Avatars: Your Ideal Reader

imagesRecently at Agile Writers the topic of what is “allowed” in certain genres came up. In particular, a couple writers are working on Christian Inspirational fiction and wondered what words or topics were taboo.

In that genre, readers are very sensitive to words that are perceived as “swear” words. Our own Cat Brennan related a story of how a Christian writer had a villain who had a foul mouth. The writer allowed only one swear in to the text. But when a bookseller found that word he called and complained bitterly to the publisher. The publisher then recalled all the books and removed the offending word.

This is an example of how you, as the writer, regardless of your genre, need to know your audience. You need to know what language your audience will be willing and able to read. You also need to know the conventions of the genre and the expectations of your readers.

I recommend to my writers that they create an ideal reader. The “ideal reader” is an idealized representation of the person most likely to read your book. Steven King, for example, claims that he writes with his wife in mind. He reasons that if she likes it, others will too. His wife then, is his ideal reader.

So, to figure out who the ideal reader is, think about the age, gender, educational level and expectations of the person reading your book. When I ask new Agile Writers who will read their book, almost invariably they answer “everyone!” But of course, not everyone will want to read your book. A book that appeals to a 12-year-old girl likely will not appeal to a 65-year-old man. It *can* happen, but it’s not likely. And as a writer, you can’t be expected to write a book that appeals to everyone.

So consider the age of the reader. If you’re writing a cozy mystery, you’re likely aiming at an older person: perhaps in their 50s or 60s. If you’re writing a young adult dystopian novel, you’re probably going to want to appeal to 12- to 15-year olds.

Gender is also a good identifier for your ideal writer. If you’re writing a spy/espionage thriller – you’re likely going to appeal to a male audience. And if you’re writing a romance novel, you’re book is probably going to appeal to women.

If this sounds like stereotyping, it is. And in this case, it’s not a bad thing. These are not negative stereotypes. This is knowing your demographic and writing to please them. You’re not telling a woman that she cannot read or enjoy your cold-war thriller. It’s just that the majority of your readers are likely to be men. And so, you’ll want to keep them in mind as you write your work.

I encourage writers to go an extra step in this process and create an “avatar” of their ideal reader. An avatar is an outward representation of a hidden concept. The word comes from the Sanskrit meaing “to descend”. It used to represent Hindu gods who came to Earth and needed an Earthly visage for people to see. In modern terms, people use “avatars” as pictures or cartoons that represent them on Facebook or in chat rooms. These are simple images that represent their true selves.

In the case of writers, an avatar is a stock photo of someone who represents their ideal reader. I tell my writers to create a full backstory for their ideal reader, and go onto the internet and Google search for an image that looks like their ideal reader.

For example, Cat is working on a Christian Inspirational cozy mystery. Her ideal reader might be a woman in her 50s to 60s who bakes, sews, quilts, and knits. I’d give this woman a name, say, “Melinda.” Melinda lives in the midwest and has three children and two grandchildren. I’d then ask Cat to go onto the internet and find a picture of this ideal reader to act as her avatar. Finally, Cat should print the picture out and tape it next to her computer screen so that she can keep her ideal reader in mind as she writes.

Keeping your reader in mind is an important part of writing your novel. Choosing an ideal reader will help you to make the right word choices, cultural references, and situations that will resonate with your readers. And having an avatar – or picture – of your ideal reader will keep you on-track as you write that first draft.

Query Tips from an Agent

 

Very few, if any, authors look forward to writing the dreaded query letter. And honestly, who can blame them? After spending countless hours alone and staring at a computer screen crafting what will eventually become your novel, your baby, you have to condense all of that hard work into just 3-5 paragraphs. You have just ONE PAGE to get an editor interested enough in your novel to want to read it.  Just thinking about it is enough to give any author a headache. However, if you are reading this you can thank Agile Writers and David H. Morgan for making a tough task just a little bit easier.  David was graciousness enough to spend some time with members of Agile Writers, critiquing letters and giving some very informative advice on the ins and outs of writing a successful query.

