5 Big Reasons Literary Agents are Important Beyond the Book Deal

If you’re working on a book and aiming at the traditional publication route, acquiring a literary agent feels like the key to make all your dreams come true. An agent can submit the Big 5 Publishers, after all, and from there your book can be made available anywhere and everywhere around the world.

The thing is, real life isn’t like a book. After you sign the book deal and work to make your novel all shiny, your life is not emblazoned with a bold THE END. (At least, I sure hope not!) Life goes on. As you write more books and develop more of a relationship with your publisher–or publishers–it means a lot to have a staunch advocate working to better your career. Here’s what an agent might do beyond reading the fine print on your contract.

Clockwork Dagger– Know the trends.
The publishing world is small. As readers and authors, we hear some news about deals and see the new releases, but agents follow the pulse of the industry and know about the books that will be out in a year, two, three years. That’s why an agent might love a manuscript that lands in their slush pile, but they might not pick it up–there might be a glut of similar books that are already signed and in the publication process.

– Edit.
Not all agents edit. Not all authors want an agent who edits. My agent edits and I love her for it, even though her feedback is brutal at times. Not only is she great at critiquing, but–to return to the first point–she knows the industry and what makes a book strong or weak in this particular market. That’s insight beyond what I can get from my fellow authors.

– Act as mediator.
When you establish a relationship with a publisher, agents become this wonderful buffer between author and editor. They get to nag on your behalf. They get to email/phone and pester about late manuscript edits or financial statements or book cover progress. That doesn’t mean agents handle ALL interactions with your editor. A lot of day-to-day interactions are directly between editor and author, but agents are there to call on when things get awkward.

– Career guidance.
Some agents work with authors on a book by book basis. Others make a pact for the full career of the author, and that’s the kind of relationship I have. Here’s the thing: the book industry is weird. Your book might not sell. Editors come and go. Imprints fail. Publishers are bought-out. A supportive agent looks beyond the book you’re working on now, and on to the next series, or a new series. Again, they see the trends. They see what is selling–or not. I rely on my agent’s business savvy to guide me along.

– Cheerleader/superhero.
Writing is my happiness, my joy. Sometimes, it is also a particular kind of hell. My agent is there to talk me off the ledge. She’s not just a cheerleader, she’s a superhero, cape and all. Agents are there for the good times (book deal, whoo hoo!) and also the bad times: when rough drafts stay particularly rough, when deadlines are zooming by, when the publisher is supporting about as well as a ten-year-old bra.

So sure, an agent will help you get a book deal and make sure the contract is fair, but they do so much more. They are there to help you along, book after book, and during those lulls in between books, too. A supportive agent is there to do whatever they possibly can to ensure that your writing career consists of more “TO BE CONTINUEDS” than “THE ENDS.”

Breath of EarthBeth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE was a 2016 Nebula nominee. BREATH OF EARTH begins a new steampunk series set in an alternate history 1906 San Francisco.

Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

Mid-Week Rant About Connecting With Readers & Fans

Legends tell of a time when authors did one thing and one thing only. They wrote. Yes, they had to do it longhand, with paper and pencil or pen. I know what you’re thinking, it was barbaric, and even when technology blossomed and offered writers the opportunity to embrace typewriters and eventually computer keyboards and printers, it remained a simpler time, because authors still did one thing only. They wrote.

But the same technology that went on to give us global-find-and-replace and online submissions stole from us too. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough just to write.

Today’s authors are being told they need to connect with their readers beyond simply writing novels for them. Once upon a time this meant showing up at a convention and getting yourself on a panel or three, holding up your latest book during the introductions and bloviating to an audience for a fifty-minute hour. For the less extroverted among you this was never a good option, and in any case it’s too limiting. Here in the 21st century we need greater audience penetration across both time and space. In other words, you need an “online presence.”

