Welcome to the second group of winning entries in the Author! Author! Rings True literary competition. Today, I am delighted to be bringing you the extremely interesting top entries Category III: fiction that could legitimately fit into several book categories, John Turley and Fiona Maddock. Well done, both!
As shall be the case with those who carried off top honors in each of the Rings True categories, I shall be discussing page 1 and a synopsis with Heidi Durrow, author of the recent literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, now available in paperback. Heidi was generous enough to help me critique these intriguing pages.
We shall be approaching today’s winners slightly differently than our last set, however. Because the author’s personality (or, more accurately, public persona plus platform) is part of what is being pitched in memoir, we began the previous prize post with each winner’s bio, then moved on to her first page and synopsis. With fiction, however, the writer’s platform is significantly less important at the querying and submission stages — or, to put it as bluntly as our old pal Millicent the agency screener might, all the charm in the world won’t make up for a story that doesn’t grab her on page 1.
As they say in the biz, what matters is the writing. Oh, and the query’s being aimed at an agent or editor with a solid track record of handling books in that manuscript’s book category.
Why? Chant it with me now, long-time readers of this blog: since no agent represents every kind of book, it’s a waste of time to query those who do not habitually handle books like yours. Queries addressed to agents who do not represent the book category in question get rejected automatically; pervasive writerly fantasy to the contrary, Millicent will not make an exception for a submission that happens to be well-written. Therefore, selecting the appropriate category for your manuscript is vital.
As the gargantuan wail of writerly angst can attest, many, if not most, aspiring writers find this imperative a tad stressful. “What if I get it wrong?” they fret, and who can blame them? “I hate the idea of my work being pigeonholed.”
While this attitude is completely understandable, it also represents a fairly complete lack of comprehension for how books are marketed. All books currently published in the United States have been pigeonholed — that’s how the hardworking employees of Barnes & Noble and other brick-and-mortar bookstores know where to shelve them. It’s also how book buyers for those stores look for what to stock, how book distributors describe their current offerings, how publishers think of their lists, and how editors’ job descriptions limit what they can acquire. It thus follows as night the day that if agents want to pitch books, they must also adhere to the prevailing practice of assigning each client’s projects to already-established book categories.
Which is to say: a book category is nothing but a conceptual container, intended to help a manuscript end up on the desk of someone who can actually bring it to publication. Basically, these categories exist to save everyone time and effort, including the writer.
Still don’t believe me? All right, let’s take a gander at today’s category-defying entries. Image that you are sitting in Millicent’s desk chair: if you want to recommend these manuscripts to your boss, the agent, you will need to be able to tell her in a sentence or two what each book is about. You will also have to assign it to a category.
Everyone clear on the brief? Excellent. First, here is the first page of John Turley’s MACONDO 20-20. Ready, set, screen!
How did you do? Were you able to categorize it? Or — and I hope this is the case, given how much attention we’ve devoted in recent weeks to learning to spot small problems on manuscript pages — were you too distracted by these details to focus on book category?
On the off chance that some of you were not as distracted by them as Millicent would have been, here’s that first page again with the formatting, punctuation, and word use problems corrected. Notice how much correcting these minuscule matters changes how it reads.
Amazing what a difference those small revisions make, is it not? Now, we may return to our initial question: how would Millicent categorize this book?
If you’re having some trouble, step back and ask yourself an even more basic question: based on this page alone, is this book fiction or nonfiction?
Oh, you may laugh, but you would be surprised at how often it’s not possible to tell from an opening page — or how frequently queriers leave this pertinent fact out of their queries. But since there is no such thing in the publishing world as a book that’s sort of fiction, sort of nonfiction, it’s honestly not in a writer’s interest to make Millicent guess which a manuscript is.
Of course, I already know which, because I have John’s synopsis sitting in front of me. Before we get to it, however, let’s keep our nit-picking hats on and peruse Fiona Maddock’s entry. Much to Millicent’s relief, it’s substantially simpler to categorize — or is it?
If you found your focus shifting from questions of category, spelling, and even writing almost immediately, congratulations: you’re starting to read like a pro. (And if you instantly noted the missing slug line, you’re reading like Millicent.)
If not — which would be quite understandable in this case; it’s one heck of an opening — here’s that page again as a professional reader would have preferred to see it, so you may compare formatting and punctuation directly.
If you did not catch the problems the first time around, do not despair — you’re not only like the overwhelming majority of submitters, but very much like the general reading public. These days, we’re also used to the pervasive typos brought on by the rise in on-screen editing that small things like using dashes correctly or adding commas where they are necessary may well seem like piddling details, unworthy of contemplation.
