Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Apprenticeship


When I was given this opportunity to write a little advice for new writers, I paused and decided to research a bit of “advice to writers.” What I saw troubled me. There’s a lot of advice on how to build your platform, social media, how to get an agent, how to sell your first book, and so on. Yes, you need to know how to build your platform at some point—as well as all of that other stuff. But what I decided to advise you is this: step back from the market mindset, the social media, the how-do-I-sell-this-book mindset, and apprentice yourself.
If somewhat medieval images of working with no pay, learning your craft just for someone else to make the big bucks come to mind, that’s a good thing. Because that’s exactly what it is to learn your craft—at least at first. But you’re doing what you love, right? You’re diving deeply into learning about language, narrative, style and structure, right? This is my biggest piece of advice to any new writer: if this is not what you love about being a writer, stop. Stop torturing yourself. Ask yourself why you’re doing it. If it’s not for the love of it, you will be a very unhappy person.
If you’re lucky, during your “apprenticeship” you will have another well-paying job. If you are very lucky (like I was) you will have a job in the editorial field as an assistant where you can learn and soak every bit of it up. No English teacher anywhere could ever have taught me as much as an editor I worked with for six years at a non-profit in the DC area. Working as an editor, you get to know the language intimately. Knowing the ins and outs of language, style, grammar, syntax, will serve you much better than know if you know how to use Twitter. Well, at first it will. Ultimately, it will be your writing that sets you apart with an agent or an editor at a publishing house—and the reader, as well.-3
Not all of us live in New York or Washington, DC, or even a big city where there are places that hire editors, let alone assistants. If you don’t, here are some ideas for ways you can apprentice yourself that may not be traditional, but will help you out:
  1. Find local writers in your area. Be very careful about this. Select a writer that is published and has similar interests to you. Ask if you can help or assist them in some way. Maybe you know more about technology and could offer help. Maybe they need a babysitter a few hours a week so they can write. Offer to help and ask if they could read your work. When/if they read it, don’t be defensive. Learn from it. You can also do this virtually. Agree to be a virtual assistant.
  2. Take a poetry class. No matter what kind of writer you are, studying poetry will enhance your writing.
  3. Study your favorite writers intensely. Analyze a paragraph, a chapter, and so on. On average, how many words are in their sentences? How long are their paragraphs. Just take notice of this. Or write something in the same style—just as an exercise. If you find you have questions about their technique, email them. It may start a great conversation. Writers love to talk about their own work.
  4. Start your own publication or blog. Give it professional deadlines and standards. Soon enough, if you don’t have high enough standards, a blog audience will let you know.
  5. Take on any writing assignment. I’ve written about everything from math education to life insurance. Take on a ghostwriting gig. Learn to write for education publishers. Get out of your comfort zone. I’ve gone from writing cookbooks to writing mysteries. Allow yourself room to grow, try new things, experiment with new genres and forms.
  6. Along that same line: write. You are writing, aren’t you? I had the chance to hear the fabulous and successful Jeffery Deaver speak recently at a conference. It reminded me that the best thing you can do as a writer is to write. As he said, and I’m paraphrasing, even if you don’t sell your first few manuscripts, it’s a part of the process. You are writing. Learn from each struggle, each rejection, and move on. Make that commitment to yourself.
  7. Learn a foreign language. Latin is the best—but any foreign language will force you to know you own language more intimately. (That editor I learned so much from had a degree in Latin.)
  8. After you sell your book—and you will if you keep at it—the apprenticeship doesn’t stop. You might sell your novel and the editor wants you to cut 30,000 words from your manuscript. And you will do it, of course, without complaint. And it will be one of the best learning experiences of your life.
So much it writing is about processing what we learn, read, practice, and churn out to make better writing. We usually hear about the “overnight” huge successes, who somehow seem to make it look easier. But don’t let that fool you—for most of us, the learning never stops.