What form this takes and how much time you put into it are critical questions and perhaps the best way to answer them is to talk to those who have gone before, but in the end you’re going to have jump into the deep end and see what works (and doesn’t) for you. Let’s look at some of your options:

  • Message Boards – whether the classic F/SF bulletin boards or alt.groups of yesteryear or their modern day equivalents, messages boards and listservs allow you to read through scores of posts at your own pace, responding to some, starting your own threads, getting caught up in flame wars, and never really knowing who is on the other side of some screen-name or user-handle. What’s not to love (other than the time suck)?
  • Author Webpages – some versions of popular wisdom believes authors need to have their own webpages. Nevermind whether your artistic taste is limited to words, you probably know a friend, or friend of a friend, who can throw something up for a couple hundred bucks. Imagine, a digital platform dedicated to you, replete with color images of your book covers and links (with affiliation codes) to take the hungry viewer directly to an online store to buy your titles. Updated at whatever frequency you decide, the trick question here is how are you going to lure readers to your page?
  • Author Blogs – static content doesn’t keep people coming back, I don’t care how gorgeous those book covers are. But if you’ve got something to say (or think you do), a blog gives you a soapbox all your own. As with author pages though, the challenge is reaching the people you want to hear you.
  • Social Networking Sites – these continue to evolve, some endure and some fade quickly. Who remembers Friendster? MySpace? LiveJournal (okay, I still have a LJ account, don’t judge me). The current king is Facebook. The threads aren’t quite as endless as message boardsd, but thanks to near realtime responses (not everyone is on deadline, so they’re free to hang out and patrol social networking sites and pounce!) with supporting links and NSFW images at everyone’s fingertips the vitriol can be even more vicious and escalate quickly. This to me is the irony behind Facebook’s use of the term “Friend,” but I digress. Still, a compelling post could be “shared” and circle the world in seconds, garnering the attention of readers who had never before heard of you or your work. Surely that’s worth it, right?
  • Twitter – if Facebook is the free verse of social media, Twitter is the imposition of structure associated with writing sonnets. The joy of 140 characters is that even the longest post is short (although nothing’s stopping people from rapidly posting a long string of 140-character tweets to express more involved ideas or points). Personally, I’m finding it refreshing after the ugliness growing in so many threads of older networking sites. Your experiences may be completely different (but don’t say I didn’t warn you).
  • Newsletters – If you already have a fanbase, holding on to them between books can be critical; newsletters can be key. Subscription-based, your readers opt in or out at will. Part of the allure is the more intimate tone you can achieve with a self-selected group (compare a convention kaffee klatsch to a large panel-style Q&A). More, you can keep your followers happy by doling out bonus materials not otherwise available. These can be deleted scenes, ARCs, contests for Tuckerizations, advance viewing of chapters from a work-in-progress and so on. Yes, you could offer these on a website or social network site, but a newsletter puts you in control of who’s going to see them and when. Instead of relying on your reader finding your posts, once they’ve subscribed you’ll be sending the newsletter directly to their inboxes!

There are plenty of other options I’ve skipped over but the above grouping should get you started. You may want to do only one or you may decide to dive in and try a bit of each. Your largest constraint is going to be the time you can devote to the medium. And remember, whether it’s the witty twitter bon mot, or a semi-regular blog post with entertaining content, or a themed podcast, when authors show something of their personality, readers have the opportunity to connect at a deeper level. It’s that same illusion that makes us feel like we really know that actor whose role we’ve followed on television for years. Your goal is to create a feeling of intimacy, to let the reader into your life (or at least what you’re presenting as your life). Done well, you transform from just a name on the spine of a book to a real person, someone your readers might even come to care about more than their favorite characters from your books.

Lawrence M. SchoenLawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology; has been nominated for the Campbell, Hugo, Nebula, and WSFS awards; recently won the Cóyotl award for Best Novel of 2015; is a world authority on the Klingon language; operates the small press Paper Golem; and is a practicing hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.

His previous science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. His most recent book, Barsk, takes a very different tone, exploring issues of intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, and loyalty, and redefines the continua between life and death. He lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.

