Classifying Your Book: How to Research & Target Literary Agents

By Chuck Sambuchino

BookStack_photopinOnce your book is finished, it’s time to start submitting to agents. For this, a simple first step is to create a new Microsoft Word or Excel document so you can keep detailed track of your submissions, target agents, resource materials, and more. The document will help you personalize query letters, find more agents to contact, and know when to follow up on submissions.

Now it’s time to create your list of potential agents to query.

As you start compiling agent names and contact info, think in terms of casting a wide net. Scour databases and websites to put together the largest possible collection of reps to contact, then start winnowing down your list as you go along. Understand right off the bat that not every agent is for you. You’ll only be targeting a fraction of the active reps out there—seeking those who represent the specific type of book you’re writing.

Before you go looking for agents to contact, you must define what you’ve written. In other words, when push comes to shove, you have to classify it as something. So what type of book is it? (Note that novels are broken down into genres, while nonfiction is broken down into categories.)

Some writers will have no difficulty with this step—immediately telling their friends that they’ve written “a romance” or “a thriller” or “an illustrated picture book.” But other writers will not be so sure when it comes to this step, questioning the exact classification of their work, and therefore not knowing which agents to target.

Your goal is to try and break the story down into what it is fundamentally. From there, you can still look for more specific market offshoots. Let’s run through some examples of category dilemmas:

Example 1: You’ve written a legal thriller and can’t find many agents who represent this vein of books.

Your mistake is that you’re specifically looking for agents seeking “legal thrillers” when you should just be looking for agents seeking “thrillers.” A popular genre of novels—such as a thriller—has many subcategories, including techno-thrillers, medical thrillers, legal thrillers, climate fiction thrillers (“cli-fi”) and more. But most agents won’t get into the nitty-gritty when explaining what categories they want. They’ll just say, “I seek thrillers.” And anyone who says just that is a great target for you.

Some will personally lean toward your subgenre of thriller while others won’t. You won’t know where they stand in terms of favoritism and leanings, so just query all available markets and hope for the best. Also, there will be a few agents out there who explain outright in their personal information that they seek “legal thrillers.”

If you see an agent get specific like this and put out an APB for the exact type of book you’re writing, that’s a great potential match for you, and you can say “Because I’ve read that you are actively seeking [x], I thought you might enjoy my novel, [Title].” 

Example 2: You’ve written a science fiction young adult book and don’t know whether to contact young adult agents or sci-fi agents.

The answer is to query young adult agents. If it’s a book for kids, it’s a book for kids. It’s not like young adult romance should be treated like adult romance. If it’s fundamentally young adult (YA) or middle grade (MG), you should query for those categories. 


(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking on clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)


Example 3: You’re not sure if your book is suspense or thriller because it blends the two.

You won’t find a whole lot of agents who put out a call for a crossbreed of genres, such as “thriller and suspense” or “Western and horror.” Instead you’ll get a lot of agents simply asking for “thriller” and some asking for “suspense,” for example. Feel free to query all of them. In your contact letter to the agent, you can alternate between the classification terms depending on what the agent’s needs are, or you can just query them all stating upfront that it’s a “suspenseful thriller.” 

Example 4: You’re writing one of the categories of fiction that some agents may rep, but virtually none request specifically in their guidelines.

If you’re dealing with a lonely genre of fiction, such as “humorous fiction” or “medieval fiction,” and can’t find many target reps for the book, you can always seek out generalists. Some agents will be very specific concerning what they want and don’t want. But plenty of reps will instead say something like “I’m open to any area of fiction that’s done well.” If an agent openly says they have no restrictions concerning submissions, feel free to contact them and hope for the best.

This problem of possessing an “under the radar category” is even more common with nonfiction, where it can be difficult to find someone who gets specific enough to ask for “books about Wicca” or “books about exterminating unwanted pests from your home.” If you’re writing nonfiction like this, your strategy, again, should be to seek generalists. Also, another good strategy is to find other books in the marketplace that resemble yours and see who repped those books.

Example 5: You’ve written a novel that doesn’t fit into any so-called genre.

Some novels will be easy to categorize, such as fantasies, Westerns and horror. But what about novels that do not fit into any of these popular commercial genres? Chances are, you’re going to call it “literary fiction” or “mainstream fiction.”

Literary fiction means the novel 1) does not fall into any popular genre type, and 2) focuses on character more than plot, and values impressive voice, style and technique from the writer.

Mainstream fiction is a similar category, but the term is used to describe non-genre stories that have mass appeal and can transcend literary fiction readers, into such opportunities as book clubs. In other words, the two categories are remarkably close to one another, and the difference in names is more for marketing than anything else.

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Chuck

Chuck FW head shotChuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.

His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM.

Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.

Find Chuck on Twitter and on Facebook.

photo credit: susivinh via photopin cc
Posted in Bumps & Bruises on the Road to Publication, Chuck Sambuchino | Tagged , , , , | 32 Comments

4 Tips for the Care and Feeding of Dead Blogs

Sierra-Godfrey-180x180by Sierra Godfrey

Remember when you started your blog? Maybe you were an unpublished writer and fellow unpublished writers followed your trials with you, cheered you when you got an agent and a book contract, and then became readers. Maybe you’re still unpublished but your focus has changed. Maybe your career was already in full swing, but you started your web presence with a free blog.