DSC_0219Mollie Cox Bryan wrote the regional bestseller  Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies and  Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley.  She is an award winning journalist and poet,  who lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her family. Please visit her at  


Thursday, March 22, 2012

One of the missions of ITW's Debut Authors Program involves having established authors provide mentorship to those who are up and coming. You can find all sorts of evidence of this--in the informal conversations at ThrillerFest that take place between Big Author X and someone who has just begun querying, for example--and last Sunday a particularly inspiring instance took place.

Some of the Debuts were talking about which author we'd most like to sit down in a room with and get to ask all those questions that are so seldom asked. You know the ones.

How do you craft a book that gets so many people turning the pages--almost ripping the pages in their haste to turn them? What's it like to see your books all over the world? And even--how did you do it?

We quickly knew which author we'd like to talk with first. The only problem? Debut Authors come from all over the world, so where would the room to talk in be? We came up with a format that would involve a live chat via Skype.

Now we need to approach Big Author X, to see if the author was available for our live chat. The author we had in mind just happened to be touring and it was easy enough to present the idea while having a book signed. Well, okay, no, it wasn't easy, it was actually incredibly nerve-wracking and intimidating, until this author met the idea not with polite demurral, but instead a degree of, Hey, that could be fun.

He offered three hours on a Sunday. And the Debuts got to work.

There was a thread started in the mentor forum, which is run by Ethan Cross. Debuts could post their desire to participate as well as which question they'd like to ask this author. Miranda Parker, who heads social media, set about lining up articles and pieces that would be written about the event, and two new-ish Debuts, Cathy Perkins and Sam Thomas, jumped in to help out. Anthony Franze came out of the woodwork--actually the Supreme Court, yes, that Supreme Court--to assist with compiling lists of who would take part and assorted other jobs that we all realized at the last minute better happen for this to be a success. One of those jobs went to Gary Kriss, discussion forum guru, whose wrangling with ways to record the whole thing still gives me shivers to this day.

You know the shivers I mean, right? The ones that come when we duck a task that would've completely felled us?

There was a gratifying response--one Debut Skyped in from her book tour, and another was traveling from Hong Kong to Manila and wanted to take part. In the end we had to divide into two groups to accommodate demand and schedules, so it was basically like having a couple of parties, back-to-back.

Despite all the preparation, I would say there were still nerves when the day came and it was time to place a Skype call to someone we all look up to and carry assorted dreams and images of.

Sometimes the gods of technology smile, and they did that day. We could all hear and see each other. The Skype windows, affording their views of an office, a couch, a living room--there might even have been a garden in there--made it seem as if we were all just sitting around chatting together in some comfortable setting.

Questions flew back and forth--is it a good idea to go on book tour in December as a new author; how do you keep a series fresh; how do you tell fans that you're not going to answer that question even in a future book--and answers arrived with wit and honesty. One Debut commented that she learned so much it was going to take a week to absorb, and I think we all felt that way.

The amazing thing was that by the end of the time we spent together, we didn't just look up to this author anymore. We felt as if we really knew him. As if we might be exactly what ITW hopes for with this program--not just mentorees, but friends.

By the way, I do realize that this entire piece is a bit mysterious--may I say thriller-esque?--in its anonymity. That's because upcoming media coverage will reveal which author was involved. For now, let me just say that the Debuts hope to plan future events involving beloved authors. And you will soon learn the one who kicked it all off last Sunday!
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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ode to the “Info Dump”, by Nancy Bilyeau

“Remember, Nancy, just because you find something interesting, that doesn’t mean you should go on and on about it in your book.”

That was a directive, delivered with her usual sense of calm authority, from Rosemarie Santini, the novelist running the West Village fiction-writing workshop I joined seven years ago. I’d wandered into this room of writers with the declaration that I’d like to write a novel--preferably a mystery—set in 16th century England, a time period I was obsessed with.

