Friday, 31 July 2009

Do I Need a Literary Agent?

Some authors decide to go it alone believing the commission that agents charge on the sales of the author’s book can be saved. But when one considers the amount of work a good literary agent invests into plugging an author’s book, this commission is well earned, and the author is more able to spend valuable time writing the book instead.

What the Literary Agent Does

This is why I would recommend using a literary agent. But perfecting, editing and polishing the work are essential, or the agent will delegate it to the slush pile.

A good literary agent must act on the author’s behalf and to the best interests of all around. This will include matters of:
  • Negotiating the best and most suitable commission for the author
  • To inform on all legal matters, particularly on the small print
  • To keep accurate records on all correspondence and accounts
  • To be there to advise on concerns and queries
  • To know the book market thoroughly as well as up to date changes
  • And perhaps most importantly, to have a good working relationship with the author
Finding the Best Literary Agent

Finding a good book agent is vital to the author’s writing career. Furthermore, most publishing giants will not look at unsolicited manuscripts unless it has been referred via a literary agent. In order to find the right agent, the author may practice the following:
  • Always keep an up to date version of the Artist and Illustrator’s Yearbook (AC Black) that lists reputable agents (as well as publishers).
  • With this invaluable resource, he author is able to ensure that the work submitted suits the portfolio of work the agent is willing take on. For instance, an agent that specialises in crime fiction is unlikely to take on a work of romantic fiction
  • If the author is unsure, finding a reliable recommendation is a good idea. An internet search will often reveal agents that have a bad reputation, but also those with good repute. From this, the author is able to make informed decisions.
Submitting Work to a Literary Agent

When sending a manuscript to an agent, the author must ensure the submission package is impeccable and contains everything the agent requests. This might be:
  • The first three chapters of the novel
  • The format is usually in Times New Roman with double line spaces, printed on one side
  • A covering letter with the author’s contact details
  • A synopsis of the novel
  • Return postage
Of course, the submission package must be clean, crisp and free of typos and grammatical errors. The author might seek the second opinion of a trusted party prior to sending the submission.

Guidance on Submitting a Novel to a Literary Agent

Further information on sending manuscripts to a literary agent, as well as publishers, and other matters of novel writing can be found on my website on how to write novels, that contains advice on creating characters, editing the novel and writing dialogue for novels.

How do I Write a Novel Synopsis?

Writing a synopsis for a novel is not easy, but is an essential inclusion in a submission package. The synopsis, or plot outline, as it is sometimes called, provides a shop window from which a potential agent can peek through before reading the novel. Getting it right can make the difference between getting the novel read and having the story rejected with a thanks but no thanks.

What Should be Included in a Synopsis?

The Dreaded Synopsis
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Many publishers and agents will request a synopsis along with the sample chapters of the novel. How a synopsis should be formatted can be a touchy issue, so it is important to read the publisher’s submission guidelines that can be found within the Artist & Illustrator’s Yearbook (AC Black) or looking at the publisher’s website. The following will often apply:
  • The synopsis should be typed using a plain font, such as Times New Roman or Arial point 12.
  • Typos and grammatical errors are banned
  • The synopsis should be no longer than 250 words long, printed on one side of the page
  • The author’s details should be exhibited at the top
  • The story should be told in the present tense
  • No dialogue should be included
  • Some publishing houses, request that the character’s name should be in capitals the first time it is shown on the synopsis and in title case thereafter
  • The story should be told in an informal way (no slang terms or colloquialisms).
  • All key scenes and plot twists should be included and briefly described
  • No cliff-hangers allowed. The ending should be revealed to show the writer has created a white-knuckle conclusion and tied all loose ends
  • Lastly, the synopsis should compel the reader to the state of oblivion to what is going on, which is the most difficult and important part.
Story Telling the Synopsis

The synopsis should also reflect the feel of the novel, and describe accurately the novel’s events. The publisher would understandably be disgruntled if the synopsis showed promise that the novel failed to deliver. It is therefore vital that the author reads and rereads the synopsis to ensure it accurately portrays the novel.
I often imagine the reader in the publishing house to be work weary, itching to clock off and looking for a reason to reject the synopsis. Ensuring that there is nothing in the synopsis to spur the reader to sling it into the rejection pile is vital if the author hopes to get the full length novel read. Its one-page length makes every word more significant, so the thesaurus would be invaluable.

However, going over the synopsis too much could make errors invisible. In this respect, it would be worth getting another reader to go through the synopsis to ensure it reads as it should. Feedback is often invaluable.

What Else to Include in the Submission Package

If the novel contains numerous characters, it might be worth enclosing a brief rundown of characters within the novel with a brief description of each. This would help make the reading of the synopsis easier for the agent, and also come in handy if the full length novel is requested. A tagline, a one sentence summary of the novel could come in useful within the covering letter.

