Friday, November 30, 2012

As NaNoWriMo ends, we've got advice: Avoid the 7 deadly sins of bad fiction!

For all of you out there participating in National Novel Writing Month, go go go! You're almost done!  As agents, we are so glad you're writing.  But before you immediately submit your new novel to agents on December 1, we have some suggestions :)  First, once you've made it to the finish line, jump for joy, eat celebratory chocolate, or whatever else floats your boat.  Second, take a good look at that manuscript you've been working on and delve right back into it with revision!

Below are some revision tips put together by our fabulous agent Elizabeth Evans:

Writers often ask me what agents look for in a submission.  How can they get their work through the gates and onto an agent's list?  The short and oft-quoted answer to that question is that agents want to "fall in love."  But what does that mean, really?  Is the writing riveting or suspenseful in a way that makes our pulse race?  Maybe.  Does a character reach out and grab us with a voice that commands attention?  Perhaps.  Or is the prose so achingly beautiful we just can't help but admire it?  Couldn't hurt.

Maybe it's one of these, maybe it's none of them.  The point is, it's hard to define, and it usually leads to other exasperating, oft-quoted agent phrases such as, "I don't know what I'm looking for until I see it."  Well, here's a little secret—we agents hear this from editors as well, and it drives us a little crazy, too. Fact is, it's true.

So it's not a science, and there's no proper equation to get your work through the door.  But to increase the chances of finding representation, what writers can do is avoid common mistakes and agent pet peeves that make it easy for us to turn down submissions.

When I was working as a tutor in my college writing center, the director created a handy sheet for students outlining "The Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Grammar."  The sheet identified such no-no's as Passive Voice and Misplaced Modifiers, and it provided a helpful list students could check their work against before turning in papers to professors.  When I started agenting, I thought there ought to be a list like this for aspiring authors.  Hence, "The Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Fiction."

Avoiding these common pitfalls will eliminate pesky mistakes that can distract agents from the story at hand.  By taking heed of them, your writing might shine just a bit more brightly and bring you one step closer to publication.

“The Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Fiction” is available as a convenient, downloadable pdf file.  Click here to access it.  And to whet your appetite, below is a quick list of what the seven deadly sins are.  Download the pdf for explanations!

1. General Sloppiness

2. Ignoring the Setting

3. Wordiness

4. Bloated Diction

 5. Passive Voice/Overuse of "To Be"

6. Too Much Telling. Too Much Showing.

7. Pedestrian Narrative Eye

In his memoir Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov said, “I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever written.  My pencils outlast their erasers.” Now, don't get stressed out by this statement, like the guy below.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at

Do, however, take the time to rewrite and revise, because doing so will not only make your novel more polished and attractive to all the publishing people out there, it will also, most importantly, make your novel more rewarding for your readers and yourself.

Friday, November 16, 2012

PASSION BLUE and the secrets of Renaissance Italy

PASSION BLUE, a YA historical novel by author Victoria Strauss, has just been released. Set in fifteenth-century Italy during the Renaissance, the book has garnered a number of wonderful reviews already, particularly regarding the richness of the setting and the strength of the female heroine, Giulia.

When seventeen-year-old Giulia Borromeo is sentenced to a life behind convent walls, she is afraid her lifelong dream of true love will die there. But then she discovers that the convent is home to a painters workshop of nuns, all busy making stunning creations in vibrant colors. Giulia joins the workshop and begins learning their techniques, but when she meets a visiting craftsman and falls for him, she realizes she may have to choose between art and love.

In her author's note to PASSION BLUE, Strauss explains that the painter nuns her book revolves around were inspired by Suor Plautilla Nelli, a nun who had charge of her own painting workshop in the Dominican convent of Santa Catarina di Siena in Florence in the mid-sixteenth century.