To those who love literature and have devoted their lives to its publications, however, these seemingly small gaffes are far from irrelevant. In these days of dwindling staffs, prose-polishing is the writer’s responsibility, an essential part of the job description. These manuscript faux pas are also important because to a professional’s eye, they indicate that the author is either too busy to proofread her own work between revisions or just isn’t very attentive to detail.
Either way, the Millicent can predict pretty confidently from page 1 that the rest of the manuscript will contain similar problems — and thus that this writer would be more time-consuming (and therefore expensive) to represent than others with similarly compelling stories and talent. They know from long experience that if a writer does not consistently produce clean manuscripts, some luckless soul at the agency and/or publishing house will have to invest valuable hours in polishing the prose.
They also tend to suspect that a submitter who has not invested the time in learning the rules of standard format — which, lest we forget, people in the publishing world believe to be so pervasive that a writer would have to be deliberately avoiding in order not to apprehend them — is going to have difficulty following directions from an agent or editor. So while forgetting (or, more commonly, not being aware) that standard format requires a space at either end of a dash, or that dashes in manuscripts should be doubled, or that each page needs a slug line may be easy for an aspiring writer to overlook, to Millicent, it’s all part of the diagnosis of the submission.
I’m bringing this up not to chide today’s winners, but because I couldn’t resist the object lesson: even when the writing and the premise is this good, presentation matters. Please, for your book’s sake, don’t ever assume that a professional reader is going to cut your manuscript slack because s/he likes the writing or considers the subject matter intriguing.
Speaking of diagnosis and subject matter, how have you been coming with your categorization projects? Let’s turn to our winners’ 1-page synopses and bios to see if they offer any clues.
Ah, a forest of hands just shot into the air out there. “But Anne,” those who were paying close attention at the beginning of this post protest, and rightly so. “You said that for fiction, the writer’s platform does not matter nearly so much as for nonfiction. I don’t expect that every police procedural to be written by a police officer, any more than I would expect a middle-grade novel about an undersea soccer league to be penned by a mermaid. So why would a fiction-screening Millicent glance at a bio at all until her agency had already decided to pick up a client, much less after reading only the first page of a submission?”
You’re probably right, oh attentive ones — generally speaking, even a professional reader who really loves a fiction manuscript will not read the bio until fairly late in the game. After Millie has finished the submission, she might well scan the bio for additional selling points to mention to her boss. (“This safari novel is great — and the writer once had three toes bitten off by a lion!”)
In the case of John’s manuscript, any expertise he might have in offshore drilling or marine biology might well render his take on a certain recent oil spill more credible for readers. That’s going to be especially true if the book is nonfiction, but because any major event in the news is likely to generate a few novels, an extensive background in the subject matter would help set his book apart from the rest.
Then, too, our goal here is to establish these books’ respective categories, right? Although most of you have probably made an educated guess that Fiona’s book category would fall into the fiction range, from her first page alone, it’s also possible that she’s written a memoir about being a plastic surgery survivor.
The suspense is killing me. Let’s take a gander at her synopsis and bio.
Fiona Maddock is a self-taught artist and writer. She’s a secret scribbler and a closet geek. She’s travelled across Europe, India and round the world. She’s tinkered around with web sites and built on-line art galleries for her work. In 2010, she graduated from the University of Reading with a BSc in Information Technology and this experience inspired her to write science fiction. She lives in Reading, United Kingdom and spends her time on her fiction writing, blogging and supporting disabled students at uni. Contact her through her blog, Novel Thinking.
Eureka! Although she’s just come out and told us what her chosen book category is in her bio — an unusual choice, and one that I think is an inefficient use of page space in what is already a rather information-light bio by U.S. standards — actually, the synopsis renders it perfectly clear. There’s no reason to hesitate for even a moment in assigning this book permanently to the science fiction category.
I have to confess, it always strikes me as a trifle apologetic when writers insist upon including the information that they are self-taught in their bios — or queries, where that fact pops up with astonishing frequency. It’s a statement guaranteed to perplex Millicent: the vast majority of published writers were self-taught; while an M.F.A. in writing makes for some nice ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), and thus might render Millicent a trifle more likely to ask to see pages, it won’t help necessarily help a submission’s chances. The knowledge that a writer taught herself the ropes, however, isn’t unusual enough to strike Millicent one way or the other. Besides, to a pro, the mere fact that the bio mentions no writing credentials implies that the writer has not had any formal training.
That’s mere quibbling, however, over a quite exciting first page and synopsis — and a sultry authorial voice that draws the reader into the story, pronto. Here’s what Heidi and I had to say about them.