 

FOCUS ON THE DRAMA

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When an agent is reading a query letter the worst thing that can happen is that they get bored and toss it to the side. You only have a limited amount of time to gain the editor’s interest and in order to gain that interest you must do two things: focus on the drama and establish an emotional connection.

First, what is drama? Many are under the misconception that drama comes from the situation. Wrong. Drama comes from the character. Take two people being stuck an elevator for example. Not very dramatic right? Now let’s say this elevator is at a court house and the two people stuck in it is a father whose daughter has been murdered and the defendant accused of the crime. This situation is highly unlikely to come about, but the point is, the situation is made more dramatic because of the characters that are placed in it.

Alongside drama there must also be an emotional connection to the character. The editor must care about the character or else why would they want to read past the query letter? If there is no emotional involvement there is no character. The above situation for example, most people would feel sympathy for a father whose daughter had been murdered. And they would care enough to want to know how the story ends. Does the father find peace after confronting the defendant? Does he attack the defendant in the elevator? Or does he find out that the man accused is innocent? The editor would want to read more because they are emotionally invested into the situation.

Remember, without emotional involvement there is no drama and without drama there is no keeping the editor’s attention.

 

DO YOUR RESEARCH        research-clip-art

Before you can begin writing a query letter you need to research the agency and agent that you are going to send your query to. During your research you need to find out the following information:

  • Who are you sending the letter to? Always address the agent or editor you are writing to. Take the time to find out the name of the person who will be reading your query letter. A query addressed to the agency tells the editor that you were either too lazy or just didn’t care enough to find out their name.
  • What does the editor require you send along with the query? Do they want the first chapter, first three chapters, or just a synopsis?
  • Double check that the particular editor you are writing still works at that company.
  • Call and see how the agent prefers to be address. Do they prefer to be called Mr., Mrs., Dear, or do they prefer to just be address by their full name?
  • Make sure you are pitching your work to the right agent or editor. You don’t want to send your query to an editor that only publishes mysteries and your novel is a historical romance.

DON’T TELL THE EDITOR WHAT HE OR SHE ALREADY KNOWS

  • “I am pitching my 60,000 word YA-“The editor has stopped reading because you are telling them something they already know. The fact that you sent them a query letter has already told them that you are pitching a novel so just leave out the word pitch altogether.
  • “I am hoping to pique your interest-“of course you are hoping to pique their interest or else you wouldn’t be writing a query.
  • When describing your novel do not say that you have written a murder mystery fiction novel. The word fiction is redundant, it is already known that your novel is a work of fiction.

SELL THE BOOK, NOT YOURSELF

One thing David Morgan said that really stood out was, “The editor do not have to like you but they do have to like your book.” The main purpose of a query letter is to SELL YOUR BOOK. You may want to point out every writing accomplishment you have to your name, but don’t. Include your writing career at the end of the letter. Remember we want to focus on the drama, your writing career is not drama.

You should avoid:sell-clip-art

  • Biographies. The editor does not need to know about your childhood.
  • “I recently read…” They do not care what you have read or are reading.
  • Comparisons. Yes you need to sell your book but do so by avoiding comparing your novel to already successful novels. An editor does not like being told what to think. If your novel is the next Lord of the Rings Trilogy, then let the editor come to that conclusion themselves.
  • Pitching trilogies. Pitching a trilogy may make the editor feel as if he or she must take a package deal. And they may not want to take that chance, especially if you are an unknown author

Stay Focused

When writing a query letter remember to stay on topic. Do not begin writing about the novel and then jump to what your inspiration was or when you and that particular editor met. Start with introducing your novel and then continue to write about your novel. Anything else will give the editor the impression that you jump around and cannot stay on subject. They will assume that your novel will be like your query letter.

Don’t spend too much time on other characters. The main character should be the focus of the letter at all times. The editor or agent that reads your query needs to get to know the main character and come to care about what happens to the main character. If not, they have no reason to read past the query. Your main character needs to remain in the spotlight at all times.