Strauss conducted extensive historical research in order to accurately portray convent life and period painting techniques in PASSION BLUE. One of her research discoveries concerned the stealth some Renaissance painters would employ in order to protect their techniques. The namesake of Strauss's book comes from a paint color described in the novel, a rich blue hue that was unlike any others in Renaissance times: passion blue. And in the book, the nuns create passion blue from a secret formula recorded only in code and guarded under lock and key.

In a recent interview from a blog online at Kirkus Reviews, Strauss describes just how important--and potentially dangerous--paint colors as unique as passion blue could be: “These paint recipes really were like industrial secrets today," she says. "They were incredibly closely guarded. There was espionage, and people did steal them."

In the same interview, Strauss discusses astrology, which also plays a prominent role in PASSION BLUE. Contrary to today, astrology was “an important and influential profession and very scientific for the time,” Strauss asserts. It only became discredited much later, in the eighteenth century. According to Strauss, even archbishops went to astrologers for birth charts or for readings to determine the most favorable times for important events to take place.

Read more of the insightful Kirkus interview here, which includes Strauss's explanation of the paintings she saw as a child that inspired her to write about art and history.

Below are some of the excellent reviews received in thus far for PASSION BLUE, which highlight why this book is as unique as the paint color it features. Be sure to scroll down further to find the book's cover, showcasing that alluring, passion blue hue. And, for the latest information about PASSION BLUE and Strauss's virtual book tours, plus an exciting giveaway (it ends in four days from now!), visit Strauss's website here.

"Fantasy elements and a historical setting rich with sensuous detail are satisfying, but it’s Giulia’s achingly real search for her heart’s desire that resonates most today, when millions of girls still have limited choices...A rare, rewarding, sumptuous exploration of artistic passion." --Kirkus, starred review, Editor's Pick for Fall 2012

"Vividly set during the fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance, Strauss’s novel has a strong and thoroughly likable heroine who is only one of many well-developed female characters.” --School Library Journal

"Strauss takes great care to illustrate Giulia's complicated world fully, including the limited choices available to women during the Renaissance, convent life and painting techniques of the time. Giulia's path may not surprise readers, but her unusual story is sure to capture their attention.” --Publishers Weekly

"An intriguing historical novel inspired by accounts of women artists in the Italian Renaissance.” --Booklist

"An elegant retelling of that old crucial story of finding one's place in the world, set against a vivid evocation of the Italian Renaissance.” --Robin McKinley, author of THE HERO AND THE CROWN, winner of the Newbery Medal

"PASSION BLUE is a lush, vibrant read that is utterly transporting. Full of heart and heady imagery, it is a luminous tale that swept me back to another time and place and into the life of a brave girl struggling to find her true destiny. Strauss paints beautiful pictures with her words." --Lesley Livingston, author of the WONDROUS STRANGE series and STARLING

"From its opening chapter to its final harrowing unfolding, Giulia's tale holds the reader riveted. PASSION BLUE is both a soul-felt journey and a triumphant, transcendent work of art.” --Meredith Ann Pierce, author of THE DARKANGEL TRILOGY

"I didn’t just like this book, I LOVED it...It has adventure, arguments, soul-searching, several villains, romance, hair-breadth escapes, dastardly betrayals, and girl power. I simply galloped through it.” --Jane Yolen, author of THE DEVIL'S ARITHMETIC

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

ON POLITICS: A timely read as well as a classic in the making

The end of last month saw the release of Alan Ryan's ON POLITICS, a fitting volume to be published during these highly political times, with the election just over.

One of the best descriptions of ON POLITICS came in the form of a cartoon accompanying the book's six-page write-up in The New Yorker.  In the image, the cartoon-ified Alan Ryan sits at a table attempting to write on his laptop while men in togas, cravats, and berets crowd around him, ready to break into one giant fistfight.  These rowdy table guests are the major political thinkers of Western history, including Plato, Hegel, Machiavelli, Marx, St. Augustine, and Hobbes.  They are the subjects of Ryan's ON POLITICS: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to Present. You can find The New Yorker article here.