However you began your presence on the Web, you might have a bunch of reasons for moving your blog now—you might have a new shiny website with incorporated blog, or maybe your old blog was hacked, or maybe you just want a new way of blogging. Once you have your new home on the web, you’re good to go, right? You can delete your old blog, right?


Let it live. You need that old blog to increase your online profile print, and you need it to stay up because readers who have gone away or have bookmarked your old blog will come back, sometimes months later. And you don’t want to be unfindable! I know a NYT bestselling author who had a fairly informal blog that was well-followed by lots of other writers –and agents, too. Then he built a brand new author website complete with a new blog. Unfortunately, he deleted the old one and I didn’t know it until I check in months later–and couldn’t find him. I didn’t know he’d transitioned, so he was just gone. He’d built a huge following of writers on his old blog, and he effectively lost that following when he moved without a trace.

So, you know to keep that old blog.

There’s a little bit of management that goes with old blogs, though. You can’t just leave an old blog by itself. Here are four things to keep in mind once your old blog goes dead:

1. Put up a notice saying you’ve moved.

If you don’t say you’ve moved then no one will know to go to your new blog! Don’t expect people to figure it out. Spell out the URL. Set your big “I’ve moved!” post so that it’s top-most post. Put your new URL loud and clear – in the sidebar, at the top, anywhere that people will see it. People link to old posts and you might not even know it. Incoming traffic to your old blog might not see your “I’ve moved” post so make sure you put your announcement in other places too—maybe a pop up box or in the sidebar. Update your footer with your new URL.

You might even consider editing your old posts with a note at the bottom that you’ve moved and list your new URL.

2. Turn comments to off.

Don’t leave your comments open because spammers know when blogs aren’t being tended to and they descend like a swarm of Dementors. Spammers know that leaving nonsense posts with their website URL in the comments scores them a trackback URL – which raises their Google ranking. It’s insidious. Lock them out.

3. Strip out time-dependent content

Do you have a graphic saying you’re part of a 2011 debut author’s group? Take off anything that might fool visitors into thinking your blog is dead rather than merely in hypersleep. Even better: strip out your sidebar content (keep your tags and archive posts though).

4. Consider repurposing your old posts.

Take some time to go through your old posts. Maybe you want to keep only the best ones, maybe you want to list the most-visited ones. As blogger Sarah Van Barger puts it, “When I started blogging, I’m not sure that SEO was even A Thing and if it was, I surely didn’t know about it. While my content was good, my titles were too quirky and mysterious to inspire much click through and all my photos were saved as “008138ejplorb.jpg.” This was also the age when people used any old photo they found – regardless of copyright and I wasn’t any different.” Sarah recommends finding your best posts and finding a good, legal image for them. She says you should rename the photo as something SEO-friendly – ”woman-using-computer” not “9109282joli.jpg” and that if you named your post something ‘clever’ the first time around (like song lyrics), rename it something obvious and Googleable. Another idea from Sarah is to offer your old blog posts as guest posts.

Hope that helps. These things are all part of managing your online profile and presence—I know, snore-fest stuff, but important when you’re trying to wrap your arms around what it means to be the fabulous author that you are.

Have you transitioned a blog? What worked for you? Any lessons learned you can share?

 About Sierra

Sierra writes fiction that features strong heroines who grow from the challenges they face and always get the guy in the end. A graphic designer by day, she lives in the swampy yet arid wastelands of the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. She has zero will power when it comes to chocolate. In fact, she is the inventor of mix-less trail mix — just leave the chocolate chips.

You can find more of her sass at

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5 Steps Toward Your Truest Contribution

Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft

By Kathryn Craft

Turning Whine Into Gold

The lament of the modern author, whose writing must now compete for purchase with every other book, from classics like the Iliad to the newest self-published odyssey, all of which will now be preserved digitally for all time: how do you add to that in any significant way?

The answer is to write the book that only you can write.

To uncover “your” material you must embrace the wonderful, formidable creation that is you. Here are some ways to accomplish that.

1. Journal. On the pages of your journal you are free to write about whatever crosses your mind. Note, over time, what tends to cross your mind. No one told you to write about this, it simply drifted to the surface. It is important to you. Look for common themes among your dreams, memories, and current concerns. You will learn something.

2. Make lists. This activity differs from journaling in that it is more focused. In her wonderful book The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, choreographer Twyla Tharp says that when she choreographs a new piece she begins by walking into the studio, which is essentially the writer’s “blank page.” But while she is alone in the room, she is alone with her body, ambition, ideas, passions, needs, memories, goals, prejudices, distractions, and fears. Those could be great headings for lists. What does your body tell you? What are some of your favorite memories? We all have prejudices—what are yours?

3. Every now and then, let movies, shows, concerts and books surprise you. Don’t read about the experience at all; go with no expectations. My sons and I used to go to the cheap movie theater in town, no matter what was showing. We were constantly learning about what we liked, what we didn’t like, and why.

