Friday, November 30, 2012

5 ways to find an agent by Jason Boog

 On today's GalleyCat, Jason Boog lists five things writers can find an agent. The tips are excellent! I've copied the post below.

(PS: If you like Jason's GalleyCat blog post, be sure to go to GalleyCat and subscribe to the daily email for more.)

Jason Boog wrote:
"Every week we receive emails from aspiring writers looking for guidance about publishing a book on the traditional publishing route. We always offer the same advice: find the best literary agent for your manuscript.
Every aspiring writer needs to make a list of literary agents they would like to pitch. If you are looking for an agent, there are five simple steps that everybody should follow (whether you are a small town writer or a business leader with a great story or a GalleyCat editor).
We’ve collected five foolproof methods for finding the best agent to pitch with your book–any suggestions to add?

5 Ways to Find the Best Agent for Your Book 

1. Follow agents on Twitter. We’ve created a vast directory of literary agents on the social network, you can find lots of intriguing prospects on the list and learn what kind of books they like to represent.
2. Look in the back of your favorite books. In the acknowledgements section of the book, authors often thank their literary agent. Find out what agent represented your favorite author and find them online.
3. Google your favorite authors. Many times writers will talk about their agents in news articles, essays or GalleyCat interviews. This is great writing intelligence.
4. Ask your friends. If someone you know has taken the traditional publishing route, ask them for suggestions. They can provide you with some promising leads.
5. Subscribe to Publishers Lunch. This free email newsletter will keep you updated on daily deals around the publishing world and help you find agents that have similar literary tastes."
(Image via Bill Ward’s Brickpile)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Writing badly, more

Writing badly every day will only make you better at writing badly. (I have tested this. It is true.)

Writing well takes study, practice, and lots of trial-and-error with intelligent feedback. Simply spending more hours at the typer won't do it.

Instead, it takes education and feedback from skilled writers like David Hayes, or a course like those offered in person at places like the Gotham Writer's Workshop or online at

Point of View -- writing, nonfiction

What point of view you choose is one of the most important decisions you will make when writing a nonfiction piece. The POV you use will affect everything, including how you research, organize and structure a book. (Need more notes here on how it affects each of these.)

The best book I've found on POV in nonfiction is Vivian Gornick's The Situation and the Story: The art of personal narrative.

A few personal notes on POV...

First person:  "I handed the vaccination records to the veterinarian. I wondered if the dog would survive."
(First person is limited by what the "I" in the piece can see, feel, hear and do. Easy to use and powerful.)

Second person: "You hand the vaccination records to the veterinarian. You wonder if the dog will survive."

Third person: "Tony handed the vaccination records to the veterinarian. He wondered if the dog would survive."
(Third person is -- to paraphrase Walter Mosely in This Year You Write Your Novel -- like a little person sitting on the shoulder of each character observing and reporting.  Powerful, but be careful about where the little person goes. If the little person jumps too often, or too quickly, you may confuse the reader.)

Third person omniscient: "Tony handed the dog's records to the veterenarian. The universe unwound. The Andromeda galaxy moved a million miles in the time it took to pass the records from one hand to the other.  The veterenarian thought, "I wonder if these records will help..."
(Third person omniscient is the 'voice of God' jumping anywhere in the Universe at will, looking at anything at any level. Very difficult to do well. Easy to lose the reader.)

Once you choose a POV, stay with that POV throughout the book.
Beware changing POV in mid-stream.

Organize your book on a wall-- with 6 updates

Update 1: organizing your material in a 'narrative arc'
Update 2: use a timeline
Update 3: cover one wall of your office with a whiteboard
Update 4: John McPhee uses all kinds of tricks to organize his books
Update 5: using Velcro to fasten the tile board to a wall 
Update 6: Natalie Goldberg's 'timed writing' as a structure tool 

Paralyzed by too much information? Don't know how to start your book?
In the Internet age, it is easy to collect so much information that you become paralyzed. Where do you start? How do you begin to organize a huge mass of information?

I use the "wall trick."
First I find a blank wall. Ideally 8 feet by 12 feet, but at least 8 feet by 6 feet. Blank walls are fairly hard to find in most homes and offices. Whenever I move into a new office, I leave one wall blank for a whiteboard.
A really, really blank wall
Next I make a PostIt (or index card) for all the major and minor topics, and sort the PostIts into piles.

Then I stick PostIts to the wall and create a sort of outline. I rearrange the PostIts over days and weeks that it takes me to work out the structure of a book (or article).