The Importance of the Novel Synopsis

The synopsis then, is a vital part of the submission package, and because it is limited in length, every word becomes more significant. The synopsis is often read by the publisher before the sample chapters, which makes the synopsis all the more important. Getting every word to perfection and telling an intriguing story in a compelling style is the key to getting the publisher to take notice.

Links on Preparing a Submission Package to Publishers

Books on Novel Writing
Submitting the novel to a literary agent
Writing a Synopsis to a novel
Hated modern cliches in novel writing

My Novel Writing Style is Bland

Effective or unique use of adjectives, adverbs, portrayal of emotions and active writing can result in great writing style. It helps if the writer sees examples of good and poor writing to appreciate the difference.

Developing Writing Style in Story Telling

But to improve writing style, the beginner in novel writing must be made aware of the culprits to bad writing style which could be any of the following
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  • Writing reams of descriptive passages that slows the pace of the novel to a standstill
  • Using ten words when only one or two would do
  • Using too many adjectives, adverbs and emotion words within the prose
  • Telling rather than showing the reader what is going on in the story
  • Too much passive writing, making the reader feel detached from the thoughts and actions of the characters
  • Too much dialogue, action or descriptive prose within the novel making it a slog to read due to an imbalance of elements within the story
  • The narrative style of the story lacking definition in voice or having a confused viewpoint
  • Lastly, if the narrative style does not inspire the reader to keep reading, something is definitely amiss.
Developing a Unique Writing Style

The beginner in writing novels will also be easily impressionable and impressed by the diversity of narrative styles that can be found within many books. The writer may be unsure of the writing style that harbours within. Although it is a good thing to read other masters at this craft, it is also wise to get some space from other books and to look within for the writer’s own narrative style.

What is Good Writing Style?

The following no nonsense tips will help tighten the narrative prose and make it more interesting to the reader

Be an adjective and adverb police. Get the red pen out if descriptive words serve no purpose. Such examples as “a big mountain,” or “running quickly,” would read as well as cutting “big.” or “quickly.” Replacing flabby and overused adjectives with more evocative and accurate adjectives would serve better.

Watch out for words that tell and not describe, such as telling the reader that the character “felt frightened.” Describing the character’s unique experience of fear would do better without using the word itself. Sensations such as heartbeat, taste in the mouth, what the character hears and sees, is more compelling to the reader than just being told what the character is feeling.

Getting to the point serves to tighten the narrative style and make the novel more readable. This involves cutting words and passages and using alternative words. Avoiding clichés and hackneyed phrases will also make the novel a more unique read.

A well-drawn character is more likely to have a unique narrative voice. The hero or heroine must be intimately known and understood by the writer before their thoughts and viewpoints can be described. If the viewpoint is vague or indistinct, the writer may have to go back to the drawing board have a rethink about the main character.

Compelling Writing Style

A good plot will be ruined by poor writing style. The writer can develop good style by simple practices, such as cutting redundant words and descriptive passages, avoiding clichés and finding a more original way of expressing thoughts and emotions. Above all, the viewpoint of a unique and well drawn character is more likely to result in a compelling narrative style.

The Quality of My Novel is Patchy

The author may feel a mixture of exhilaration and despair when reading the first draft of the novel, comparable to that of driving over a potholed road. This is to be expected, for the first draft will rarely be perfect.

How to Edit the Novel to Perfection

To create a smooth and consistent quality throughout the novel, the following editorial issues will need to be addressed, each requiring slightly different approach.
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  • Do stereotypical characters harbour within the story?
  • Does any of the dialogue overtly serve the plot twists or inform the reader, and does this compromise its authenticity?
  • Is there too much dialogue or not enough in the novel, making it a slog to read? Can the two be adjusted to a more balanced ratio?
  • Do any of the characters stand idly by doing nothing? Would the story suffer if they were cut or combined with another character?
  • Can any of the characters be made more interesting by reconsidering their motives and past histories?
  • Do the scenes flow seamlessly from one to the next?
  • Does the narrative style tell the story in a compelling way and have a distinctive voice?
  • Are there too many purple passages containing reams of description that slows the pace of the story?
  • Is the story too fast paced, not giving the reader the chance to a breather or to build tension within the story?
  • Are the placement of climaxes in lulls in the story well-placed within the story? Could they be moved around for better effect?
  • Look out for typos, grammatical errors and presentation
How to Improve the Novel

But although the novel comprises these aspects of description, narrative prose, action, characterisation, dialogue and pace, the novel must be looked at as an entirety to see is it all hangs together in a balanced way. This can only be achieved by putting the novel away for a while, usually two weeks or more, and reading it from scratch. Over reading and analysing a novel make errors and plot flaws invisible to the author.