4. Put yourself in situations in which you fully expect to be uncomfortable. Much of the best writing is done through the perspective of an outsider—someone trying to figure out the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. Put yourself in that position afresh. Two years after my husband’s suicide, our new next-door neighbor killed himself. I felt compelled to support his young widow, but it was intimidating: in order to get to the funeral I had to cross through a line of bikers protecting the place. My neighbor had been one of their ranks. You could have picked me out in a heartbeat—I was the only woman without tattoos and a doo rag in the place. But it was a powerful, new experience. The bikes proceeded to the interment two-by-two, each biker wearing a black cloth pinned across the club insignia on their jackets—and I was surprised by my tears when my deceased neighbor’s bike took the lead, ridden by his best friend and wife. Witnessing it, I accessed a new little pocket of my humanity.

5. Try to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language. It’s interesting what you learn about your own cultural suppositions when trying to span an even trickier gap. I think here of the way my Danish niece and I invented a non-verbal game by taking hands in the stairwell and going up and down the stairs in different rhythms. Or of the way my stepdaughter’s Hungarian husband met me for the first time, sitting in our living room so straight and formal in his wedding suit and little cap—not on the comfy couch, but on the hard piano bench, honoring me as stepmother by struggling to prove, with his broken English, that he was equal to this new role—and the way he had to turn away to hide his tears after I shared my approval of their union.

What other methods have you used to learn more about yourself?

Your best contribution to the world’s growing body of literature is to write a story born of your soul.

Discover it. Own it. Write it.

About Kathryn

11-13 AofFgiftcardsKathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, which was released on January 28 and has already gone back for a second printing, and The Twelfth Hour (due Spring 2015). Her work as a developmental editor at, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing. She lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA. Although a member of The Liars Club, she swears that everything in this bio is true.

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Unleash Your Inner Writing Child: Word – Play

By Laura Drake

Think back. Waaaay back, to when you first decided you wanted to write. You sat down, maybe at a computer, maybe with a pen and napkin, or even (in my case) on the back of a motorcycle, and wove a story in your head. Remember how excited you were? Everything seemed possible. You had the time to play. Play with plots, characters, words.


It was summer vacation for that little kid who still lived in your brain. Remember? You wrote that story, and I’ll bet you had a ball.

Then, reality hit. You decided you wanted the world to read your story. Whether you chose NY publishing, small press,  or self-publishing, the world now intruded on that playground.

NY or Small Press? You had to get a query together, get savvy on the market, agents, etiquette. You got requests! Or not. You wait. You got an agent! Then you’re on submission, and wait some more. You sold! You wait some more. You have deadlines. Revisions. Deadlines. Self-publish? Even more homework. You need to learn copyrights, publishing options, book cover design, social media, book bloggers, Amazon, Smashwords, etc., etc. And then you wait. Somewhere in all that, you lost the fun.

What happened? Summer vacation was over. Writing became


And that little kid inside that loved the stories? The one who played with that book? He/she doesn’t want a job. They want to have fun.  So they do what kids do – they sulk.


I think this is why many writers give it up. They either quit writing, or only write to please that little kid in their head.

But I wanted both. I’ve always been a ‘cake and eat it too’ kinda person, and I’ll bet you are too. If you want to write AND sell, you have to let that little guy play. Orly Konig Lopez reminded us to relax in a recent post. You can read it here.

I’ve found a way to relax and allow that little kid to have fun – tap back into my love of writing. I play with the words.

I’m endlessly fascinated with the English language. I love playing with the subtle shading of words – it’s like letting that little kid loose with tempura finger paints. Every single day I write, I have the thesaurus open on my browser bar ( ROCKS!)

I use it to find the perfectly shaded word. Like yesterday, I was trying to describe how a grief-stricken heart feels. Of course, the first word I come up with is an everyday word; a black-and-white word.  SAD. That gave me somewhere to start. I went to the thesaurus and it gave me 46 synonyms (shades), but that’s only a beginning. Those gave me other ideas, and I was off, chasing threads of different words, different colors. The line I ended up with was:

Her heart swelled, ponderous with sadness.

I also use the thesaurus to freshen cliches.  I had a young woman with a party-girl BFF. I wanted to freshen the cliche, ‘Walk on the wild side.” Following threads led me to, “Dance on the wild side”.

Sometimes, I let that kid inside to go crazy. This is what she ended up with from one thesaurus session:

His confession stretched on the table between them like a pregnant porcupine – bloated, awkward, and prickly.


Letting that child play is how I find my way back to the joy of writing. And hopefully, I’m entertaining my readers at the same time!

I’d love to see your word play! In the comments, post your original line, then the results after you’ve let that little kid loose!

About Laura

Cover - The Sweet Spot SMALLLaura is thrilled that her first book, The Sweet Spot, was recently  named a Romance Writers of America®   RITA® Finalist, in both the Contemporary and Best First Book categories.

She’ll have two releases in August: Sweet On You, the final book in her Sweet on a Cowboy series, and The Reasons to Stay, the next in her Widow’s Grove small town series.

This year Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She’s a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

photo credit: ex_magicianvia photopincc

photo credit: cytoon via photopin cc

photo credit: Tanozzo via photopin cc

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Using A Crowd To Create Tension In Your Story

By Sharla Rae

Personally, I dread crowds.

