Thursday, August 31, 2006

Quick and Dirty Q and As

Peeps - I know that some of you are waiting (patiently!) for answers. I'm so, so, so, so sorry! This week has been hell, and we're headed out for vacation this afternoon. (Ha, screw you, Ernesto! We're coming anyway.) I promise to answer all of them when I get back. So for today, I'm tacking a bunch of easier questions that I don't have to wax poetic on. Here ya go. Happy long weekend!

Oh, and I'm thrilled to report that I just received my final cover art. I heart it to death! I'm so, so pleased - the art dept at Harper rocks!

How early should I begin sending in seasonal ideas?
If we're talking major monthly mags (and I assume that we are), you'll want about six months. For example, it's now August. I'm working on stories for late-winter and early-spring. So this might be a good time to pitch something on, say, anything from Valentine's Day to Easter. Or anything in between. (Yes, we write our holiday articles in the middle of the summer!)

Okay, so let's say I have a great query and I am ready to send it in. I get the masthead information only to find a bunch of different editors. For example, I am looking at Parents. There is the articles editor, news editor, food editor, associate editor, assistant editors and so on. Who exactly do I send my query to? Take the query you posted on your blog- the one for Parents about gas. Which editor would that have gone to?
The best way to be certain is to actually call the magazine and ask. Parents, for example, is particularly tricky because a different editor oversees each different age group. 0-1, 1-2, 2-3, etc, are all editor by different folks. In general, however, the features editor usually handles the bigger articles that you see toward the middle/back of the magazine, the entertainment editor handles the celeb stuff, and associate or assistant editors might handle FOBs. One person who doesn't assign at all is the managing editor. In fact, the higher up you go on the masthead, the less likely that person is to assign.

I was wondering if you know anything about film rights? I know I retained mine in my name, but do I then have to use my lit agent as my film agency since the co. does handle film rights? Or do I get a separate Hollywood agent?
What happens most often is that your lit agent farms them out to a film agent with whom he or she is partnered. For example, your agent might have a relationship with CAA, and CAA will handle the rights. One look at Publishers Marketplace makes this clear: nearly all of the film rights say something like, "TDLF sold to Warner Brothers by Genius Agent at CAA on behalf of Genius Agent at Trident Media." Or whatever. I think it's pretty unusual for an author to go seek film representation on her own. If you think that your book has movie potential, I'd simply raise the issue with your agent: she'd know best.

I've written about a hundred pages of a novel, but I'm not sure how to go about finding a good agent. Do I start querying before it's all done? Is there any similarity between querying for a mag. article and querying for a novel?
Bad news: you have to finish your novel completely before submitting it to agents. Why? Because it's a hell of a lot easier to start a novel than to complete it. (Example A: moi. My first ms lingered on my hard drive for FOUR YEARS until I finally banged out the ending.) Not to mention that a book that starts out as brilliant might dissolve into total drivel by the time you've reached the second (or third) act. Agents know this, and they're not going to pin their hopes on a partially written novel: it's simply a waste of their energy (and time). Now, if we're talking non-fiction, then it's a whole different ballgame, but for fiction, you gotta go the distance.

As far as similarities between mag queries and novel queries, well, I think it's really important to show your voice in both. What makes my queries successful (again, I think!), is that editors and agents get/got a real sense of my writing style via the pitch letter, and if they were drawn to that style, they'd probably be drawn to the book (or mag article). So while the specifics of what you include in the letter are obviously going to be quite different, the overall tone probably wouldn't be. Does that make sense?

So...there you have it. Some quick and dirty questions and answers. Anyone have any questions?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Looking For a Few Good Books

Would you mind sharing with me what you think are the best written chick-lit books of the past five years or so? I've started a novel, have decided it's going to be unabashedly chick-lit (for lack of a better term -- talent is talent), and I'm looking for inspiration. I've finally managed to read Good Grief and loved it, and that's the kind of thing I'm shooting for.

You've started off with a good one. Good Grief is one of my all-time favorite books, and I think Lolly Winston's voice and plot are sheer perfection. In fact, TDLF has frequently been compared to GG, and geez, that makes me nervous because it's such a high standard to live up to.

Okay, well, it goes without saying that I have to plug the gals who have all blurbed my novel. Pamela Redmond Satran, Val Frankel, Jen Lancaster, Cara Lockwood, Claire Cook and Johanna Edwards. Each has found a way to stand out in the inundated chick lit/women's fiction market, and in this market, that's saying a lot. I also read two women's fiction novels that stood out this summer: Finishing Touches by Deanna Kizis and London is the Best City in America by Laura Dave.