You can follow him at his website at LawrenceMSchoen.com and on Twitter at @klingonguy, or you can even subscribe to his quarterly Newsletter.

5 Things Writers can Learn from the Presidential Campaign

A campaign postcard for McKinley and Roosevelt for the election of 1900

A campaign postcard for McKinley and Roosevelt for the election of 1900

1. Dialog is key.  A scene is so much more engaging when two people are in it. Especially if those two people each have their own agenda, and each is trying hard to advance it.  Pay attention to body language, setting, their reactions to each other and reactions from those around them.  Also, dialog is a great way to build tension on a variety of levels.  A debate is a heck-of-a-lot more entertaining than a stump speech.

2.  Focus on your tribe.  It’s been said that all you need to be a successful author is a small, dedicated audience who want everything you write.  These are the folks who are going to share your work around, who will be eager to read the next thing, to cheer you on, even when things look rough.

3.  Nail the details.  Maybe you’re writing fantasy or science fiction or something nobody’s ever seen before.  Doesn’t matter. If you get down the details of place, time, character, they will create the image you need to build in the reader’s mind.  If you are working from any factual basis, like historical fiction or contemporary, getting the details wrong will blow the reader’s trust.  Make a few mistakes about the wrong things, and they’ll never let you forget it.

4.  Engage with your big ideas.  What is it you really want to say?  Are you saying it?  Are you working to your fullest to make the strongest work you can?

5.  Polls are important–but polls don’t know everything.  Yep, you’ve got to submit. You’ve got to get the work out there to be read, and sometimes it won’t stick.  The editor rejects it, the readers give it low reviews (or worse, no reviews), it comes out the same day as something else that distracts the world from your great work.  Take what you can from these experiences, but maintain faith that your work is worthy and that, even if you didn’t win today, if you keep working, you’ll get a chance to rise again.

Cybermorality: Number Five Is Alive

Steve Bein continues his series on philosophy and science fiction. Read past articles here.

In our last installment we toyed around with a classic problem in ethics called “the fat man in the cave.” You can re-read it in full here, but here’s a brief recap: you and a bunch of other people are in a cave that’s filling with water. The only way out is blocked by a portly fellow who’s gotten quite stuck. He can’t be removed by any means short of cutting him out (thereby killing him). The only way to save everyone in the cave is to kill this guy, who, it must be stressed, is an innocent person.

Oh, and he’s facing you, so if you don’t kill him he’ll drown anyway.

We faced four options last time:

Daughter of the Sword1) It’s okay to kill the guy because it’s in self defense. This is nonsense, of course. The guy you’re planning to kill can’t possibly harm you. He’s stuck.

2) It’s okay to kill one innocent person to save a greater number of innocents. This is the most popular choice in my ethics classes, but it has some really horrible implications. (Ask Ozymandias in Watchmen how many innocents it’s okay to murder. It’s kind of a lot.)

3) It’s not okay to kill an innocent person, period. This is the choice pretty much everyone says they believe until they’re confronted with a scenario like the fat man in the cave. Then… well, pretty much everyone sells out.

4) It’s okay to kill innocent people only if you have their permission. This is a clever loophole: if you can talk the guy into letting you kill him, it’s not murder, it’s just assisted suicide.

#4 is appealing to a lot of people. It lets you maintain the ban on killing innocents and get out of the cave alive. But what if the guy really doesn’t want to give permission? What if he’d rather drown than let you kill him?

This is where we added a bit of sci-fi: the genius pill, which boosts your intelligence to nigh-superhuman levels. (Ted Chiang played with this idea in “Understand,” as did Daniel Keyes in “Flowers for Algernon.”) Let’s say you have one of these pills with you in the cave. You could take it, making yourself far more intelligent than the human drain plug, and persuade him to “take one for the team.” That gives us a variant on #4:

4.1) It’s okay to kill innocent people only if you have their permission, AND it’s okay to use unfair advantages to secure their permission.