They make me feel a bit claustrophobic and oh, the noise! Perhaps this comes from working in my nice quiet office all day; I don’t know. I strive to hit a mall or grocery store on weekdays and not at end of the day when hungry, tired, short-tempered 9 to 5ivers race from work to do a quick and dirty grab for whatever they need. We’re talking lots of negative energy here and these scenes aren’t pretty!

There are many kinds of crowds, though and some are full of energy, the kind that makes excitement bubble beneath your skin and vibrates right down to the bones. This type of energy is contagious. You can literally feel and hear the high voltage zinging through all the people. Think favorite plays, concerts and sporting events. It’s exhilarating. The rushing crush to reach the parking lot afterward – no so much.

So what does this have to do with writing about crowds? We often forget how to use a crowd situation to our best advantage.

A crowd mentioned in passing like a piece of scenery, may have no purpose other than as a backdrop. That’s easy enough to write and in some cases that’s all that’s needed. But most of the time everything in a scene plays a specific part, even the scenery.

A Crowd is a great tool to create tension, good and bad. It can also be used to highlight character personality quirks. Consider some of the following.

  • A crowd might block a character from his immediate goal
  • An angry group of protesters brings out the character’s own emotions on the subject IMG_1538
  • Shoppers lined up at the cash register make the character desperately late
  • Family huddled together anticipating the arrival of a loved one who is late
  • People milling about waiting for good or bad news
  • Character amid a church goers who make her feel guilty or angry at their self-righteousness
  • Party guests mingling -character is a wallflower or the bell of the ball
  • The character hates the noise and jumps at every brushing touch, fearing the hidden enemy.

There as many crowds descriptions as there are kinds of people. Below are just few types of groupings. Keep in mind that both real and figurative meanings can be applied. Using figurative descriptions are a great way to show mood.

 1. It’s fairly common to see crowds of people described in terms of a collection of animals or birds. A fun site using animal groups is Fun With Words-Collective nouns.


  • A crowd compared to a stampeding herd of wild-eyed cattle
  • People compared to a swarm of angry bees? [A cliché but a good example]
  • One of my favorites: a congress of baboons (yes, that’s what they are called and think of the fun you can have with that one!)
  • A rabble of butterflies—think of the Legally Blond heroine with her friends.

2. Military terms: A platoon, corps, forces, brigade, battalion, squadron, regiment, troop etc.

3. Business or Professional: conglomerate, guild, night shift, a trust, alliance, executive branch, middle management, scientists, engineers, gardeners, flight attendants, etc. Example: a conglomerate of stiff-necked bores.

4. School Terms: faculty, class, fraternity, sorority, study group, teachers’ union etc.

5. Age and Gender: Grown women giggling like lovesick teens, Children mimicking their parents, senior citizens, daycare graduates, Yuppies etc.

6. We can also classify groups in terms of inanimate objects: trees, sticks, flowers in a garden, clay pots etc.

7. Race, ethnicity, and religious groups

Especially when using figurative descriptions make sure they fit the scene’s emotional atmosphere and/or the POV character’s opinion and emotions.

 If we used “a congress of baboons,” we’d expect the writer to be referring to a group of ridiculous people, since the connotation of calling even a single person a baboon, usually refers to silly or uncouth person. The description definitely sets a tone and expresses the POV characters opinion.

 Now here’s a list of phrases using adjectives and verbs to describe crowds. Enjoy.

A caucus of four
A clowder of greedy wildcats attacked the sales table.
Assemblage of peacocks at the opera
Battery of bullies in the making
Bored party guests
Bus swelled with all manner of humanity
Carried along by the flow of people
Caught in a clutch of
Children swarmed the ice cream truck
Clustered around the teacher
Congested hallways of the high school
Corralled like piglets in a playpen
Crush of teens at the burger joint
Enclave of artists
Exhilaration in simply being among them
Falling into a snake pit
Field hands, mill workers, and townies rubbed elbows
Flash mob
Fled the city in droves
Flock of ladies who glittered like jewels
Galaxy of movie stars
Gang parted like the Red Sea
Gawkers stood by like judge and jury
Good country folks at a hoedown
Herded people into
Hippy communes giving way to yuppie excutives
Hordes of bargain seekers
Host of loose-limbed little bodies
Huddle of plotting teens
Hustle and bustle of last minute shoppers
In yellow slickers like a caravan of ducks
Incredible din of chatter and laughter
Knot of dissatisfied union workers
League of mean girls
Legions of roaches
Like a night shift of sleepy-eyed custodians
Masses of people struggled to reach
Mean filthy lot
Militaristic faction of skinheads
Milling herd of cattle
Mingled conversations at the party
Mobbed the train depot
Not a gathering, but pure mayhem
Outfit from Red Rock Ranch
Pack of mad dogs snarling
Passel of teen rabble
Piranhas after a bit of meat
Playground jungle gym teemed with
Publisher’s author stable is full
Retinue of boot-lickers
Sandwiched our bodies among
Sea of heads bobbed and dipped
Secretarial pool
Shoulder to shoulder, stepping on toes
Squeezed into the elevator
Swamped with applicants
Thronged around the entrance of
Traffic jams blocked the


General names for Groups of people

Groups of People who work together

CC-Final-Small-Sharla has published three historical romance novels: SONG OF THE WILLOW, LOVE AND FORTUNE, and SILVER CARESS. SONG OF THE WILLOW, her first solo effort, was nominated by “Romantic Times Magazine” for best first historical.