But beyond those plugs, here are some books that every aspiring author in this genre should read:

-Little Earthquakes by Jennifer Weiner: clearly, Weiner is the queen bee of this catagory, and while Good In Bed launched her career, I actually think that LE is the most complex of her work so far, weaving in four different plot lines and dealing with some very real and hard issues

-How to Be Lost by Amanda Eyre Ward: so good that I read it in one night.

-The Big Love by Sarah Dunn: seemingly simple chick lit that isn't simple but is indeed perfection.

-The Dive From Clausen's Pier by Ann Packer: one of my favorite books of all-time. Period.

-My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult: the best, in my opinion, of Picoult's work. Riveting, so well-written, just incredible.

-Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin: my favorite of Giffin's three book, she took a classic chick lit theme - wanting someone else's guy - and spun it in a totally new way. Really absorbing.

-Sophie Kinsella's books. I admit that I actually haven't read these, but I've heard that they're smart, witty and engaging, and I'm definitely going to pick one up as soon as I get through my must-read pile that's built up on my nightstand.

I know as soon as I post this that I'm going to think of DOZENS more. And I'm annoyed at myself for not being able to rattle others off the top of my head (but I'm admittedly really brain-dead this week).

So I'll let other readers chime in: what have been your favorite books from the past few years?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Plot Poaching

They say that there are only a handful of plots and that everything is in some way a variation of another, but did you ever worry while you were working on DEPARTMENT that someone would come out with a similiar plot? Have you ever been working on a story idea only to find that someone else is working on something very similiar? Is it the plot that sells the story or the writing?

Well, there are a couple of things to address in this question. This first is to define plot. To me, plot isn't the overall idea or theme behind the book, it's the actual action that takes place and the story that unfolds. So...while I do agree that there are only so many themes behind a book - reinvention, redemption, saving the world, finding yourself, etc - there are a gajillion different ways to go about spinning these themes.

To that end, yes, I guess in the back of my mind, I was slightly concerned that someone might write a "breast cancer book" before mine came out. BUT, I also knew that I how I told the story was pretty unique, and I wasn't so worried that someone was going to be able to mirror my plotting or how my heroine's situation unfolded.

Let's be honest: in the world of early chick lit, there were 1000 different (but not so different) books about women who were a) jilted at the altar, b) jilting someone at the altar or c) considering doing either a or b. And along the way, there was a lot of chat about shoes, shopping and various Prince Charmings. I read so many of them that I finally declared a moritorium on anything even remotely similar. One more pink or blue-colored cover, and I'd officially lose brain cells.

The industry caught on too - and now, it's no secret that it's much harder to sell a chick lit or women's fiction book. You have to bring something unique to the table. When my book was being shopped around to editors, we repeatedly heard that they'd never seen anything quite like it. Maybe it was because I broke the book up into chemo rounds, maybe it was because they'd read about 30-year olds who needed life makeovers but never read about one who needed a life makeover because she developed breast cancer...I don't know. The point is that someone could write another breast cancer book and it could completely tank, but it probably wouldn't tank because I've already written one. It would tank for a million other reasons.

Another example: Jennifer Weiner's Good In Bed, was, I think, the first chick lit book with a plus-sized heroine. Since then, plenty of others have come out: some have been successful, some haven't been. Johanna Edwards' The Next Big Thing took the plus-sized heroine idea and played with a totally different plot than GIB - and hers went on to be a bestseller, while dozens of others didn't. Now, I can't claim to have read the dozens that didn't, but it's probably not a huge stretch to think that they really didn't distinguish themselves from each other in any tangible way, whereas Edwards' book did.

To answer your question: have I ever worked on a story to find out that someone else was working on something similar? If you're talking about magazines, of course. There's such an overlap that it's nearly impossible NOT to find a similar story to yours. (Which is why newbie writers often assume that editors have "stolen" their idea, when, in fact, their idea simply wasn't anything unique and someone else came up with it. Happens 400 times a day at magazines.) In terms of fiction, my first book (my current WIP) was shot down at one imprint because it was too similar to one of their upcoming releases, which turned out to be The Myth of You and Me. After I read TMOYAM, I certainly did see the similarities. Shrug. What can I do? The other imprints who read it didn't mention anything like that and now that I'm revamping it, I think the plotting will speak for itself.