A FEW MORE TIPS FROM DAVID

  • Get the word count, genre, and title of your novel out ASAP. Don’t make the editor read an entire paragraph before getting this information.
  • “I sincerely hope that this is the beginning of a long relationship….” WRONG. Do not write this. Try: “I look forward to your response” and even more desirable would be, “I hope you will find (title of your novel) to be an appropriate book for your list.”
  • If you have previously met the editor or agent whether or not to mention it depends on the context of the meeting. If you met him or her at a writer’s conference they will most likely not remember you. They meet a lot of people at numerous conferences every year and they are required to be nice at these events. But, if you have met in a more private setting then you may include it. Do Not take up an entire paragraph on how you met. Just a sentence or two will do.
  • MAKE SURE YOU HAVE FINISHED YOUR NOVEL BEFORE QUERYING!!!!

When writing a query letter don’t be nervous, take a deep breath and remember that in the end agents need authors. You just have to get them interested.

 

Not Just Hump Day

Untitled design(1)To most people Wednesday equals Hump Day.  They have made it halfway through their work week and the weekend is just around the corner. They are one step closer to Friday. But, not Agile Writers members. To us, Wednesdays mean that we can leave our working lives for two hours and enter the world of writing. Which for most is usually a solitary event, with just you and your computer, but this one night a week you are joined by others. And every week you leave with a little more knowledge to take home and help hone your craft.

Last week, July 27th, Agile Writers were lucky to have Richmond Writers organizer, Joe Erhardt, as our guest editor. Every month two members courageously offers up ten pages of their working manuscript to be thoroughly dissected. The pages are then put on the screen, red ink and all, for the entire group to see. I promise you, it’s not as scary as it sounds. Everyone leaves with valuable knowledge. Not just those whose pages were put on the chopping block. Each month you get to see, first hand, what editors are really looking and how to stay out of the rejection pile.  Our session with Joe Erhardt was no exception.

One of the most important things Joe said was to “write for the reader.” Although, I had heard this before I think it’s important enough to hear again. Many times as a writer you get caught up in the world you are creating and the message you are trying to get out that you forget this simple piece of advice. You are focused on you, and not the one that will be the buying your book. One thing I noticed about Joe is that he actually edits for the reader. All the while he is explaining the red ink throughout the pages he makes statements such as, “This will be easier for the reader,” “The reader would like/love this,” or “I think this would be confusing for the reader.” He edits and makes suggestions with the reader in mind.

Here are a few more things I learned from Joe:

  • Don’t write “off of.” Simply writing off is enough. For example, He jumped off of the cliff. Should be written-he jumped off the cliff.
  • Using the simple past –ed version of a word is more forceful than –ing. Use he rolled instead of he was rolling.
  • Using “as if” waters down whatever follows. Ask yourself if that phrase is really needed or wanted.
  • Try to avoid using “due to.” Unless it is being said by a character in dialogue.
  • Do Not have too many blank spaces if it’s not indicating a scene break. An editor may think you do not know what you are doing and you will be in the rejection pile.
  • Don’t say something is “unusual.” Describe it!
  • “Adverbs are cockroaches that need to be stomped on!” This was Joe’s response when asked by a fellow member what he thought about adverbs.

Of course, Joe Erhardt gifted the group with more knowledge than I can write here but I will leave you with this: If you can make readers care about your characters and their situations, it DOES NOT MATTER if what you are writing has been done before.

Plumbing the Depths of Your Own Life

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In a recent chapter of Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit he talked about a phenomenon he calls “burning the raft at both ends.” By which he means, consuming one’s own life experiences in the service of one’s writing. According to Block, you can use up your life. You can run out of experiences. You can write through your life faster than you can live it.

I’m vested in believing he is wrong about this.

I write from my own life. Maybe it’s because I come out of a poetic tradition. Or maybe I was drawn to confessional poetry, in particular, out of a compulsion to use my own life experiences in the service of my writing.