When she’s not writing and researching ways to bedevil her book characters, Sharla enjoys collecting authentically costumed dolls from all over the world, traveling (to seek more dolls!), and reading tons of books. You can find Sharla here at Writers In The Storm or on Twitter at @SharlaWrites.

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Down but Not Out: Finding Inspiration and Moving Forward

0011MichelleBy Michelle Gable

Earlier this year you might’ve read about the Parisian flat left abandoned for the better part of a century. Though photographs of the frozen-in-time apartment went viral only recently, I read about the discovery several years ago and it inspired my debut novel A PARIS APARTMENT.

It was late in 2010, on the heels of yet another heart-punching rejection, this time in the form of a failed five-way auction, which was not even the worst of it (see also: canceled book contract). I was feeling pretty blue.

I was also feeling pretty “maybe I should concentrate on my family and the career that pays me in dollars instead of tears.” It seemed logical for a second. Until, of course, I remembered that I’m a writer. I had to write.

I took a little break, a few weeks, where I didn’t think about the characters I’d already created or pay attention to the ideas trying to coalesce in my mind. Then I started feeling itchy, anxious, and I knew the self-imposed hiatus wouldn’t last.

But what would I write next? I wasn’t sure I could better my last novel which, as quickly as editors claimed to love it, was summarily rejected.

Then, a stroke of luck. First: an unusual discovery on another continent. Then an agent who noticed. Three weeks after my (self-perceived) going-down-in-flames, my agent Barbara Poelle emailed me the following link:

Date: Thu, 21 Oct 2010 15:35:11 -0400

Subject: I’m not sure why

But there is something AWESOME and haunting about this story and I think you should file it away for a book at some point.

And there it was: a forgotten, treasure-stocked Parisian apartment, once owned by a courtesan and later shuttered for seventy years. “Awesome” and “haunting” were merely the start.

Immediately I was drawn to the Mickey Mouse doll slumped in the corner, the grand but faded Ostrich, and the papers crammed onto a bookcase. My brain decided the documents were the courtesan’s private journals. It was the first seed of what would become A PARIS APARTMENT.

I spent months researching the apartment and the people who might’ve walked into and out of it. Alas, the facts remained sparse, not an altogether bad thing for a writer of fiction. When I began the novel we knew only that a young woman stepped out of the apartment in 1940, locked the door, and fled to the south of France. She never returned.

The woman was the granddaughter of Belle Epoque courtesan Marthe de Florian. In the flat was a portrait of Madame de Florian, as rendered by famed portraitist Giovanni Boldini. The artwork later sold for over two million euro at auction but was not the only valuable in the home. The apartment was filled, floor to rafters, with hundreds of museum-quality pieces.

What happened to Marthe de Florian? How did she acquire so many exquisite items? Her granddaughter died in 2010 but paid rent for all those decades. What kept her away from the apartment and its roomfuls of lavish furniture, the stacks of priceless artwork? And what must it have been like to step inside the home after its seventy-year slumber?

My novel explores these questions through the intertwining voices of Sotheby’s furniture expert April Vogt and Madame de Florian herself. Interestingly enough, it was the voice of Marthe that came the easiest.

I still wonder why news of the apartment went viral in 2014 in a way it did not in 2010. Was it the influence of the wildly successful, art world-based novel The Goldfinch? Perhaps the ever-growing appeal of Paris? Or was it merely due to more Twitter and more tweeting?

Whatever the case, the world has renewed interest in Marthe de Florian. And it makes sense. Who wouldn’t be entranced by her gilded, fairy-tale world?9781250048738_p0_v2_s260x420

About Michelle

Michelle Gable graduated from The College of William & Mary. When not dreaming up fiction on the sly, she’s spent her career in finance with focus on private equity, mergers & acquisitions, and, most recently, investor relations and financial planning and analysis. Born and raised in San Diego, Gable currently resides in Cardiff by the Sea, California with her husband, two daughters, and one lazy cat. A Paris Apartment is her first novel and will be published April 22, 2014 by St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books.

Find Michelle on online at, Twitter and Facebook.


Posted in Blogging Guests, Bumps & Bruises on the Road to Publication, Craft, Inspiration | Tagged , , , , | 25 Comments

Do You Know Your Novel’s Theme?

Janice Hardy RGB 72By Janice Hardy

Theme is an often misunderstood and underused aspect of a novel. Years of English classes have made us think that theme is something reserved for literary novels or stories with deep, meaningful messages, not for commercial fiction and good old fashioned stories.

Total bunk.

Theme is a highly useful part of any novel, be it a light-hearted romp or a nail-biting adventure. It’s an element that gives greater meaning to the story and turns background fluff into substance. Basically, it gives a story street cred.

That’s because theme can tie individual pieces of a story together so they work on multiple levels. Descriptive details resonate with a character’s mood, or a plot point becomes a mirror to a internal struggle. Theme makes everything in the story matter.

Unsure what your theme is? Ask yourself…

What larger concepts do you want to explore with your novel?

