Friday, October 28, 2016

Setting the Stage in the First Two Pages by Sarah Wisseman

Several years ago, I attended a conference where authors were invited to read two pages to New York agents in a round table setting. I read two pages of my first Italian novel, Burnt Siena (then unpublished). It begins like this:

Hunger fought with worry in the pit of her stomach as she ran down the stone steps bowed in the middle by thousands of feet. The massive front door of the Archives clanged shut behind her.

Flora crossed the courtyard and stepped into Banchi di Sotto Street, dodging a garbage truck as she turned north. She had no intention of returning to work on this warm Saturday afternoon. Her plans included lunch at the apartment, followed by an espresso and a gelato—hazelnut and chocolate—at her favorite cafĂ©. And she was dying to talk with Ernst and discover what had spooked him. 

Flora hurried toward the Piazza del Campo. Crooked pavers pressed on her thin soles while petunias and marguerites nodded at eye level from every window box. She ignored the pigeons fluttering in the eaves and brightly colored laundry drooping on lines strung between windows above her head…”

One agent’s reaction: “Well, obviously you’ve lived in Italy and want us to know that. But I don’t care about your character and don’t want to read any more.” The other authors received similar criticisms. I came out of the session depressed, wondering what on earth those agents wanted and how to make my first two pages more compelling.

How do you set the stage and draw the reader in? Must you have a chase scene or a body on the first page? Burnt Siena is a traditional mystery, in some ways a “cozy” set in a foreign country. The setting is luscious, memorable Siena, one of the most beautiful cities on earth. The Italian scene could hardly fail to take a central place in the story, which revolves around the protagonist’s discovery that her bosses are smuggling antiquities and forging paintings instead of practicing traditional art conservation. You could say the beauty of the surroundings makes a nice foil for the corruption taking place in Flora’s workplace.

The two pages I read were from the first chapter, a short chapter that sets the stage and ends in Flora’s discovery of her dead roommate’s body. My goal was to draw the reader into the foreign setting, create some tension about what is going on in Flora’s job, and convey her horrible shock at finding Ernst below the balcony of their apartment. To do all that, I took four pages instead of only two.

Yes, those first two pages are crucial for capturing the kind of agent who is looking for the next Dan Brown blockbuster. But not everyone wants to write--or read--a thriller. There’s hope for authors who write the sort of novel that readers are sorry to finish. Readers who know how to savor a good book by donning pajamas, pouring that glass of wine, and travelling to another place from the comfort of a favorite chair. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

Tips on How to Get Your Book Well-Published by Jacqueline Seewald

I know there are many writers who claim to do well self-publishing. I applaud and commend them for their efforts. However, be aware that this involves a great deal of intensive work on the part of the writer and often requires a costly lay-out of expenses for professional services such as cover art and editing if the writer wants to present a quality product.

My suggestion is to try traditional publishing first. Let’s assume you have written a unique book, whether fiction or nonfiction. You have made certain that there are no obvious typos or grammatical errors. You now feel ready to present it.

Step One: create a query letter. Google for suggestions. There are many detailed articles on this topic available for free on the internet. Generally, query letters which you  send to agents are going to be relatively short. Agents are busy people and these days they have shorter attention spans than ever. So you want your letter to sound as interesting and professional as possible. Describe the genre of your book, the length, and give a brief, intriguing blurb in your first paragraph.

Second paragraph, offer your expertise for writing this particular book. Give any background info that will impress the agent. What have you previously had published?
Any awards for writing in this subject area?

Step Two: Now that you have put together a general query letter, start examining the various agents. Get a listing that tells you what the various agents are interested in representing. You don’t want to send a query for a romance novel to an agent who only represents nonfiction.  

Do some research on Google. Start with the better known agents in your genre. You can always work your way down.
Pay close attention to the directions for querying and follow them exactly. Should agents responds affirmatively, submit what they request in the prescribed manner.

The top agents work with the big publishers. They in turn pay advances, get your novel reviewed by influential review publications as well as providing PR people who help provide publicity and promotion. Most of all, the big publishing houses have distribution. This is vitally important if your book is going to sell and be read by the public.

Now for the commercial message: My latest novel
THE INHERITANCE from Intrigue Publishing is available for
pre-order both in print and inexpensively as an e-book. It’s a romantic mystery with cozy elements and suspense. It’s also a “clean read”.

You can check it out here:

and many other booksellers.
Interested in what makes a bestseller? I’ve examined current trends and statistics on this topic. Check it out at:

Good luck to you in getting your book well-published!

Wishing each of you great success and recognition in your field of expertise. 

Questions and comments are most welcome here.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Choices and More Choices, by Susan Oleksiw

One of my side jobs is helping to manage a small gallery in the Sawyer Free Library in Gloucester. I'm one of a committee of three that select artists to exhibit each month, and one of us participates in the hanging of the show. We choose artists in all media—oil, acrylic, printing, photography, multimedia, and small sculptures or dioramas. For many artists this is their first juried exhibit, but far more are seasoned professionals. But every one faces the same problem—choosing what to exhibit.

I spent Thursday morning working with our current artist. I kept thinking how similar selecting work for an exhibit was to shaping a manuscript. In each work, the artist or writer has to choose what to keep and what to omit. The artist can’t hang every single work unless he wants the exhibit to look like a nineteenth-century salon. And the writer can’t include every special turn of phrase, every quirky or interesting minor character, unless she wants to turn her traditional mystery into the farce subgenre (and even then, there are limits).

Each choice brings with it limitations on what is still available. Does the artist choose by subject matter—landscapes or portraits? Does the writer choose by setting—a gritty urban tenement or a quiet suburban neighborhood? After the first question come others, and more limitations. If the artist has three large but superior pieces, do those take over half of the limited space? If the writer has one major character around whom all the action swirls, does she cut away the subplots involving other, minor characters? Does the artist choose five paintings that show variation on a theme? Does the writer choose a group of characters, such as a family or the guests in an isolated farmhouse? Each choice shapes the work.

The joke among college writing instructors used to be about beginning students who signed up to write the great American novel. This is akin to buying an easel and canvases to prepare to painting the great American scene. There is no one story, no one great character, in American life, just as there is no one great image that captures all of the United States.

My choices as a writer shape the kind of story I will tell, and those choices in turn determine the readers I will attract. No one story will appeal to everyone, but each story honed carefully will reveal the clear, definite direction the author has chosen, and the craft of creating the story will come through.

You can view the artwork of Nancy Molvig at the Matz Gallery in the Sawyer Free Library during the month of October.

You can read my choices in When Krishna Calls, the newest Anita Ray, and Come About for Murder, the newest Mellingham Mystery.