Rosemarie said that was all fine, as long as I made sure to keep the story moving. “Don’t stop just to share your research,” she instructed. “That’s a mistake some historical novelists make.”

I nodded rapidly. I would, of course, obey.

Fast-forward to this week. The novel I started writing in Rosemarie’s group, The Crown, is now on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, and six other foreign markets. I’d decided to make it not only a mystery but also a thriller, with a Dominican-novice protagonist on a dangerous quest, searching for an object of mystical importance.

Next up: revising my second book in the series, The Chalice. My British editor emailed me notes on the manuscript and after a half-hour blanch, I realized the notes were brilliant and I got to work. One of her suggestions was to trim down here and there: “The wealth of research and authentic detail in the novel is fantastic, but there are some occasions where I think it would pay dividends to be strict about how much research or factual detail to include. “ Later, in the chapter notes, she said things like: “A couple of tiny cuts suggested here, so info dumps don’t hold up the narrative.”

For writing teachers, inserting lumps of “indigestible” information into a book is, well, a crime against God and man. “The info dump is one of the worst sins you can make as a writer,” warned the website Fiction Writers’ Mentor.

Flushed with shame, I dissolvedeach of the marked indigestibles in The Chalice.To relay too much information was terrible indeed. How could I have done this?

And yet…

“I Like the Information”

I will now sidestep here and talk about my colorist and friend, Sam. He’s the sort of great person you run across when you live in New York City. Sam is a Bukharin Jew who fled Uzbekistan, in Central Asia, when he was a teenager and now lives in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, not far from the beach boardwalk that stretches to Coney Island. He’s got a wife and two children, and six days a week he commutes to Mark Garrison Hair Salon on East 60th Street, a half block from Bloomingdale’s.

I’ve been going to Sam for single-process and highlights for some ten years, and each time I see him we talk about books. He’s a voracious reader, though he admits he wasn’t always that way. “I hated to read, I wouldn’t do it in school for years,” he told me in his gravelly, Russian-accented voice. “Then one day I realized that books could contain facts or stories I find interesting.” Sam is very much an early adopter. He told me about George R.R. Martin ages ago. Nine years ago he was the first to talk to me about a book called The Da Vinci Code. “I like the information,” he said, eyes gleaming.

That’s a core reality I think some of us may forget from time to time. Readers want to be entertained by their thrillers, of course. They hope to tear through a novel that will get them through the flight from Chicago, the daily train commute, that bout of insomnia. I enjoy a juicy thriller’s excited “Now what?” feeling myself, though I crave characters along with the careening pace. I love a fully dimensional protagonist, like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher or Barry Eisler’s John Rain.

And what I really love is a story that reveals fresh and fascinating slices of history. I think the reason that Dan Brown, Katherine Neville and Steve Berry were such game changers is that they found ways to weave history or religious theory or mysticism into a fast-moving narrative. These authors deliverthe goods of compelling information—and throngs of readers love them for it. (It’s not just historical thrillers that win those rabid fans. Medical, techno and military thrillers canhook readers through shrewd use of fascinating facts.)

Now admittedly, I take this adoration of intricate thrillers about as far as it can go. One book I think is absolutely fantastic is Elizabeth Kostova’s bestseller The Historian, a new twist on Dracula. I skimmed the users’ comments after finishing it and was stunned that a few of them struggled with the 720-page novel. “Too much of a travelogue,” one reviewer sniffed. “I almost stopped reading when it got to Bulgaria in the 1950s.” I wished at that moment I could grab this curmudgeon and shake him, demanding, “How in the name of God could you not like the Bulgaria chapter?!”

Being aware of my own predilections, I tried very hard not to info-dump my way through The Crown. I’d spent five years researching things like daily life in a Tudor-era priory, the prison conditions in the Tower of London and the legends behind the relics of Saxon King Athelstan. But I did my best to make sure the facts that I found personally interesting did not overwhelm the plot or characters.