Odds are there’s more to the story you want to tell than a series of plot events, no matter how cool those plot events might be (and if there’s not, that’s okay, too). Perhaps you’re exploring the nature of power, or what it means to be human, or how a good person can do bad things. Whatever it is, there’s something bigger in your story on a conceptual level. If someone asked you what your story was about, you might even use this to describe it.

Try making of list of the concepts in your novel. Are there any common elements developing? Can you see a bigger picture connecting them? If not, think about how you might connect them or how they might work together to create a larger idea.

If you had to pick one cliché or adage to describe your novel, what would it be? How might you adapt that as your theme?

It might sound silly, but clichés are practically theme shorthand. If it sounds like something you’d stitch on a pillow or Grandma has it framed on her wall, there’s a good chance it’s your theme. “Love conquers all” is a great theme for a romance novel that explores the struggles a couple goes through to be happy. “You can’t fight city hall” might work for a dystopian that explores the futility of trying to change the way society works. Or you might tweak it and say “you can fight city hall” to show that a small group of people can indeed change the world for the better.

Try picking the cliché that best fits your novel and see where you can use it to flesh out a scene or element in the story. Look for places where this theme can be illustrated. For example, show moments where “love” makes a difference, even if it’s obliquely. Themes don’t have to bang readers over the head to be effective.

What are common problems in the novel? Do they point to a theme?

If no cliché works, and there are no larger concepts behind the story, trying looking at the problems the characters face. Is there a common element to them? Are there similar obstacles or struggles to be overcome? For example, if you notice a lot of problems that deal with the protagonist trying to prove something about himself, then maybe the theme is about being true to who you are, or standing up to those who lack faith in you.

Try listing the problems in your novel and see if there’s a common thread that could be developed into your theme.

What are common character flaws or dreams?

The theme might apply to more than just the protagonist. Maybe every character is facing a similar problem, either internally or externally. If they all lack generosity in some way, perhaps the theme is related to greed or selfishness. What they hope for can also suggest a theme. If all the major characters wish for a life without fear, then overcoming fear might be your theme.

Try listing the flaws, then the dreams, of your major characters. Look for similarities that could hint at a larger theme.

Once you’ve found your theme, use it to deepen your novel by giving greater meaning to your scenes. While not every scene needs to be dripping with theme, even thinking about the bigger picture as you write could influence how you choose to develop those scenes–what details you use to describe the setting, how someone reacts, what happens overall. When faced with choices on what to use or do, think about how it might show the theme and if that will make the scene richer.

Do you use theme in your novels? Do you plan for it or does it just happen?

PYN_Ideas and Structure Cover.inddLooking for more on planning or revising your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.

Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure takes you step-by-step through finding and developing ideas, brainstorming stories, and crafting a solid plan for your novel—including a one-sentence pitch, summary hook blurb, and working synopsis.

Over 100 different exercises lead you through the novel-planning process, with ten workshops that build upon each other to flesh out your idea as much or as little as you need to do to start writing.

Find Exercises On:

– Creating Characters
– Choosing Point of View
– Determining the Conflict
– Finding Your Process
– Developing Your Plot
– And So Much More!

Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to planning your novel, as well as a handy tool for revising a first draft, or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working.

About Janice

Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy

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When You’re Stuck, Relax

by Orly Konig-Lopez

Last week my husband convinced me to go on a bike ride with him. My road bike has been in the basement on a trainer for well over a year. To say I was a bit nervous is an understatement. After all, in the basement I don’t have to worry about becoming a hood ornament or becoming intimately acquainted with a tree. But it was a gorgeous day, I was stuck with writing and it was time to squash that little negative devil in my head.

So off we went. A few minutes into the ride, hubby dropped back and said, “Don’t fight the bike. If you relax, it’ll be much easier.”

Okay. Relax. Easy. I can relax. Yeah, not so much.

Throughout the next two and a half hours, I’d hear “ReeeeeLaaaaxxxxx” from up ahead. I’d loosen my death grip on the handlebars and let the bike flow. And guess what? It got easier. And fun.

Somewhere around mile eighteen and half way up a steep uphill, I started laughing. Can’t breathe, legs are melting jello, and I’m laughing like a lunatic. Hubby was sure I’d finally snapped. Nope. Well sort of. It was one of those, “how did you not see this answer before” moments.

One word … Relax.

Relax about process. As writers many of us become obsessed over the process of writing. Laura Drake even wrote a post about Process Envy (yes it’s a real thing!). Are you making daily word count? Should you have a daily word count or a weekly goal? Do you write every day? Are you writing at the same time each day? Do you plot first or dive straight into the deep end?

I’ll admit to process envy. I love reading how authors I admire do it. Maybe if I try it their way, I’ll find that elusive secret to writing greatness. This latest WIP has had a lot of starts and stops. I tried plotting. The story refused to be caged. I tried daily word counts. Life refused to cooperate. Guess what happened when I relaxed about the process? Yup, I was able to … are you ready? … write. Really write. The moment I released my death grip on controlling the process, the words flowed. And it was fun.

Relax about finding the words. Do you edit as you write or dump words onto the page without editorial censorship? What do you do when that perfect word is hiding behind some random thought?

