Friday, September 28, 2007

A Pantser Speaks: Writing the Book Proposal

How cool is this? The blogosphere puts us all within only a couple of degrees of separation.

On September 8th, I posted The Pantsers' P.O.V. in response to a A Question for Pantsers by C.S. Harris, who wondered how seat-of-the-pants authors write book proposals. I posted a link for "To Outline or Not to Outline," an Internet Writing Journal article by Timothy Hallinan. In it, Hallinan described the writing process of a writer who doesn't like to plot his books ahead of time.

Within a few days, Tim Hallinan himself contacted me. I wrote back to him, and he offered to send me an article on how he writes book proposals.

* * * * * * * * * *
Tim Hallinan's A Nail Through the Heart (William Morrow, June 2007), first in his new Poke Rafferty thriller series, was a July BookSense Pick and has garnered high praise. Kirkus Reviews calls it "ultimately enthralling"; BookSense calls it "first of a truly remarkable series"; NYT bestselling author John Lescroart says, "Hallinan's a writer's writer, and this is great stuff"; NYT bestselling author T. Jefferson Parker calls the book ", bold, disturbing and beautifully written."

Tim's bio on the book flap states:

Timothy Hallinan divides his time between Los Angeles and Southeast Asia, primarily Thailand, where he has lived off and on for more than twenty years. As a principal in one of America's top television-based public-relations firms, he represented programs sponsored by many Fortune 500 companies and pioneered new methods of making television programming accessible to teachers. He also taught writing for many years.

I am thrilled to present Tim Hallinan as my first guest blogger. Welcome, Tim!

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I can't outline. For one thing, I don't think that way. I think that plot is what characters do, not a box to squeeze characters into.

For another, the one time I tried to write a novel to an outline, it bored me silly. I wasn't having fun, and I think that fun is one of the kinds of energy that finds its way onto the page. So I'm a seat-of-the-pants writer who comes up with a basic situation and a handful of characters and then lets the characters lead me through the story.

So how do I write a book proposal?

One answer is that I actually don't. I write series novels, which makes things a little easier. The publisher is invested in the idea of the series continuing, so they usually accept a truncated outline, which I'll describe in a second. But I've sold the first book in both of my series by writing the whole damn thing and then submitting it. And I wish I could write them all that way.

However, the way contracts are written, the first payment on books three and four is signaled by acceptance of a proposal. So this is what I do.

I figure out my basic situation and who the main characters might be. Then I write four or five chapters (say, 10,000 words) to make sure I actually want to write it. (I don't want to be stuck for a year with a story that's going to die on me.) By that point, I've created some momentum and I usually know where I'm going, at least through the first major reversal in the book. I write a proposal to that point and then generalize on where I think it's going from there. I throw in anything and everything that's both plausible and (in one way or another) exciting. THIS IS NOT AN OUTLINE. It's something like, "But Poke finds that the best intentions can have unforeseen consequences . . ." and then throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Then I share it with a few people and add any good ideas they have. After my agent says it looks okay, I send it to my editor.

And then, when I write the book, I pretty much forget about it. I figure that no editor will question whether I stuck to the proposal if the finished book is better than the proposal. So far, I've been lucky and I haven't had one sent back.

Hope this is helpful to someone.

Tim Hallinan

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Flavor of the Old West

Tim Hallinan, whose article I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in "The Pantsers P.O.V.," has a great blog entry today. As he travels through the desert Southwest on a book tour, he's noticing,

We all know about the Arizona towns with butch names — Tombstone, Deadwood, Red Rock, even Yuma. But we don’t hear much about towns with names like Florence and Queen Creek. With nothing to do except drive, I asked myself why, and below is the reason I came up with.

See his blog entry, "Death at the Chokegulch Saloon," for his answer.

Very clever, Tim.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Boo-Hoos for Newspaper Book Sections

Over the past couple of years several newspapers around the country have canceled their book review sections. Book lovers have greeted this development with sorrow, fearing it reflects a decline of reading in the population overall.

Yesterday Kassia Krozser commented on the phenomenon in her Booksquare blog. In "Stop Your Sobbing," she makes some acerbic points I hadn't considered, and her excellent essay gave me a new point of view on the situation. She points out:

[Steve] Wasserman [former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review] seems to put the failure of newspaper books reviews on the shoulders of some sort of anti-intellectual movement. Perhaps instead of blaming the public for a lack intellectual rigor, Wasserman and others should consider their failure to communicate. It isn’t the failure of the citizens of Los Angeles or any other community to read; it is a failure of book review editors to connect with those readers.

Instead of valuing the whole audience, they cherished only a small percentage. This, more than anything, is why book reviews are being cut. Book critics often point to the sports sections of newspapers as low revenue generators. Why isn’t sports coverage being cut?