While Fiona’s synopsis is still fresh in our collective mind, I’d like to flag a very, very common Millicents’ pet peeve: placing words and phrases within quotation marks that are not actually quotes. Remember, professional readers are paid to be hyper-literal: if words are presented within quotation marks, they will expect that either (a) those words are dialogue, (b) the words within the quotes are intended ironically, in a manner that casts doubt on the aptness of the moniker, or (c) the words within quotes are the title of a short story. Thus, while “Hi, Stan,” or she was wearing a “Chanel” suit would not cause our Millie’s eyebrows to elevate, the fact that one of the characters’ names is consistently presented within quotation marks would send them rocketing into her hairline.
That’s especially likely to happen with this synopsis, as Fiona has used UK-proper single quotation marks, rather than US-proper doubled ones. (Also, when quoted words end a sentence, the period belongs within the quotation marks, not outside.) As we have been discussing in the comments lately, while UK and Canadian formatting and spelling are perfectly correct for manuscripts being submitted in those countries, a US-based Millicent will expect every manuscript she sees to be in American English. (Unless, of course, what she’s seeing is about to be reprinted domestically after successful publication elsewhere in the English-speaking world.)
Why? Chant it with me now, those of you who paid close attention above: in the current literary market, the writer, not agent, is generally held to be responsible for proofreading the manuscript. If Millicent approves a submission, but the pages of a story not set in the UK and intended for publication in the US do not adhere consistently to prevailing US standards, some luckless individual will have to make all of those tiny changes individually.
I’m bringing this up not merely because many, many UK-based science fiction and fantasy writers query New York-based agents every year — it’s a significantly stronger market here, one that supports quite a few more agents — but also because I’d rather like to be able to buy Fiona’s book over here someday. And here, the little things often do make the vital difference in a submission.
Let’s move on to John’s synopsis and bio. Intriguingly, they render the question of book category even more complex than what we were facing on page 1.
John Turley grew up in San Diego, California, loving rocks and the sea. Advanced degrees in petroleum engineering and ocean engineering from the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Miami preceded a three-year professorship and propelled him into the world of offshore drilling. His drilling-management responsibilities with a major oil-and-gas company began with the Gulf of Mexico, evolved to the North Sea, were bolstered by Harvard Business School, and culminated with management of worldwide drilling. He elected to retire early as an officer of the company to focus on writing. In his second career, Turley writes novel-length fiction and short stories. In 2008, he won Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ prestigious Colorado Gold award for his mystery Body Shots (think of Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, but the sharks win). He describes his recently completed novel, Macondo 20-20, as a facts-based, on-the-rig, character-driven story about the Gulf of Mexico well that became the infamous BP blowout. The Turleys live in Littleton, Colorado. On a lake. By a lot of rocks.
Eureka again! John does in fact have precisely the credentials to induce either a nonfiction- or fiction-representing agency’s Millicent to leap squealing from her desk chair and go running into her boss’ office, exclaiming, “This guy is going to be a GREAT interview! He’s got a wonderful platform for writing about the platform!”
But have these additional tidbits cleared up the question of book category? Here’s what Heidi and I had to say on the subject.
So have we resolved the question of book category? I’m afraid not, at least not without reading more of the manuscript: as the last line of the synopsis states point-blank, MACONDO 20-20 is a mixture of fiction and narrative nonfiction; unfortunately, in the current literary market, there is no book category for such a mix. Fiction is fiction, nonfiction nonfiction, and ne’er the twain shall meet.
Now, of course, we’ve all seen books that are in fact made up of both fiction and nonfiction; during the height of the narrative nonfiction craze, such hybrids were rather common, often labeled as based on a true story to save the author a few legal headaches. Part of the definitional problem with hybrids lies outside the publishing world. To the average person, nonfiction is true and fiction is false, period: thus the huge scandal when James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES turned out to contain a few fictionalized episodes.
To those who write, represent, and edit books, however, the line between fiction and nonfiction can be far less clear: we all know novelists who import real-life incidents virtually wholesale into works of fiction, as well as nonfiction writers who tweak reality in order to make it a slightly better story. Heck, I know an exceedingly well-established short story author/essayist who says she never knows for sure whether her latest work is fiction or nonfiction until her agent sells it to an editor.
Who promptly labels it as either fiction or nonfiction. The prevailing logic is that the public simply doesn’t like ambiguity.