This was circulating around Facebook several months ago. I had to print it out and paste it next to my desk. I’m not a clean first drafter. There are times I stare at the computer, cursor mocking me with each passing blink over that one word that will not come out to play. Yesterday when I realized I’d spent counting 23 cursor blinks instead of moving the sentence forward, I wrote “something fresh here” and moved on. The rest of the scene flowed and a few paragraphs later, that “something fresh” showed up.

Relax about the ‘what next’. Do you have an agent “hit list” before you’ve even finished the first draft? Are you thinking about the best submission times before you’ve completed revisions? Do you worry about whether the book you haven’t started writing yet will sell as well as the one you just released? Are you worried about where the next idea will come from?

You can stress yourself into total paralysis. There are a lot of things that are out of your control. There’s no way to know what market demand will be in a few month, a year, two years. There’s no way to know if an agent will connect with your story even if she tweeted that she had a dream about purple flying unicorns and your book has purple flying unicorns.

Think about why you started writing. Let the love for telling stories be your motivation, not signing the agent or selling lots of copies. That doesn’t mean you abandon those goals. Not by any stretch of the imagination. If you give yourself permission to relax about the things you can’t control, the parts you do have control over – writing the best damn book you can – will be so much easier.

Relax. Such a simple word. So hard to do. I’ve found myself repeating hubby’s “ReeeeeLaaaaxxxxx” when the shoulders start to bunch up and slamming my head into the desk sounds less painful. I don’t always succeed. But when I do, it’s so much more fun.

What’s your solution to those “stuck” moments?

About Orly

Orly Konig-LopezAfter years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet.  When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonigLopez or on her website,


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Performing Your Book

Barbara Claypole WhiteBy Barbara Claypole White

Before the launch of my debut novel, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, I lost 5lbs to performance terror. Painfully shy as a teenager, my mother and music teacher once had to conspire to sneak Valium backstage so I could perform a solo in the high school band. (It’s okay, we’re talking about the seventies.) Bottom line? I was never having a career that involved podiums or microphones.

The day of my first author reading, I attained a catatonic state of anxiety so complete that I believed my heart would stop as I opened my mouth to whisper, “Hello, I’m Barbara.” For someone with high blood pressure and a family history of heart troubles, that’s not an irrational fear.

Three months ago I launched my second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, with an extra 5lbs and a normal case of the jitters. What had changed from one book to the next? Endless exposure to my fear, which is standard treatment for an anxiety disorder? A slew of polished performances? Nope. Acceptance was the key.

I learned to accept that my flaws are part of my performance. Peel back my nerves about author events and you reveal the underlying fear—that instead of projecting the professional author persona, I would crack jokes, loose track of my thoughts, rumble off on tangents, and speak from the heart. Maybe even get a little tearful or start talking about my favorite gin. I routinely do all these things in my author events and they seem to work. As I open myself up to strangers, they open up to me. The comment I hear most often is, “You’re so real.” (And then we have great discussions about my favorite topic: invisible disabilities.)

Does this mean I’m a flake who doesn’t prepare her talks? Au contraire, my friends. I prepare the heck out of every event, but I leave enough wiggle room so that I can be me—so that I can veer off on tangents and go wherever the mood takes me. I like to think of it as prepared spontaneity.

Back to basics, how do I achieve a non-catatonic state of performance being?

(1)  I go to loads of readings and watch A-list authors. I take notes and time their presentations. (I like to figure out how long they spend discussing the book, how long they read for, how long they leave for questions, etc.)

(2) I practice, practice, practice…. (Often I do this in the car, which means I get very strange looks at stoplights.)

(3) When I’ve figure out what I want to say, I give a dummy performance to the toughest critic I know: my husband. I’m cheating a little here, since my beloved is an internationally-renowned academic and a master performer. Really, I couldn’t pick a better coach.

(4) After my husband has told me what works and what doesn’t, I create a crib sheet with bullet points. As long as I cover those bullet points, I can be loosey-goosey. Also, if I get too far off track, I can glance down to see what I haven’t covered and rein myself it.

(5) Then I close my office door and using my crib sheet, I practice with a timer until the presentation works. This gives me a sense of how much I can talk around one particular point (for example, why I write about mental illness).

(6) I prepare several presentations of different length. This is key for book clubs. Some book clubs want a real performance; others want a brief introduction before discussion time. Again, if you’re prepared, you can seem spontaneous (even though you’re really not).

(7) I devote a huge chunk of time to practicing the reading portion of my event, marking words I stumble over or places where I want to pause to give backstory, inject an aside, or simply make use of silence.

(8) When my brain does implode mid-flow, which it did twice in a recent event, I turn it over to the audience and say, “There goes my middle-aged woman’s brain. What was I talking about?” When people shout out answers, you get to play twenty questions. 🙂

(9) If the nerves return to haunt me, I remind myself that I AM the leading expert in the world on my novel. Yes, we all make mistakes in research, but nothing you say about your characters or why you wrote the story can ever be wrong. You are performing your book. This is your passion, your creation, your baby. Be yourself and be proud.

What tricks do you have for getting through author events or other speaking engagements?

