Winning Editor, do not pull out your half-finished novel and ask her to read it right then and there. It makes a far better impression to pull out your 900 page *finished* novel and ask that she read it right then and there.
Most cons have multiple event tracking. What this means is that you may well find that there are two events you want to attend going on at the same time. In making a decsion, ask yourself, "Why am I here?" After going through a few hours of internal existential discourse, remember that you are asking why you are at the *con*. If there is a particular writer, editor or artist who drew you there, pick the event that they are part of. If you came to learn better techniques in writing, game design, etc., pick the event that is most likely to further this goal.
Avoid hall costumes that significantly exceed your body's space. While thirty inch spines sticking out in all directions do give you easier access to both the food in the Con Suite and Mr. Famous Writer, they also make it hard to get into the Con Suite in the first place.

From Our Esteemed Visitor in the lair, LOUISE MARLEY....
Can I chime in on convention suggestions? Do, by all means, attend some readings by some different authors. Conventions are attended by up-and-coming authors who are not yet Big Names, but who have interesting work to offer. These writers go to conventions, in part, hoping to expand their readership. Their readings are great ways to hear some new voices and even meet some other fans.
Louise Marley's Web-page

Convention Advice for Newbies
Con Survival Guide

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