Guess what? People who reviewed The Crown --whether it was a trade like “Kirkus,” a newsstand magazine like “O: The Oprah Magazine” or a blogger like Devourer of Books – liked the research. A lot. Practically no one complained that the historical research slowed him or her down. I kept hearing that what people enjoyed about The Crown was it took them somewhere new: a Dominican priory in the midst of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. So I kept my promise to Rosemarie after all—the plot moved—but I shared interesting info too.

It feels good to have my own theory proven correct. People want to discovernew things and explore new worlds along with experiencing a thrill ride. Am I saying take off the safeties and info-dump away? Of course not! I recoil when I come across a badly integrated bit of information just like anyone else. But I also get restless if a story lacks dimensions and details, no matter how fast the plot hurtles. Don’t let the fear of committing a writer’s “crime” prevent you from digging up those interesting facts and then finding ways to weave them into the narrative.

The Sams out there will thank you.

Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. Most recently, she served as deputy editor at InStyle magazine. Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Her screenplay "Loving Marys" reached the finalist stage with Page International Screenwriting Awards and Scriptapalooza. A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan. The Crown is her first novel.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Those Critical First Five Pages


by Jodie Renner

Congratulations! You’ve finished the first draft of your novel! Now it’s time to go back and polish up your first few pages. Then later you can do a third—or tenth—rewrite of that all-important first few paragraphs to create the most enticing hook possible. For today, we’ll talk about the essential ingredients of the first five pages, as most agents and acquiring editors—and readers—will stop reading by the fifth page, or sooner, if the story and characters don’t grab them by then.

In February 2011, I attended a workshop by literary agent Kristin Nelson at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference, in which she had attendees anonymously submit the first two pages of their novel. She started reading the submissions and stopped at the spot where she lost interest. In many instances it was after the first or second paragraph! Sometimes she made it almost to the end of the first page, and in one case, even halfway through the second page. Then she told us why that manuscript, as written, would be rejected. (Not a single one of those made it.)

In a follow-up article in Writer’s Digest (Oct. 2011), Kristen gives four examples of submissions and where and why she stopped reading three of them (all on the first page): “too much dialogue,” “overuse of description,” and “lack of tension.” In her workshop, “lack of clear protagonist,” “unsympathetic protagonist,” “boring” and “confusing” were other reasons given.

After Ms. Nelson's workshop, I heard a lot of “If she’d only read a little further, she would have seen that…” or “That wasn’t fair. She didn’t give me a chance. How can she judge a manuscript by only reading one page?” Unfortunately, agents get tens of thousands of submissions a year, and if you don’t grab them within the first page or two, the sad reality is that your book will probably be rejected. And of course, as readers, most of us will read the back cover and maybe the first page, then decide based on that whether to buy the book or not. And even when I’ve paid money for a book, if it doesn’t grab me by about page ten, I’ll discard it.

One of the main reasons agents, acquiring editors and readers will reject a book after reading the first few pages is that they’re confused. They need to get a picture right away about whose story it is, why we should care about that person, and roughly where and when the story is taking place. Once readers have a handle on the main character and the setting, they can relax and settle into the story world. Of course, you also have to spark their interest with a problem early on—put your protagonist in some hot water with an inciting incident, so the reader can sympathize with them and start rooting for them.

Whose story is it?

It’s important to start out the novel in the viewpoint of your protagonist, as the first person the readers read about is the person they start identifying with, and they’ll feel cheated if suddenly, after they’ve invested some time and effort into getting to know this person and bonding a bit with him, he suddenly turns out to be not someone they should be rooting for at all, but in fact the antagonist, whom they’re supposed to be hating, or worse yet, a minor character or someone who gets killed off a little while later.

As Steve Berry, bestselling author and sought-after writing workshop leader, told a packed room of eager aspiring writers at Craftfest, part of Thrillerfest 2011 in New York, “Always start your book in the point of view of your protagonist.” I think this is excellent advice, as the readers—not to mention agents and acquiring editors—want to know right away whose story it is, who to start bonding with and cheering for.