Remember, the point of taking the pill is to talk him into something he’s otherwise unwilling to do. The big question is whether or not that’s coercive.

If the bad guys dose James Bond with truth serum to make him give up secrets, clearly that’s coercive. It’s really this simple: if they were to ask his permission, he’d say no. But that’s not quite what’s happening here. There’s a huge difference between giving this guy a drug to make him dumber and giving yourself a drug to get smarter. The former constitutes assault, the latter doesn’t.

But is it relevant that the results are the same? Whether you’re doping him or geniusing yourself, either way you get him to agree to something he wouldn’t have done otherwise. He expressed his will—a firm no—and you said, hey, let’s keep talking (and hang on a sec while I take this pill).

So let me give you an option #5, one that no one has ever raised in my ethics classes:

5) Give the fat man the pill and see if his newfound genius makes him volunteer to die.

If you’re convinced that he ought to volunteer—so convinced, in fact, that you’re willing to pop a pill to seal the deal—then maybe you ought to see if he finds your super-logic persuasive. Give him the pill. Let him weigh the situation with the benefit of a juiced-up brain. If you’re right, he’ll see that. Right?

I can’t tell whether it’s strange that my ethics students never propose #5. On the one hand, it’s got some serious appeal. Essentially you get #2 and #4 wrapped up in one. On the other hand, you’re handing your fate to someone else. The fact that that person is much, much smarter than you is cold comfort. Especially if that person wasn’t polite enough to volunteer to die in the first place.

Reach Steve Bein at @AllBeinMyself or on facebook/philosofiction.


5 Ways the Great British Bake Off Teaches You To Be a Better Writer

I am dedicating my next book to the Great British Bake Off. Why? Because the show is my bliss. It’s a cooking reality show that thrives on niceness and support, where baking is appreciated by technical skill as well as taste. It’s a show that makes me smile. After a long day of writing and revision, it offers me an escape to the verdant, green British countryside, where I can behold amazingly “scrummy” desserts and savory dishes.

Bake Off also has a lot to teach writers about dedication, perseverance, and community. Let’s break it down with the help of some illustrative gifs.


– The Power of a Deadline
More than once, I’ve had people tell me, “I wish I had time to write. Maybe I’ll do it once my kids are in school/I change jobs/I retire.” Guess what? Life will always get in the way. Plus, writing itself can be a slog due to sheer procrastination (hello, internet), plot snarls, endless research, and so on.

Deadlines are powerful. Deadlines make you grimace, plant your hind end in a chair, and churn out the words. Deadlines make you take risks in your writing.

Bake Off operates within deadlines, too. Two hours to make an elaborate cake that you’d normally spend a day on! Four hours to make this obscure European pastry you’ve never heard of or seen before in your life! And the bakers are in. Like a writer, they may only have a vague idea of the end result, but the clock is ticking. They need to have something to present to the judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.


– Constructive Criticism
Baking Show presents the absolute ideal of constructive feedback: the negative balanced with the positive. This is something every writer needs to learn, and it is not easy. It requires tact, both in giving this feedback and responding to it in regards to your own work.

If you need a visual on how it is done, watch Paul and Mary. They might be presented with a cake that is an absolute disaster as far as presentation, but they still cut it open. They judge the texture and the taste. With a gracious smile, they say, “Yes, it looks terrible–you know that–but the taste is spot-on. You know your flavors.”

That’s the very thing writers need to hear, too. It’s how we improve–and how we learn to build on our strengths. “Yes, it’s a messy draft and there are some major info dumps, but your characters are amazing. The dialogue sparkles.”


– Innovation
Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” Cooks intrinsically do this, too; we learn family recipes, our cultural and ethnic lore through food, and the recipes of where we live. Writers and bakers also know that we can’t be confined by what we have directly known and experienced. There are infinite realities we can experience through taste and imagination.

The bakers in the tent often look to their roots for inspiration and add those flavors to the traditional British or European fare they are challenged to create. They mix, match, and defy traditional pairings, and something magical happens (whether or not that magic fully works is up to Mary and Paul). This is what writers must do, too. We twist around tropes and develop fresh stories.