Some writers draft a novel up to ten or more times before the novel is judged to be satisfactory. But asking a trusted friend to read the novel is a good way of getting a different viewpoint and feedback. Editorial consultancies will offer this service for a fee, giving constructive feedback that will increase the novel’s chances of finding a publisher or a literary agent.

Troubleshooting the Novel

It is often the small things that will help the novel find a publisher. Examining matters of passive writing, overuse of adjectives, emotion words and using just the right words, will set a novel apart. At other times, receiving rejection letters, particularly with feedback, will help the author’s writing development. Setbacks and frustrations will often help the author grow more resilient and develop the characteristics that are required for good novel writing, such as discipline, persistence and perfectionism.

There's No Tension in My Screenplay

With the sole aim of completing screenplay, the writer may have forgotten about strategic placement of scenes or of creating tension within the story. What may result is a screenplay that seems to reel from one scene to another without any ups or downs and an unceremonious finish.

Dramatic Tension in Screenplays

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Creating tension in film is what screenwriting is all about. This involves a firm understanding of the story arc, which will help with plotting the screenwriting structure. By this, understanding, the screenwriter can control tension by strategic placement of climaxes and lulls within the story.

What is a Scene?

But firstly, what defines a scene? Well a screenplay is comprised of a series of scenes all lined together like a chain. Each begins by a new setting or time. In each scene, something happens between one or more characters, whether this is a series of actions or discourse. In each case, there must be some sort of tension that moves the story forward.

What is the Story Arc?

Simply put, the story arc consists of a set up, the main conflict and the climax. The set up of the story, or introduction, will include a trigger incident that sets the tension in motion. The main conflict of the story consists of a series of climaxes and lulls that leads to the main climax of the story. The climax is the ultimate scene that results in a conclusion. Scenes are used to string together the story arc.

Dramatic Scene Writing

Creating dramatic scenes involves knowing what to cut out as well as what to include. Indeed, editing the first draft of a screenplay often involves cutting. The following tips will help the screenwriter with knowing which scenes to cut:
  • If a scene serves no purpose in the story arc, If it were cut, would the story suffer?
  • If there is insufficient tension, consider piling more tension by magnifying a situation, for example for its humour, embarrassment potential or conflict
  • Combining the purpose of two separate scenes into one will tighten the screenplay and add more depth to a scene.
  • Cutting some of the dialogue will add tension by unspoken feelings. Subtext is often used to add tension for the disparity between action and words
  • Ensure that the characters within each scene contrast sufficiently with one another by motives and personality to create tension
  • But ensure that the action and dialogue rings true of the character. Audiences will feel cheated if a character suddenly acts unconvincingly out of character just to serve a plot twist
  • Each scene must be integral to the plot
  • Avoid too many subplots, or parallel storylines that could take the focus from the main story
Creating Tension with Subtext

Using subtext is a great way of manipulating tension within a screenplay. Subtext is the difference between open behaviour and spoken words to what the characters are truly feeling. The audience may get a hint of this by subtle touches in the screenplay, such as a covert look or a secret that the other characters are unaware of.

Montages in Screenplays

The passing of time and segues can be expressed by a series of events or montages, which consist of a succession of images. On a screenplay, this will consist of short descriptions of events in quick succession, such as character leaving a building or driving to work. Montages dispenses with the need for sluglines (a heading informing of the time of day and location at the opening of each scene.)

More About Screenwriting

The screenwriter must allow lulls between climatic scenes, or the screenplay will have only one gear, which would make the screenplay indigestible. Further matters of screenwriting can be found on my website on how to write screenplays. Character creation and how to write dialogue are explored, as well as other matters of screenwriting which can be used to add tension.

Helpful Articles on Screenwriting

How to write the subplot to a screenplay
What is wrong with my screenplay?
Write your first screenplay

The Dialogue in My Screenplay is Stilted

The screenwriter inspired with a great plot idea could be stumped when putting words into characters’ mouths. The page remains stubbornly blank after the character cue, forcing the writer to resort to clichéd dialogue that lacks distinction. How can the screenwriter make the words flow from characters’ mouths naturally?

How to Write Dialogue for Screenplays

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Dialogue in films forms an essential part of building tension and revealing characters. Without effective use of dialogue, the screenplay will fall flat, regardless of how engaging the plot is. This is why writing dialogue is so important.