As a review in The Los Angeles Times notes, "At the heart of the project [of ON POLITICS] is a belief that this stuff matters, that the thinkers it revolves around...remain relevant and fresh."  The New Yorker cartoon certainly seems to argue for the freshness of these thinkers.  And The Los Angeles Times review concludes, too, that "this stuff" does seem to have a great deal of relevancy: "There's something in [Ryan's] lines we recognize, something that speaks to what's at stake in this election." 

Alan Ryan recently wrote a piece for Reuters about how Alexis de Tocqueville might have seen our 2012 presidential election. Tocqueville was a French political thinker who wrote DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA after his visit to the young country in 1831. While it's amusing to consider who Tocqueville might have voted for, Ryan remarks that he would be hard pressed to hazard a guess, given that Tocqueville simply would have been astounded "to see a Supreme Court with not a single Protestant member, and Catholics in a 7-to-2 majority," as well as "a black president running for re-election."  Ryan does make some guesses about which of our candidates' ideas Tocqueville might have backed, though, which you can read about here.

Yet Ryan also thinks Tocqueville may have had something to teach us if he had been here to view our election season.  In DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, Tocqueville attempted to answer why the American Revolution led so quickly to a successful government whereas the French Revolution was far more chaotic.  Part of his conclusion was that there was an exceptionalism to the American experiment of democracy that lent the country such a favorable outcome.  However, if Tocqueville were to see how often we Americans have since used his idea of exceptionalism to justify our actions, Ryan thinks he might consider revoking the classification. 

Ryan writes elegantly upon this, as follows:
[Tocqueville] bequeathed to us the belief in American "exceptionalism" that neither Obama nor Romney nor Biden nor Ryan, nor any of the hundreds of candidates for the House and Senate dare challenge. A hundred and eighty years ago, America was more classless, socially mobile, economically innovative and imaginative than any European country, let alone Russia or China. Today, the United States is a mature industrial society, with the social and political problems--education, public health, infrastructural renovation--of every other such society. Because Tocqueville was so eloquent about the unique blessings of the United States, it has become almost impossible for politicians to suggest that we have anything to learn from anyone else.
Perhaps, Ryan suggests, now might be the time to look more closely at the examples of others and learn from them.

In his Reuters article and throughout the entirety of ON POLITICS, Ryan makes it abundantly clear that the political thinkers of our past are essential for understanding, analyzing, and critiquing the politics of today.  To not examine the political foundations we are built upon would be a folly.  The New Yorker review echoes this, noting that "ON POLITICS, like the great works of philosophy it examines, constitutes a powerful brief against the unexamined life."  As Congress begins meeting again and the president returns to his job, now is the time to reexamine how we've approached our politics in the past so that we can move forward to deal with the unique challenges of our times. 

Below is additional praise for ON POLITICS.  To view our previous post about the book and other rave reviews the book has received, click here.

"[ON POLITICS] seeks to take a (very) long view, framing its subjects less as individuals than as the components of a continuum of which we are still a part....The book is the distillation of [Ryan's] thinking, both intellectual and practical, and although it can be daunting, the triumph is how, as Ryan takes us through the material, he makes it so much more." --Los Angeles Times

"Magisterial...A book of the scope of ON POLITICS can't be reduced to a single theme. In more than a thousand pages, Alan Ryan, a longtime Oxford professor who now teaches at Princeton, undertakes to introduce the reader to most of the major political thinkers in Western history, from Thucydides and Plato to John Dewey and John Rawls." --The New Yorker

 Liveright/W.W. Norton, October 2012

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Endless rave reviews for AMBER HOUSE!

Since AMBER HOUSE's release in October, the YA gothic novel has received rave after rave review!  AMBER HOUSE is the first in a trilogy written by mother-daughters team Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed, and Larkin Reed and published by Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic.  Below are some of the incredible reviews that have come in so far.  (For more info on the book, view our sneak peek from July here.) 