– Reinforce Knowledge of the Basics
A writer doesn’t have to know how to fully diagram a sentence to be a real writer, but it is necessary to grasp the basics, the flow, that makes a story work. Writers also need to read. We need to understand what is expected in certain genres, or how to submit to markets, or query agents. There is a huge learning curve involved.

Bakers need those same skills. This is highlighted in the technical round that takes place during each Baking Show episode. The bakers are surprised by a new recipe from Mary or Paul–a recipe that has incomplete directions. “Make fondant.” “Make 1-inch diameter macarons.” “Bake”–with no temperature or time listed. The ingredients are all there, but the bakers need to understand the roles of fats and acids and rise times to make this new recipe come to a delicious result.

These basics are not static, either. There are always new skills to learn, whether you’re making a new cake recipe or a story.


– Supportive Community
Writing is hard. Editing is hard. A support network is vital. The encouragement of family and friends means a lot, but unless they are writers as well, they won’t completely get what we go through. You need other writers at your level who are willing to share updates on a new magazine, willing to critique, willing to listen on those days when the rejections flow and the words don’t.

That kind of community is what makes Great British Baking Show so extraordinary. American reality shows are petty and mean; they relish in someone’s downfall, and add sound effects for good measure. Baking Show eschews that manufactured drama. The contestants become friends. They bond as they work on stations near each other, weekend after weekend. They are competitors, yes, but they are willing to share ingredients at times, or help get a cake out of a pan. There are no sly camera angles to show sabotage–that’s not even a thought.

When a baker has a bad weekend and must leave the tent, it’s a moment of sadness. They gather for a group hug. Tears are shed. The survivors are saying farewell to a friend.

This is something writers must keep in mind, too. We each endure travails in our lives. We each want to make it as a writer. And yes, we are also vying for those few available slots in a magazine or anthology. It doesn’t need to be a cruel kind of competition, though. The publishing world is small, and we need companions for the long journey.

Breath of EarthBeth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE was a 2016 Nebula nominee. BREATH OF EARTH begins a new steampunk series set in an alternate history 1906 San Francisco.

Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.


Autumn is just around the corner which means new opportunities for holiday stalking visits with some of your favorite authors. Here’s a list of where you can find us during these hectic times:


* Oct 7th – 9th – appearing on programming at Capclave in Gaithersburg, MD.
* Oct 27th – 30th – appearing on programming at World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, OH.

* Oct 27th – 30th – appearing on programming at World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, OH.

* Oct 7th – signing at New York Comic Con in New York, NY.
* Oct 7th – signing at Books of Wonder in New York, NY, 6pm.
* Oct 27th – 30th – appearing on programming at World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, OH.

* Oct 7th – 9th – appearing on programming at Capclave in Gaithersburg, MD.


*Nov 5th – Book Tour – appearing on programming at Wordstock in Portland, OR
*Nov 7th – Book Tour –  Seriously Shifted at Powell’s Cedar Hills in Beaverton, OR, 7pm
*Nov 14th –  Book Tour – Seriously Shifted at U Books in Seattle, WA, 7pm
*Nov 15th – Book Tour – Seriously Shifted at the Corvallis Library in Corvallis, OR, 4pm
*Nov 16th – Book Tour – Seriously Shifted at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, CA, 7:30pm
*Nov 18th – 20th – appearing on programming at Orycon in Portland, OR.

* Nov 18th – 20th – appearing on programming at Philcon in Cherry Hill, NJ.

* Nov 11th – reading at Mighty Writers West in Philadelphia, PA, 7pm.
* Nov 18th – 20th – appearing on programming at Philcon in Cherry Hill, NJ.


* Dec 10th – appearing on programming at LibCon in Glendale, AZ.

* DEC 6th – guest lecture at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

* Dec 3rd – appearing at Another Read Through in Portland, OR, time TBD.