So when submitting a screenplay to a film agent or entering a scriptwriting competition, the screenwriter must ensure that the dialogue sparkles with tension and defines every character. The following tips will help:
  • Knowing when not to include dialogue is as important as knowing when to use it. Unspoken action will often create more tension within a screenplay than expressing what might be going on in the characters’ minds
  • Ensure that each character has different agendas and personalities will create conflict during discourse. Characters too similar or lacking in distinction will result in a flat screenplay
  • Conducting some research into the characters’ backgrounds will help the screenwriter think about how each might sound when speaking, for instance, by considering dialect, family background, education or temperament. This will help create dialogue that is so distinctive, the reader need not see the character cue to know who is speaking.
  • A little description on the character cue will inform how the words should be spoken if this is not already clear. How something is said has equal weight as what is actually being said
Writing Dialogue in Screenplays

Writing characters’ dialogue should always be distilled to the core. A screenplay that has too much speech can be a slog to read and feel spouty (with the exception of illustrating the spouty nature of one of the characters). Dialogue must sound authentic, yet cut to the minimum. A good mix of action and dialogue is likely to create a more balanced screenplay than one that contains too much of one or the other.
The screenwriter must also bear in mind that one page of a screenplay equals one minute of screen-time. Speech can easily use up lots of pages of screenplay, for the screenplay format allows but six to eight words of dialogue per line, which is perhaps a good thing.

Mistakes to Avoid when Writing Dialogue for Screenplays

The essence of dialogue can be achieved by avoiding the following fatal mistakes when writing dialogue:
  • Every word spoken must serve a purpose, even if this is not obvious to the audience. This might be to define the character, create tension, reveal a discretion by a lie or the imparting of a secret.
  • Repetition must be avoided.
  • Dialogue that sounds contrived or merely to serve the plot twist will sound amateurish.
  • Listening to real life discourse will help the screenwriter gain an ear for authentic sounding speech and to cut dialogue that sounds wrong
  • Dialogue that serves no purpose other than chit chatty discourse about the weather must be cut. Each scene must begin at the core of the action.
More About Writing Screenplays

Make your Characters Real in your Screenplay

Reading the first draft of a films script may reveal characters that seem to act at the screenwriter’s whim, lacking life, spine or individuality. What can the writer do to create realistic, interesting and unique characters to bring the story to life?

How to Create Fictional Characters for Screenplays

The conception of vivid and convincing characters is a godsend for the screenwriter, for their inner forces drive the plot. Without compelling characters, the viewer is unlikely to care about what happens to them and the story will fall flat. Character creation for film is explored fully in my website on writing screenplays. However, the following tips and suggestions may help bring screenplay characters to life.
  • Developing a profile questionnaire
  • Creating motives and drives
  • Making characters speak
  • Forcing the viewer to empathise with the characters in some way, whether the character is a hero or villain
  • Avoiding stereotypical characters
  • Above all, each character must serve a purpose within the plot, driving it forward and creating tension
Creating Characters Through Questionnaire

To help jolt the thought processes into creative mode, the screenwriter may develop a character questionnaire, which will force the writer to think of details not conceived before, such as style of dress, education and marital status. These things are likely to make the writer think about each character in more detail and therefore draw them out.

How to Make Characters Believable within the Screenplay

It is one thing to create a biography to a fictional character, but it is entirely another to breathe life and soul into the players. But this can be achieved by projecting a characteristic of the writer into the character. This characteristic can be heavily disguised or the circumstances altered, but this will help the writer empathise with the character, whether he or she is a hero or a villain, and this will show in the writing. This is key to creating characters that audiences care about.

Making Characters Speak

If the screenwriter finds it hard to make a particular character speak, it is often because their motives are not well-sketched out. This will make a character hollow and unconvincing. If the writer understands the ins and outs of a character, the words should come naturally. A problem in this area is a sign that the writer needs to go back to the drawing board in character conception.

Creating Incidental Characters

With the main characters created, the screenwriter may think about the incidental characters, which must be kept to a minimum or the focus will be taken from the story. It is easy to fall prey to creating stereotypical characters which merely serve a convenience for the plot. This must be avoided. Observing people in everyday life, such as in a shopping queue or train may spur new ideas for creating interesting minor characters without having to go into depth.

How to Make Fictional Characters Work in Film

Each character must serve a purpose within the screenplay, or the story will not move forward. A character must never stand idly by not doing anything. Cutting is often the answer to a problem within a screenplay. If each character has a well-drawn biography, is deeply understood by the writer and has motives and desires that will impact upon the plot, the writer is halfway toward writing a compelling screenplay propelled by compelling characters.

Articles on Screenwriting

Create the best theme for your screenplay
Putting words into characters' mouths
Create a strange character
Subplot to the screenplay
The ideal logline for your script
Writing a short screenplay
Specialized books on screenwriting