Part of gaining skill in writing has been learning how to do this more skillfully—to take the emotional kernel, the essence of my own experiences, and of the social and psychological realities I know intimately, and allow that essence to sprout circumstances for my characters that are not so easily traceable to my own life. In part, I do this to avoid libel charges, sure. But I also do it—like most writers—to protect the innocent, or at least the loved.

But as I have expounded before, I write as one vehicle toward self-knowledge. Writing without explicit self-examination is impossible for me.

I happen to believe that human beings are infinitely complex. That the material in any one human life is inexhaustible and ever-deepening. I was listening to a podcast by the New York Public Library yesterday. In it the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard seeks to dispel the rumors that people with good childhoods can’t be writers. That well-adjusted, ordinary folk have nothing to write about. He describes himself as such a person who was lucky enough—and as a writer unlucky enough—to have supportive, well-adjusted parents and no major traumas. And he talks about learning, through the works of such writers as Flannery O’Connor, that every human life is engaging and interesting if you zoom in close enough.

Frankly, I don’t trust writers who claim not to write from their own experience. Maybe they don’t write from their own experience in such an obvious way. Maybe they use persona. Maybe they write science fiction or supernatural horror or murder mystery. Maybe they haven’t  personally experienced taking someone’s life but their hero is a serial killer. I would argue that even that person is writing from their own experience—maybe from their Jungian shadow side—maybe it’s unconscious. But to write that character in a compelling way they must be in touch with the human impulse to violence (whether expressed or unexpressed) in themselves. We each have it, after all.

We each have the capacity for all human emotions and psychological experiences. The entirety of your novel must spring from your own mind, which has been shaped by your experiences. That’s part of the mystery of writing. Somehow all of that stuff is in you. “You contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman said.

So can you burn the raft entirely before you reach the shore? I would argue that you cannot. You have no choice but to keep living while you are writing. The raft keeps getting built as you are burning it. And as you refine your craft, perhaps you are also refining your attention, and you will see things in your life you never saw before. And they will be revealed to you through the act of writing itself.

What do you think, Agile Writers? Feel free to make a case for the opposite in the comments below!

The Split Climax

merging-lanes-aheadOne of the things I teach in my seminar on The Agile Writer Method is that the climax is the seventh and final turning point in the story. There is the classic climax where the hero defeats the villain and solves the main goal of the story. But there other ways to handle a climax. One of them is what I call the Spit Climax.

In most stories, we get to the sixth stage which I call “The Gathering Storm.” In it, the hero gathers their friends and makes a new plan to get the Main Goal. This usually follows the “Death or Disappointment” moment where getting the main goal seems impossible.

If you look at the climax of the Pixar film Toy Story, there comes a moment where Woody and Buzz are in the clutches of the evil kid “Sid Vicious.” Sid is known for destroying his toys and mangling them into fearsome forms. Sid has strapped a firework rocket to Buzz’s back and is getting ready to light the rocket and send Buzz to his ultimate demise.

Meanwhile, Woody has gathered all of Sid’s toys and created a plan to save Buzz. Just as Sid is about to light the rocket, the other toys break the primary rule of toy-being, and rise up like zombies to confront Sid. Sid is terrified of the approaching toys and goes running to his room to hide.

This is what I call “Vanquishing the Villain.” This is the first half of the split climax. The second half is called “Resolving the Main Goal.” Woody and the mangled toys have scared Sid straight and saved Buzz. But that’s not their ultimate goal. Their Main Goal is to return to Timmy before he moves away. If Timmy moves away before they can get home, they won’t know where he lives and they’ll be lost forever.