Beyond the Farthest Con

The day after this posts, I’ll be boarding a plane for Lithuania where I get to be the Guest of Honor at Lituanicon XXVIII, a one day convention in historic Vilnius. It’s not the farthest I’ve traveled for a con (that would be Best of Both Worlds in Sydney, Australia, where I shared billing with William Shatner!), but it got me to wondering how far other authors had traveled.

On the off chance that you might be curious too, I reached out and asked a bunch of them. Here’s what they had to say:

David Mack was the first to respond. His most distant trip was to Düsseldorf, Germany for FedCon XX. His next convention will be New York Comic Con in his city of residence.

Ada Palmer‘s farthest bit of convention travel took her to Boston, MA. Mind you, she started out in Florence, Italy, where she’d been spending the year for research. Her next event will be in Worthington, OH.

Recent first time novelist (Arabella of Mars) and red planet pseudo-resident, David D. Levine has been to Melbourne, Australia, but reports that Yokohama, Japan — or maybe Champaign-Urbana, Illinois — was his strangest convention. His next con will probably be OryCon, right there in his home town of Portland, OR.

David Brin went all the way to Chengdu, China in 2007. He tells me that since he was bringing his family along to the Yokohama Worldcon (where he was Guest of Honor) anyway he suggested the Chinese SF community they should hold their events in the preceding week.

Adam Rakunas also claims Chengdu, China as his most distant convention. His next con is Confusion in Detroit, Michigan, possibly the only convention that touts an Indian restaurant tucked inside a gas station across the street.

Winner of more Ursa Major awards than any other anthropomorphic author, Kyell Gold points out that the furthest he’s gone for a convention was Melbourne, Australia, but the oddest was a hotel in former East Germany atop a hill over the small town of Suhl. Next month will find him attending Gaylaxicon in Minneapolis, MN.

L. E. Modesitt Jr., one of the most prolific writers in the business, says his farthest convention trip was a dual visit to Dublin, Ireland for OctoCon before going on to attend World Fantasy in London. And speaking of World Fantasy, that’s his next stop, where he’s also the Guest of Honor, in Columbus, OH.

And speaking of Dublin, Todd McCaffrey admits that generally speaking he hasn’t traveled all that far from his home base. Of course, home base for many years was Ireland. Nowadays he’s in Los Angeles. He points to Stucon in Stuttgart Germany as the furthest afield he’s been.

Canadian resident Claire McCague‘s most distant convention was MediaWest*Con in East Lansing, MI, but since she’s coming from Vancouver it’s a bit of a trek (and don’t get her started on traveling east to an event in a town with “East” in its name for a convention that has “West” in its name). Sensibly, her next con is VCON, right there in Vancouver.

Michael Jan Friedman didn’t have to travel far for his oddest convention location. He reports that the 2015 Long Island Geek Con occurred at Long Island’s MacArthur Airport, where he had table in the baggage claim area, some fifty feet from the carousels. His next convention will be in Albany, NY.

Marie Brennan recently visited the French town of Épinal, near the Swiss border, for Les Imaginales, which she describes as “somebody ran a convention into a Renaissance festival at high speed.”

That’s all I have for you this month (I still have to pack!), but for those of you thinking a Helsinki Worldcon is too far to go, now you know better!

Lawrence M. SchoenLawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology; has been nominated for the Campbell, Hugo, Nebula, WSFS awards; recently won the Cóyotl award for Best Novel of 2015; is a world authority on the Klingon language; operates the small press Paper Golem; and is a practicing hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.

His previous science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. His most recent book, Barsk, takes a very different tone, exploring issues of intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, and loyalty, and redefines the continua between life and death. He lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.

You can follow him at his website at LawrenceMSchoen.com and on Twitter at @klingonguy, or you can even subscribe to his quarterly Newsletter.


The fourth quarter listing of when and where you can find Novelocitists will post in a couple days. But before that, here are a couple items that weren’t locked in place when the previous quarter’s listing went live.