Here are the first questions your readers will be asking:

Why should I care about this character, anyway?

Readers aren’t going to invest time reading a story about a character they don’t like or can’t identify with, so make sure your protagonist is likeable and sympathetic, to draw the readers in to identify with him or her. And make them well-rounded and complex, with hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses, and inner conflict. And of course have them confronted with a problem—an inciting incident—within the first few pages, as conflict is what drives fiction forward. A perfect character with an ideal life is both annoying and boring—not a formula for compelling fiction!

Where and when is the action taking place?

Without drowning us in long descriptive passages right at the beginning, give the readers a few hints very early on—definitely on the first page—of the setting of your story: Contemporary? Past? Future? Country/Culture? Urban/rural/wilderness? Which city or town? And so on. Don’t confuse and frustrate your readers by making them wonder where on earth all this is happening, and whether it’s in the present or some other time.

Why should I read this story?

Show your stuff in your first five pages or so. Draw the reader (or agent or editor) in with a great first scene, well-written, with interesting, complex characters, some intriguing action, and compelling, natural-sounding dialogue. Include your inciting incident and initial conflict, and hint at greater problems to come. Introduce or hint at a worthy adversary—a cunning villain or attractive but maddening/annoying possible love interest. And write your first pages in the same tone, style and voice you’ll be using for your novel, so the readers will have a good idea of what they’ll be getting into. And of course, continue in this same tone (suspenseful, humorous, serious, romantic, etc.) for the rest of the novel, so the reader won’t feel cheated or misled.

But don’t get bogged down trying to perfect your opening pages in the early stages – wait until you’ve got all or most of your first draft written. By then, you’ll be “in the groove” and you’ll know your character and his/her problems a lot better, as well as the resolution, so this part will flow so much more easily.

© Jodie Renner August 2011, revised February 2012

Jodie is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries and other crime fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editorial services, please visit her website at

Thursday, March 1, 2012

March 2012 ITW Debut Authors

Happy March and Happy Thrilling Thursday. The first of every month we will feature members of our Debut Authors Program. We are excited to announce that two members have books being released in March 2012.

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Lissa Price STARTERS (Delacorte)

STARTERS: In the future, teens rent their bodies to seniors who want to be young again. One girl discovers her renter plans to do more than party--her body will commit murder, if her mind can't stop it. Sixteen-year-old Callie lost her parents when the genocide spore wiped out everyone except those who were vaccinated first--the very young and very old. With no grandparents to claim Callie and her little brother, they go on the run, living as squatters, and fighting off unclaimed renegades who would kill for a cookie. Hope comes via Prime Destinations, run by a mysterious figure known only as The Old Man. He hires teens to rent their bodies to seniors, known as enders, who get to be young again. Callie's neurochip malfunctions and she wakes up in the life of her rich renter, living in her mansion, driving her cars, even dating Blake, the grandson of a senator. It's a fairy-tale new life . . . until she uncovers the Body Bank's horrible plan. . .

Owen Laukkanen THE PROFESSIONALS (Putnam)

Four friends, recent college graduates, caught in a terrible job market, joke about turning to kidnapping to survive. And then, suddenly, it's no joke. For two years, the strategy they devise-quick, efficient, low risk-works like a charm. Until they kidnap the wrong man.

Now two groups they've very much wanted to avoid are after them-the law, in the form of veteran state investigator Kirk Stevens and hotshot young FBI agent Carla Windermere, and an organized-crime outfit looking for payback. As they all crisscross the country in deadly pursuit and a series of increasingly explosive confrontations, each of them is ultimately forced to recognize the truth: The true professionals, cop or criminal, are those who are willing to sacrifice . . . everything.

A finger-burning page-turner, filled with twists, surprises, and memorably complex characters, The Professionals marks the arrival of a remarkable new writer.