Is it the plot or the writing that sells the book? It has to be both. A book can be painfully beautifully written and go absolutely nowhere. You know what that is? A snooze-fest. (And not likely to draw me past about page 40.) Alternatively, a book can read like virtual crap but whiz along in a plot. That book might actually sell (or even become a best-seller, since The DaVinci Code comes to mind), but I think this is still a rarity. Editors and agents are inundated with books that are both well-written and well-plotted. Why should they settle for one or the other? As a reader, I don't.

But the bottom line is this: there are a MILLION things that you can worry about in the publishing process. Whether or not someone else will come out with a similar book really shouldn't be one of them. Why? Because it's absolutely nothing you can control. You can control how tight your writing is, how well you spin your plot, how effectively you target potential agents, how carefully you pour over your revisions, etc. But you simply cannot, cannot worry that somewhere out there, someone else is frantically trying to beat you to the punch. It's wasted energy. And to thrive in this business, you'll need to hone all of the energy you can.

Agree? Disagree? How does one book really stand out from the pack these days? Thoughts?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Conan O'Brien is a Genius (But The Emmys SUCK)

As promised, we're taking a break from the writing world to dish on the Emmys. I know, I know, I swore back in the very first post of this blog that I'd probably boycott due to the total and complete crap nominations, but what can I say? I'm a sucker.

This doesn't mean, however, that you don't have to post your progress from last week's challenge.'d you do? Did you meet your goal? I'm happy to say that I did. The first half of my WIP is nearly wrapped, and will be in my agent's hands before the long weekend. This week, I'm just polishing and fixing a few continuity issues before we leave for a vacation (which may be ruined by that damn hurricane, but that's another rant altogether). So what's your goal for the week? (Note to newbies: come join the challenge. Every week, we post our goal for the following week: whether that's adding a certain amount of words or pages a day or just getting out more queries.)

Okay, Emmy thoughts. I was totally underwhelmed with the red carpet. No one blew me away. Here were some random musings:

The I Have to Get Her Make-Up Artist Award: Heidi Klum. Wow! I'm nearly as prego as her, and well, yeah, let's just leave it at that.

The Who Knew She Was So Pretty Award: Amy Poehler. Totally can't tell that she has that cute little bod on SNL. Runner up: Tina Fey.

The Proves that Motherhood is Still Sexy Award: Mariska Hargitay. How great did she look, just two months after popping out a 10-pound child!

The Tara Lipinski Wore It On Ice Award: Cheryl Hines. I love the gal on Curb, but man, that dress looked like it belonged in the Olympics, not the Emmys.

The Love the Gown, Hate the Make-up Award: Katherine Heigl. Tammy Faye, anyone?

The Best In Purple Award: Evangiline Lily

The Worst In Purple Award: Ellen Pompeo. Really didn't like the hair. So circa-1984 when I was in sixth grade.

The Waaaay Too Close to a Wardrobe Malfunction Award: Virginia Madsen

The His Ego is So Big, He Ignored His Stylist's Advice Award: Jeremy Piven. An ascot?? Enough said.

The Wow Nick Lachey Can Really Do Better Award: Vanessa Minillo. That dress? God f-ing awful. One step shy of ESPN's cheerleading championship.

The Who Let Her Out In Public Award: Paula Abdul's handlers. Seriously? I don't think I've ever seen wasted like that on national TV.

The Looks Better than She Has In a Long Time Award: Debra Messing.

The Tried To Love It But Just Couldn't Award: Sandra Oh. Thought the jewelry was too much upon first (and second glance), and still thought so upon third glance.

The Why Can't My Doctor Look Like That Award: Patrick Dempsey (duh). With Justin Chambers chasing right behind.

The HOLY CRAP That Man Fills Out a Tux Award: Wentworth Miller. HOLY CRAP. Can we get him breaking into a black-tie function or something this season?

Okay, enough with fashion. Seriously, I LOVE Conan. That opening bit had my husband checking in on me to make sure that I was still breathing. A Lost spoof? A 24 spoof? An Office spoof? Could this man be more of a genius?? And then, as if that weren't like Christmas in April, the Tom Cruise spoof. I almost died. DIED.

The awards are still going on as I write this, so I'll chime in tomorrow with more thoughts on those. But needless to say, it's been a snooze-fest. No Jaime Pressley? No Gregory Itzin? Whatevs. If Steve Carell loses, screw it: these awards are dead to me. (Yeah, right.)

Okay, so...sound off! What did you think?

And tomorrow, we'll be back to reality: i.e, more questions and more answers!

Update: TONY SHALOUB??? Tony SHALOUB?? WTF? Ok, that's it. Clearly, these voters don't even watch TV. Why on earth are they voting on it??