* Sep 17th – will be the Guest of Honor for Lituanicon XXVII in Vilnius, Lithuania

* Sep 27th – is launching her new novel, Cloudbound at 7pm at Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square Barne’s & Noble (1805 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103). Fran will read and sign copies of her new book.

Recipe Fiction: Let’s Fire the Formula

In another of my writing circles, once again the dreaded specter of “formula fiction” has been conjured.  The idea is that many genres–at least in commercial fiction, and (so the rumor goes) especially romance and fantasy (the target tends to move to a different genre based on whichever you are writing in)–are dominated by a formula which is required in order to sell.  And if a book sells well, that is usually taken as evidence that it was, indeed, written to formula.  It’s a tautology, but one you’ll often find repeated, whether in a derisive review or grumbled by less successful peers in the same genre. Of course that work succeeded–the author just relied on the formula!

Some people outside the genres will even sniff that the publishers demand the said formula, and that it’s laid out by page count:  kiss on page three, quest engagement in chapter two, or what have you.

First of all, if the publishers are requiring certain page counts and formulas, they haven’t informed the authors, much less provided us with a template for stamping out successful novels.  But wait, points out the nay-sayer, so many books in X genre are so similar!  That’s clear evidence that authors are just filling in the blanks.  Or is it?

I think part of the problem lies in the origins of this term “formula.”  Formula is associated with science, more precisely, with chemistry.  The idea is that you take certain items in very specific ratios, blended according to strict guidelines, and you will achieve a very specific result.  One third adventure, one third sexual tension, one third Strunk and White, voila! a bestseller.  Boy, if I could buy that formula, I’d use it.  The trouble is, it doesn’t exist.

In fiction, what we have are not formulas–rigid lists of pure chemicals to be compounded by following strict rules–what we have are recipes.  A recipe gives you a list of ingredients and the steps to follow–isn’t that the same as the dreaded formula?  Here’s the thing, recipes vary.  The same recipe produced by different cooks gets a different result because the cook knows they can add a little more spice, or bake for less time and create their own variation on what their diners enjoy.

Like cooks, authors have an audience to please.  Sure, we want to pursue our own artistic goals for our careers and for any given work, but writing is a collaboration between the author and the reader, who will receive and interpret the result.  Readers can be grouped in many different ways.  Some love fantasy no matter what, and some prefer contemporary or epic fantasy, fantasy about women or about dragons.

There are certain elements of story-telling that are more likely to appeal to a wider audience.  Adventure, love, character growth, a moment when much can be won or lost, the moment when a character is redeemed and the audience cheers.  That’s not a formula–it’s a list of ingredients, and each cook, each writer, can play with them to create their individual work.  A quick google search shows me 3.8 million recipes for chocolate cake, 3.8 million variations, some subtle and some vast, all resulting in a dessert that some people felt was tasty and worth sharing.  There are at least 3.8 million recipes for a fantasy novel as well.  Beginning with a basic set of ingredients, and an image of that desired result, the author creates their own recipe.

Rather than dismissing the work of an author or a complete genre as driven by formula, let’s think of them as being guided by a recipe–and if one author’s chocolate cake doesn’t please, there’s probably another one that will.  Or maybe you’re looking for lemon cake, or custard tart, or. . . okay, now I’m just making myself hungry.

The same basic ingredients combine to create a thousand different experiences–as if by magic.


The War of the Adverbs

We’re delighted to feature a guest post today from Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, author of the new book Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg. Take it away, Alvaro!


Traveler of WorldsIt’s a pleasure to be on Novelocity—thanks so much for having me!

Given that this forum is intended for the discussion of books and their creation, I feel comfortable invoking a writer whose life—over the course of a career now spanning a staggering six decades!—has been largely dedicated to the creation of hundreds of books: Robert Silverberg. I had the pleasure of conducting interviews with Bob over the course of 2015, and we talked about all sorts of things. The edited, organized result of these candid conversations may be found in my just-published book, Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg.