The obvious answer is that people don’t subscribe to newspapers for book reviews; they do subscribe for sports coverage. Possibly a less examined reason — but one that is often valid when it comes to the Los Angeles Times — is that sportswriting is often more compelling and emotionally engaging than literary criticism. Oops, did I really say that? I think the fact that the section of the paper devoted to good writing is drier than toast is proof positive of every student’s nightmares are about reading.

Where is the passion, the enthusiasm, the joy that comes from reading something wonderful and wanting to share it with the world? Is it completely impossible to be analytical, thoughtful, and interesting? Writing about books should not inspire boredom, it should inspire someone to buy and read books.

* * *

To the book critics of America, I say it’s time to stop your sobbing. If you are as important and relevant as you say you are, prove it.

Food for thought. Certainly, all of us who love genre fiction know that standard book review sources tend to ignore our favorite types of books. As a result, many genre book review sites have sprung up across the Web over the years, some becoming very popular. And of course, we now have the ubiquitous Amazon review, straight from the keyboards of actual readers. (Oh, okay, we have to allow for the sandbagging by authors and their friends and/or enemies....)

The book review is not dying. It's just appearing in other places, and from other sources, than before.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Pantsers' P.O.V.

Publishers generally require an unpublished fiction author to have a completed manuscript before they will buy the book. After the first novel, however, most publishers will offer the writer a book contract based on a proposal, which is the first three chapters and a synopsis of the full book.

A couple of days ago C.S. Harris posted "A Question for Pantsers" on her blog. C.S. is a plotter, who plans her books fully before she starts writing the first line of prose. She wanted to know how pantsers--writers who write "by the seat of their pants," not plotting the story fully in advance--come up with synopses for their book proposals.

I am a pantser, but can't answer her question because I am unpublished--and also because I have never yet finished a manuscript.

(Aside: "Aha," say the plotters, "You can't finish because you don't plot!")

The Internet Writing Journal recently posted an interesting article by Timothy Hallinan. His seventh novel, A Nail through the Heart, was released this summer. In "To Outline or Not to Outline," Hallinan explains his writing process. He doesn't mention how he deals with writing a proposal, but he does give a good description of the way many pantsers probably work. Here's an excerpt:

I personally can't stand to outline. My main problem is that I don't know my characters well enough until I've written about them at some length, and it doesn't work for me to try to force them into a story they might outgrow. I want them to grow as I write them, and then I want the story to grow out of them. [Emphasis added.]

Someone once said, "We learn what we're writing about by writing about it." For me, and for most of the other novelists I know, writing a novel is (to use an inelegant simile) like circling a drain. We start out by working around the edges of our story, and then the spiral narrows as the story, and our characters, become clearer to us. We center in on the things that really matter.

I particularly like his "circling a drain" metaphor for closing in on his story by starting at its edges. I recommend you read the entire article for a fuller explanation. I do wonder, however, how he writes a book proposal. Surely he has done so, since he's had several novels published before this one. In addition, his new book is first in a series, so he'll have to present something to his publisher to get contracts for the later books.

Maybe I'll go to Hallinan's website and email him about it.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

2007 Hugo Awards Announced

From the Hugo Awards website:

The results of the 2007 Hugo Awards, as announced at Nippon 2007, the 65th World Science Fiction Convention, in Yokohama, Japan, on September 1st 2007, are as follows:

Best Novel: Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge [Tor, 2006]

Best Novella: “A Billion Eves” by Robert Reed [Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2006]

Best Novelette: “The Djinn’s Wife” by Ian McDonald [Asimov’s July 2006]

Best Short Story: “Impossible Dreams” by Tim Pratt [Asimov’s July 2006]

Best Related Non-Fiction Book: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon by Julie Phillips [St. Martin’s Press, 2006]

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro. Directed by Guillermo del Toro [Picturehouse]

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: Doctor Who - “Girl in the Fireplace” (2006) Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Euros Lyn [BBC Wales/BBC1]

Best Editor, Long Form: Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Best Editor, Short Form: Gordon Van Gelder

Best Professional Artist: Donato Giancola

Best Semiprozine: Locus ed. by Charles N. Brown, Kirsten Gong-Wong and Liza Groen Trombi

Best Fanzine: Science-Fiction Five-Yearly ed. by Lee Hoffman, Geri Sullivan, and Randy Byers

Best Fan Writer: Dave Langford

Best Fan Artist: Frank Wu

The winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, sponsored by Dell Magazines and administered on their behalf by the World Science Fiction Society, is:

Naomi Novik

Full details of the nominees and voting figures can be found here.