"Lush descriptions and an intricate plot drive this intense tale, which straddles the lines between magical realism, fantasy, ghost stories, and horror, with a touch of romance and classic glamour. The result is something rich, strange, and utterly fascinating.” --Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Swift plotting combines with vivid, cinematic prose to make this gothic tale compulsively readable, and an unexpected ending elevates the story beyond the genre. Fans of ghost stories will appreciate the classic elements here, from the disembodied voices to the ancestral home with a sordid past, but they will also be pleasantly surprised by the time-bending element that comes into play in the latter half...Complex, elegant, and haunting, this is a book that deserves to be read in one sitting.” --The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review

"A deliciously creepy beginning to a projected trilogy...What is truly novel is the spin that the [authors] give the direction of the romance, setting this apart from many of the cardboard triangles found in the genre. Those who think that this is a straightforward ghost story will be sorely mistaken: This is a complex, layered tale that bends time and imagination, demanding to be read with all the lights on. Move over Bella Swan: Sarah is a strong, admirable character who’d rather speak her mind than sulk and sigh over some hot guy. Richly woven, with depth and swift plotting that will leave readers clamoring for the sequels.” --Kirkus

"The highly descriptive, lush prose and Sarah’s strong, first-person point of view lends an atmospheric, gothic feel to this first book in a planned trilogy, which stands alone quite well...Deft handling of family dynamics, believable characterization, and twist on the now ubiquitous love triangle will leave readers eager for more.” --Booklist

"If you’re a fan of gothic novels, AMBER HOUSE is like a double fudge brownie a la mode. It has all the troubled history and spookiness your heart could desire, along with...secret passages, and it’s so much fun to read. Fans of ghost stories and time-travel stories should also pick this one up.” --Fantasy Literature Blog

"All the right horror fundamentals...So vividly detailed that the scenes were seamlessly imaginable. This is a story of a broken family, severed by many things: infidelity, running away, alcoholism, lack of communication, mental disability, death, and the unceasing consequence of grief and guilt held for far too long... A good and satisfying read.” --The Midnight Garden Blog 

"Engrossing, riveting—the very definition of a page-turner!...I was so totally absorbed, and can’t put it out of my mind...I cannot recommend this book highly enough!” --Mallory Heart Reviews Blog

"A gothic tale stirring up feelings reminiscent of Bronte’s windy moors and King’s Room 237...For those of you looking for a good 'autumn read,' I highly suggest you pick up AMBER HOUSE. It contains all of the amazing horror elements to keep you looking over your shoulder while also molding in intricate relationships and a deliciously vibrant plot.” --Books Take You Places Blog

"Some scenes literally gave me goose bumps...Rich descriptions...This is an ingenious mind-bending plot.” --The Readers Den Blog 

"A unique and captivating debut...I was hooked from the beginning, and the ending simply left me wanting more.” --Fall Into Books Blog 

"Delightfully dark and gothic." --Misbehavin' Librarian Blog

"Brilliantly touches on family strife and love, issues of mental health, coping with grief, and first love. This mother-daughter trio has a deft touch for tackling the very real, human emotions at the heart of their uber-creepy ghost story.” --Novel Novice Blog

"Authors Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed, and Larkin Reed have crafted a spine-tingling story about family history, loss, scandal, secrets, and the hope that history does not have to repeat itself. Combining the paranormal with a dash of sci-fi, AMBER HOUSE is many things: romantic, genteel, and above all, scary.” --Once Upon a Prologue Blog

To close, we're leaving you with some snapshots of AMBER HOUSE we've spied in bookstores across the nation!  You can buy the print book, e-book, or audio edition (narrated by co-author Tucker Reed) via this link

Co-author Tucker Reed, with AMBER HOUSE shown as a top teen pick
AMBER HOUSE featured on bookstore shelves