A documentary filmmaker friend uses the same technique. Her films usually have several characters, so she gives each character a different color card to keep track of when, where, and how often characters appear.

Update 1: The narrative arc

There is a trap in using the Wall Trick, and it is this--the physical act of sticking index cards on a wall tends to favor a heirarchical top-down structure. A is more important than B, which is more important than C and so on. The final layout can easily end up looking something like this...

This structure is fine if you are writing an informational piece. However, if you are writing narrative nonfiction--a story--the tree structure will not work. What you need instead is a narrative arc.  

To figure out your narrative arc begin by creating a timeline on the wall. Don't worry about the structure of the piece, just get the timeline right.

Once you have the timeline you are ready to identify the chunks that go into your narrative arc.  Study the timeline and find your complication (point A), the crisis (point B)  and the climax. Once you have those, you can plot the rest of your narrative arc.

This image of the narrative arc is from Jack Hart's book Storycraft. Hart's superb book tells how to construct the narrative arc for your story--clearly, simply and concisely. This is a book that every writer--fiction or nonfiction--should own. Here's a chunk on Google Books that shows how good this book is.)

 Update 2: Timeline
Another way to get started is to organize your material in a timeline. The timeline is a good way to step back and get a bird's eye view of what happened, when, and who was involved. A timeline will work for fiction and nonfiction both. Many writers use a timeline *before* doing a narrative arc.

Update 3: Install a very large, cheap whiteboard
Whenever I move into a new office I go to the local lumber yard or Home Depot and buy a 4'x8' sheet of "solid white tileboard" ($12.98 in Jan. 2013). I fasten the 4x8 sheet to one wall of my office and use it as a large whiteboard. The tileboard is not as 'slick' as 'real' whiteboard, and i'ghosts' when I wipe the board clean. So I keep a bottle whiteboard cleaning solution nearby for cleaning the surface. A large whiteboard is so useful I think I might cover one whole wall with tileboard the way Kevin Kelly does in his office.

Update 4: John McPhee, arguably one of the best nonfiction writers in the world, talks about how he structured his books and articles. The moral, if there is one, appears to be -- do whatever works for you. There is no one way. (Paywall in New Yorker) Structure. Beyond the picnic-table crisis. by John McPhee January 14, 2013 .    Another, non-paywall, article on McPhee and structure is here

McPhee's structure diagram for Travels in Georgia

Update 5: Just finished covering one wall of my office with white tileboard for under $50. Construction details and photo when I get time. We used Velcro to stick the 4x8 foot sheets of tileboard to the wall instead of construction adhesive. If I ever change offices I won't have to resurface and repaint the wall.

Update 6: Another cool method for structuring a book. I just finished listening to Natalie Goldberg's audio CD version of 'Writing Down The Bones.'  I bought it at Copperfields in Santa Rosa on the first spring day of 2013. It was outside the store, on a bare wooden remainder shelf for $15.99. It is really a book about creativity, and the mind. Whenever she says "writing" and "literature" you can easily substitute "design" and "architecture" or "yoga practice" and "Yoga."   Anyway, in the book Goldberg explains her 'timed writing' exercises as a means of structuring a book (or article, or poem.)  The essence of the exercise is simple. Choose a time... say five minutes or an hour... whatever works for you. Then, using pen and paper, start writing and don't stop until the time is up. the rules are simple, too. Keep your hand moving forward, for the entire time. Do not edit, do not stop, do not go back. write whatever comes up. (there's more to it than this, but this is a short post) Put the result aside for at least four days. Then go back to it and read it carefully. circle anything that is "hot" or "good." (You will recognize it instantly.)  then paste these chunks into a new document. Rearrange them to find the elements of your structure. 

I tried Goldberg's timed writing method with a difficult article. I couldn't find the focus... the structure... of the article I am working on.  I set a kitchen timer for five minutes, and began writing one line topics on a pad of paper.  No editing, no going back, no crossing out or correcting. Keep moving forward. The exercise immediately revealed four key topics that I need to cover in the article.

I recommend the collector's edition audio CD version of Writing Down the Bones to any creative worker.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Massive Online Open Courses--now possible

Updated 11/3: The need for marketing
Image (c) New York Times
Writing and producing Massive Online Open Courses feels like The Next Big Thing.

A combination of three technologies--the Internet, cheap computers and free social media--make it possible to develop and produce MOOC courses cheaply and quickly.
Updated: The need for marketing
It doesn't matter how easy it is to write and produce a (potentially) massive online open course, or whether the tools or free. People have to hear about it, then sign up, then tell their friends before the course becomes massive. It all comes back to marketing. Again.