In the next scene, Woody and Buzz work together to chase after the moving truck. They hop in a toy car and are pulled along by the slinky dog. But that plan fails and Woody realizes the only solution is to light Buzz’s firework rocket, which is still tied to his back. When he lights it, Buzz opens his wings and flies just like the real Buzz Lightyear might. After some thrilling moments, Woody unties the rocket and the two buddies fall through the moon roof in Timmy’s car and they land in his box of toys. Timmy looks down and exclaims that he found his toys which must have been there the whole time. Thus resolving the Main Goal of returning our heroes to Timmy.

The great thing about the Split Climax is that the reader gets two moments of relief, or “catharsis.” In the first half, Vanquishing of the Villain, the reader experiences the relief that the hero is safe and the villain has been dispatched. In the second half, the hero resolves the Main Goal and the reader gets a second feeling of satisfaction. This gives the reader two cliff-hanging moments in one. It’s a great way to end your story.

But wait, there’s more. The Split Climax can also work in reverse. A lot of Marvel movies incorporate the Split Climax. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the heroes in the story are fighting a horde of robots who have managed to raise the capital of Sokovia high above the Earth. The city is falling and if it crashes to Earth it will cause a global extinction. To make a long story short, the Avengers land the city safely back to Earth. Then the “Vision” character destroys Ultron.

In this case, the Main Goal (saving the city and hence the world) is resolved first. And Vanquishing the Villain is accomplished second. As you can see, the Split Climax works both ways.

So, the next time you plot out your climax, remember that there are other options besides a showdown with the villain that resolves all the problems in one scene. Sometimes you can get twice the bang for the buck when you use a Split Climax.

The Peril of The Pause

pauseThe wind barreled down the concrete breezeway and slapped my bare cheek as I walked through the library doors. I held a tottering stack of books flush against my chest, their corners digging into my ribs through my sweater.

Inside the library, I had felt calm, as I usually do. The dank, dusty smell and crowded embrace of so many crackling laminate spines always infuses me with comfort and possibility in equal measure. The library, for me, is a sacred space. A temple of learning. A humane gesture toward the infinite.

Standing in the aisle, I had scanned the strings of Dewey Decimal numbers for matches to my scrawled index card. I pulled my choices quickly. One of the children I nanny—the almost four year-old—raced around me in dizzying circles, karate chopping the air while I half-heartedly begged him to be quiet.

The day’s haul was topical. How to be a Freelance Writer, The Freelancer’s Bible, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content, and the last, a petite red hardback entitled The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life—chosen because even I’m not foolish enough to go stomping around new territory without an ally.

But by the time we crossed the street and reached the car, my ears were ringing. A familiar, invisible vise tightened its grip on my head. Unconsciously, I was holding my breath.

I slung the books into the trunk and slammed it. I tried to focus on the way the steering wheel felt like a cool curve of skin-covered bone beneath my palms. But I could still hear the books, flinging anxious thoughts like miniature Zeusian bolts at the back of my head as I shifted the car into gear and drove away.

“Who do you think you are that you can be a writer?”

“Are you kidding—you don’t have a head for this. You’re no good at networking or promoting yourself.”

“You’ll never make enough money to survive. You’ll have to give it up and get a real job in a couple of years anyway so why bother?”

“There’s too much to learn. It’s too late. You should have decided to pursue this ten years ago. There are so many working writers out there already…how will you compete with them?”

In psychological parlance, these are known as Self-Limiting Beliefs. I label them my Inner Critic, a term I picked up from Julia Cameron’s canonical book on creativity, The Artist’s Way. There are many names for this phenomena—Steven Pressfield’s Resistance, Jung’s Animus, Freud’s Superego, the Dragon, the Demon, the Tempter.

And there’s new evidence that the engine of imagination sometimes manifests as this overthinking and worrying. In other words, the very force of imagination used to create art can be inverted to destroy the artist, as I wrote about here.

But the Inner Critic has an evolutionary purpose. Human beings are dependent on their tribe for survival and magnetized for criticism as a result. I lifted and laminated my Inner Critic’s favorite phrases in childhood. I postered my mind with them in adolescence. They helped me navigate the world, fit in enough to survive. But, over time, the phrases lost their original contexts and became so subtle I barely registered them in my conscious mind at all. They were my toxic elevator music.