I wonder about that, since creative nonfiction remains so popular. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, creative nonfiction is the practice of using fiction-writing techniques to write a true story. The usual examples are Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD (or the lesser-known but to my mind more interesting short piece “Hand-Carved Coffins” in MUSIC FOR CHAMELEONS, John Berendt’s MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, and most of the opus of Tom Wolfe. The writer essentially sticks to the truth, typically backing it up with massive research, but rather than maintaining a journalistic narrative distance from the subject matter, the narrative places the reader in the moment, as in a novel.
Depending upon the current mix of fiction and nonfiction in John’s manuscript, narrative nonfiction might therefore be an excellent choice — especially if the manuscript is not yet completed. Narrative nonfiction, like other nonfiction, is typically sold not on a full manuscript, but via book proposal. (If you’re curious about how much work that would be, John, you might want to skim through the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list located on the lower right-hand side of this page.)
However, the synopsis makes it pretty clear that the book as it stands is fiction. That’s potentially great news, too: this is a fantastic premise for a thriller, and he’s already got the pacing down cold. Thriller expectations would dictate keeping any political message pretty subtle, however. John could still pull upon his experience to lend insight and credibility to the narrative, but he would not be speaking as an expert per se.
It all depends upon what he wants this intriguing book to achieve — and how he wants to make his mark as a writer. Heidi and I could not resist speculating a little. While I was at it, I introduced her to Millicent.
The scope of the story, then, is the decisive factor here. Which side of the fiction/nonfiction fence John ultimately chooses — whether to label it narrative nonfiction and follow real-life characters (which would make the best use of his credentials, and thus probably be easier to sell) or a thriller set within real events (which I suspect is closer to the manuscript he currently has in hand — will determine how the synopsis would need to be revised. As compelling as the story told in the synopsis is, its jumble of fiction and nonfiction is just too likely to leave Millicent wondering, “So where would this book sit in a bookstore?”
How are fiction and nonfiction synopses different, you ask? Well, a synopsis for a novel tells its story directly, as a story. It introduces the protagonist(s), their environment, and the challenges they face. In a nonfiction synopsis, on the other hand, sets up the central premise or argument of the book, makes it clear to the reader what is at stake, and establishes the writer’s platform.
In a novel synopsis, it’s usually not very effective to review the book or talk about it in analytical terms — or, to borrow Millicent’s term for a synopsis that professes to analyze the book in question, high school term paper. Phrases like the reader follows… or review-like qualitative statements about the book merely distance the reader from the story being told.
Why is distance a problem in a fiction synopsis? Part of its point of a fiction synopsis is to show not just the plot’s many twists, but to demonstrate that the writer is a good storyteller. That’s a lot harder to pull off if the reader is told about the characters in summary terms (Antigone is brave, resilient, and doomed.) than if the characters are revealed — yes, even in a synopsis as short as a page — through their actions (Torn between conflicting family loyalties, Antigone defies her uncle and secretly buries her slaughtered brothers.)
Nor is it considered proper to discuss the writer’s platform in a novel’s synopsis, for the same reason that a novelist’s author bio is not typically read until late in the game: for fiction, expert credentials matter less. By presenting a novel in the terms Millicent would expect to see used to describe nonfiction, both professional readers eager to read fiction and those seeking nonfiction on this topic are likely to be confused.
Again, a copse of raised hands has arisen in the ether. “Um, Anne? Am I alone in finding it rather ironic that you should be devoting so much of the prize post for Category III: fiction that could legitimately fit into several book categories to trying to nailing down book categories for John and Fiona? Couldn’t we just, you know, revel in their books’ not fitting into pre-defined molds?”
Well, we could, irony-lovers, but frankly, I would rather see these two talented writers sailing over the many hurdles between finished manuscript and publication as quickly and easily as possible. Not committing to a book category generally stretches out the agent-seeking process, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s far, far harder to track down agents who represent your kind of book if you don’t know what agents would call your kind of book.
It also tends to drag out the process if you do know, but are unwilling to narrow your agent search to the one or two categories that best fit your book. Embracing many categories may render it easier to compile a long list of agents to query, but sadly, there’s no submission less painful to reject than one that does not fit comfortably into an agent’s category preferences.
Yes, no matter how wonderful the book in question may be. Remember, Millicent is under orders. Even if a miscategorized submission causes her to exclaim, “Oh, the writing here is nice, and the premise intriguing,” she has been trained to add regretfully, “but my boss doesn’t represent this kind of book. Next!”
Fiona and John’s first pages are too good to deserve such a fate. Choosing an apt book category is the first step toward successful querying and submission, enabling the writer to focus upon both the norms of that part of the literary market and why the book will appeal to those readers.
Best of luck in the search, John and Fiona, and again, many thanks to Heidi Durrow for her trenchant analysis. Keep your eyes peeled for those vital small details, everybody, and keep up the good work!