In-Between HourAbout Barbara

Barbara Claypole White writes and gardens in the forests of North Carolina. English born and educated, she’s married to an internationally-acclaimed academic. Their son, an award-winning poet/musician, attends college in the Midwest. His battles with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have inspired her to write love stories about damaged people. THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt, won the 2013 Golden Quill for Best First Book. Barbara’s second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, a story of two broken families released on December 31.

Connect with Barbara on her website, Facebook or Twitter

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Hunting Down A Sleuth: Creating a Crime-Solver Readers Will Love

SusanSpann_WITSby Susan Spann

Sherlock Holmes. Jane Marple. Jack Reacher.

Three famous names with something important in common … aside from the fact that each of them solves crimes in mystery or thriller novels.

What is this common element?

Readers love them.

The key to writing successful mysteries and thrillers doesn’t lie in careful plotting, clever crimes, or sneaky suspects. The heart of these stories beats in the chest of the sleuth.

Everyone enjoys a puzzle, and a tightly-woven plot is important, but readers return to a mystery (or thriller) series because they want to spend more time with a favorite hero(ine). Solving the puzzle is much more fun when you “ride along” with a friend, and a well-written sleuth is a reader’s friend indeed.

So before you sit down to commit—and solve—the initial crime in your manuscript, hunt down a compelling hero (or heroine) your readers will remember long after they turn the final page.

How do you “find” such a person? Let’s look at a few of the characteristics that most successful sleuths (and thriller-heroes) have in common:

1. Unusual Occupations. Many authors assume a sleuth must be a professional. The mystery and thriller shelves are filled with FBI agents, police, and forensic specialists doing their best to catch the killer and save the world.

But with so many “standard” crime solvers already in circulation, sometimes readers like to see a different kind of sleuth.

Brother Cadfael is a monk. Miss Marple, a widow. My own detective, Hiro Hattori, is a ninja.

Giving your hero a lesser-known occupation opens new worlds for the reader and also allows you a different range of crime-solving skills. Be creative! Your readers will love the change.

2. A Limp, An Eyepatch, and Battle Scars. In his popular screenwriting how-to, SAVE THE CAT, Blake Snyder recommends giving every character “a limp and an eyepatch” to distinguish him (or her) from the other characters in the scene. The idea applies to novels, too, and a good detective always has an unusual physical characteristic (or “tell”).

The characteristic can either relate your sleuth’s physical appearance—Is he missing an eye or a finger? Does she dye her eyebrows green?—or you can use it to establish a mood or reaction. My detective, Hiro Hattori, has a tendency to raise an eyebrow for ironic effect. His sidekick, Father Mateo, runs a hand through his hair when distressed or upset.

In addition to adding uniqueness and depth of character, physical characteristics can become an effective shorthand for a character’s mood or thought.

3. And Also, a Trunk Full of Baggage. Special Agent Gibbs (of NCIS) lost his wife and daughter (they were murdered by a drug lord). Jack Reacher has a shadowed past, and lives like he’s on the run. Miss Marple never married, and she’s crotchety as the day is long.

Nobody’s perfect, and your sleuth should not be, either. Every person has experienced disappointment, injury, and unresolved issues (or broken dreams). Your hero needs to suffer, too.

Whether the suffering happens onstage (for example, the death of a family member) or off (a tragedy or problem in the past) is up to you. But you must do something. Readers respond to damaged heroes. Watching a character overcome her own problems to help someone else is compelling on many levels.

Take a hammer to your sleuth’s emotional kneecaps. Use your plot or series to help him recover.

Your readers will love you—and your detective—for it.

4. Keep the Skeletons IN the Closet (Mostly). A good detective or thriller hero must feel like a real person, which almost always involves an extensive and detailed backstory.

Readers hate backstory. Flights of memory, or fancy, interrupt the flow of the narrative and distract from the sleuth’s objective: solving the crime.

The answer? Treat your detective’s backstory like a good mystery: drop some clues, but don’t reveal the entire thing. Spread the story across the series. Hide it in the stories like an Easter bunny dropping chocolate eggs. (Don’t spend too long on that metaphor. You don’t want to think about where those “chocolates” come from…)

By keeping your hero’s skeletons IN the closet, except for occasional peeks, you’ll keep your readers engaged, intrigued, and eager for the next reveal.

5. It’s Dangerous to Go Alone … Some sleuths do solve crimes alone, but most of them have a sidekick, a pet, or both. Sidekicks serve an important purpose (which, hopefully, I’ll get to share in more detail next month). Pets do too. They humanize the hero(ine) and draw the reader closer. Incorporating one, or both, allows the writer to bring the reader right into the story, alongside the sleuth, and to see the sleuth behaving like a human being as well as a hero.

The choices are limitless, and the options as wide as your imagination.

You don’t have to integrate all of these tips to create a fantastic, compelling sleuth. Select the ones that work for you, and ignore the ones that don’t. Even if you work with only one or two of these options, you’ll find your hero becoming increasingly three-dimensional and intriguing … characteristics that keep your readers coming back for more.

Have you ever thought about writing a mystery? How about a thriller? Do you use some or all of these elements when creating your protagonists? (They work in other genres too, you know!)

9781250027054_p0_v2_s260x420About Susan

Susan Spann is a California publishing and business attorney who also writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. Her second novel, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases July 15, 2014. Susan’s legal practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website,, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).


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