And as long as my Inner Critic remained unconscious, I remained her victim. But I have made a study of my own fear over the past couple of years. I am learning the Inner Critic’s patterns. So it took less time to both recognize her presence and realize its cause.

Why was my Inner Critic waiting outside the library? I had finished the second draft of my novel about a week prior. Though I was still working on other projects, I had lived seven straight days without writing a word of my manuscript for the first time in six months. (Since the last time I experienced, and promptly forgot, this same agonizing pause after my first draft was complete.)

Every hunter knows that you shoot when the animal is still.

And the most effective way to ward off the Inner Critic is to keep working, to show up every day to my desk. That’s why the Agile Writer method hinges on the advice to “Constantly Move Forward.”

But, the pause is integral to the process. The work has to breathe. And I have to give my unconscious mind space in which to devise solutions to the lingering problems of plot and structure. I have to leave my desk and feast on the world.

What I have learned is that it is important to stay vigilant during such a pause, to protect the space you have deliberately created. Otherwise, the Inner Critic may populate it. A colony of fear may grow where you had intended only perspective, comprehension, and fresh ideas.

The temptation with that much space, with an inkling of the scope of the work, is to pass judgement on it. But, my job is not to decide if what I write is valuable. My job is to do the work as well and honestly and rigorously and thoroughly as I can and let go of the desire to control how it is received.

That is my job in the midst of writing. And that is my job in the moments of pausing.

The Night Before Agile Writers

By James Bono

Twas the night before Thursday. Throughout Martins’ store
Rishonda was browbeating us to write more.

“Ten pages are sent every Sunday by peak
agile writers. So how was your week?”

Elevator pitches graced those who would dare,
in hopes that Saint Gregory soon would be there.

Each writer was nestled all snug in his seat
while visions of publishing contracts loomed sweet.

And Bill with his laptop, Suzan with iPad
knew what it was like, because published they had.

When out in the parking lot rose such a clatter
I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a geek,
pushed sideways the curtain and I took a peek.

The mercury vapor lights lit up the cars
all silently parked on the asphalts and tars.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear
but a miniature sleigh and a herd of friends dear.

With a little old driver as agile as myth
I knew it a moment it must be Greg Smith.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came
and he whistled and shouted and called them by name:

“Now Sharon, now Ursula, Kevin and Ken,
On Kristen, on Lisa, on Elsie and then
There goes Larry and Anthony, Whitney and Grace,
And Jackie and Jane and old what’s-his-face.
Run Katie, run Sarah, Marlene and Michelle,
gain altitude Glory, we’ve stories to tell!
Go Catherine, go Christine, go Angel and Paul,
A great Hero’s Journey awaiteth you all!

“From the handicapped parking, to the tow-away zones
now all pay attention and silence your phones.”

While some of them entered and made for the stairs
others bought dinner to bring to their chairs.

So up to the second floor room they all flew,
with their heads full of tales of a hero or two.

And then in a twinkling I heard through the door
the sounds of their footsteps plying the floor.

As I drew in my head and was turning around
to Martins’ conference room Greg came with a bound.

He wore business casual from his head to his foot
and his pockets were places where pens he had put.

A bundle of gizmos he wore on his back,
the latest electronics thence to unpack.

His eyes how they twinkled, with intensity stared,
so not meeting their quota of pages none dared.

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
but the beard on his chin he refused to let grow.

Since Martins’ wi-fi did not always connect
Greg’s smart phone as hot spot was there to correct.

He spoke many a word, not a duty did shirk,
reviewing his movies and publishing work.

Then at 8 o’clock sharp the main meeting did end;
half the group he would keep, half away he would send.

But I heard him exclaim as I left to critique,
“Which of your stages did you write this week?”

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO THE AGILE WRITER FAMILY!
MAY THE NEW YEAR SEE YOU ALL PUBLISHED!