Of course, despite the wide range of subjects we cover, writing was never far from Bob’s mind. We talked about many writers (within genre and without), the meaning of awards, the writing process itself (schedule, etc.), the difference between artistic writing and hack work, and even word usage and grammatical constructions.

In Chapter 6, specifically, Bob and I spend some time investigating the first and last lines of famous novels by Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hardy and Graham Greene.

At one point in the conversation I ask Bob the following:

“AZA: I want to go back to the end of The Sun Also Rises for a moment, to this line:

The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.” It seems that some writers are very sensitive to adverbs these days, in particular something like “suddenly.” The idea is that if you want to convey suddenness, you can do so by picking a better verb that does it for you, without then having to modify it. To be more elegant in the word choice and make the adverb unnecessary.”

I was curious what Bob thought of this dictum, which I often see given as advice to starting writers (avoid “suddenly” at all costs, etc.).

Here is his response:

“RS: I don’t see anything wrong with “suddenly.” I object to finding different ways to say, “he said.” But “suddenly”? Look, there’s some people who’ll tell you that you shouldn’t use adverbs at all. Or that you shouldn’t use adjectives at all. Whatever works.”

Whatever works. Those words have stayed with me.

Of course, an argument can be made that “suddenly,” and some of its adverbial brethren, are overused, and may indicate laziness on the part of the writer. But that doesn’t mean they may not sometimes be appropriate. They appear in many of the great works of literature, after all, and I don’t think that striking them out would visibly improve such works. They appear in science fiction classics, too.

Ever since I first heard of the admonition to avoid “suddenly,” there was a particular science fiction novel that kept whispering skepticism in my mind. Its opening paragraph contains what I consider one of the finest lines in all of science fiction:

“Yet, across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”

This is H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. And it confronts us with that double adverbial offender, “slowly and surely.” Re-writing that sentence without that phrase is possible, sure, but I’m doubtful that it would make it better.

You may say, “Alvaro, ‘slowly and surely’ is not the same as ‘suddenly.’” True. But the word “suddenly” itself appears many times, too, in the same novel: for example in “Suddenly the monster vanished” or “Suddenly there was a flash of light,” and dozens of others.

Historical distance, then? Times change, and today’s readers may not enjoy Wells’ style in the same way the readers of his day might have. Over a century later, we may have become more sensitive to such word choices and repetitions, more canny and sophisticated as readers.

But modern writers like Joyce Carol Oates use “suddenly” quite freely, and I don’t think it’s harmed their careers any, or caused them to be considered poorer writers. Open a novel by Doris Lessing and you may find it strewn with suddenness! They still gave her the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m reading The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville right now, and the first “suddenly” explodes into being on page 8. Are we to take China Miéville to task for this?

So ultimately, I’m going to take refuge in “Whatever works.”

It’s a freeing thought.

Not “whatever goes,” but “whatever works.”

Our words as writers, whatever their taxonomy, need to work together to produce an overall effect. Maybe some writers feel that “suddenly” is more appropriate for a first-person narrative than one written from a third-person perspective; or that it should be used only under specific circumstances. Fine. But arguing that specific word choices should be avoided on principle, I think, unduly restricts us in our enjoyment of the English language, and in conveying its expressive wonders to our readers.


Alvaro Zinos-AmaroAlvaro started publishing around 2008, and has had more than thirty stories appear in magazines like AnalogNatureGalaxy’s EdgeThe Journal of Unlikely EntomologyLackington’sMothership Zeta, Farrago’s Wainscot and Neon, as well as anthologies such as The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of MoriartyThe Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper TalesThe 2015 Young Explorer’s Adventure GuideCyber WorldThis Way to the End Times [edited by R. Silverberg], Humanity 2.0 and An Alphabet of Embers. Alvaro’s essays, reviews and interviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of BooksThe First LineAsimov’sStrange HorizonsClarkesworldSF SignalFoundation, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Intergalactic Medicine Show; he also edits the roundtable blog for Locus.

Find him at: his website, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Linkedin, and Goodreads.