Thursday, April 30, 2009
WELCOME GUEST BLOGGER AND AGENT EXTRAORDINAIRE, NATASHA KERN!
Julie here, and I am absolutely THRILLED to introduce my agent and dear friend, Natasha Kern. Ranked 11th in the list of top 25 literary agencies for new writers by Writer’s Digest, Natasha has over 24 years of experience in the publishing industry as an editor and publicist for New York publishers (Simon & Schuster, Bantam and Ballantine) before founding her own agency in 1986. She has personally sold more than 900 books and represents several NY Times and USA Today best-selling authors, as well as winners of the Edgar Award, the RITA award, the Silver Dagger Award, the Christy Award, the Hurston/Wright Award, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She has taught workshops and been a speaker at dozens of writers conferences including Romance Writers of America National Conference, The Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, Association of Christian Fiction Writers, as well as regularly attending Book Expo and ICRS and many others.
Without further ado, I give you one of the best agents in the business, Natasha Kern.
I have received submissions from several of you and, of course, some of you are already clients of the Natasha Kern Agency. In considering what you might be most interested to have me discuss, I decided to focus on why some writers have been accepted as clients and others have not. Feel free to ask questions on any aspect of working with an agent or publishing in general.
One of the things that I have talked to several of you about is the issue of having a premise. One of the blessings of writing for the Christian market is that many writers realize that their novels must be “about” something. This is much harder for writers in the general market to grasp. However, even with CBA novels, writers often select a verse from the Bible and may even intend to write a book with that verse at the heart of it, but I commonly see submissions in which the story has nothing at all to do with that verse as a premise. A premise is the “aha” the reader gets from reading the book--what used to be called The Moral of the Story-- and it informs virtually ever aspect of a novel, every scene, every plot element, every character. Like pieces of music, dance performances, paintings or poetry, a novel is a work of art that is about ONE primary thing. It is a parable that illustrates that insight and the way it is presented and the kind of “aha” we receive depends on the viewpoint of the author. Think of books like Pilgrim’s Progress which has a classic structure, the works of Shakespeare, or novels by George Eliot and Jane Austin to see how they are informed by both premise and structure. Your life experiences, your understanding of faith and how God works through you, your background and family history and so many other things contribute to a unique worldview and therefore a unique voice, style and story which cannot be duplicated by someone else. Be true to that.
This is one reason why giving back the gifts God has given to us is so important. As Robin Lee Hatcher says, “God never wastes a hurt.” And, indeed, even our traumatic experiences provide material for artistic expression. Authorial authenticity is a crucial ingredient that brings a story to life, so it is not just another historical romance, another contemporary book about family problems, or another redemption story. This is unmistakable to agents and editors and results in a sense of uniqueness, an engaging quality, a voice that is not a derivative of another writer. When we see it, we sit up and take notice. It could be a light, comic touch like Mary Connealy’s. Or it could be a special insight about family life and how we share our values and also our troubles that Julie Lessman imparts. Or it could be the hard lessons of characters in a historical setting like Tamera Alexander writes. In her most recent novel The Inheritance, the hero prays, “break me until I am wholly thine.” Which of us does not admire that and which of us has the courage to pray for that? The impact is powerful and informs the entire novel as premise, voice, and authentic authorial expression.
Because this commitment to write what has been laid on your heart is so all important, it is one of the most important things I am looking for when reading a submission. I do not really have a list of types of books I am currently seeking. I was asked by ACFW to send such a list for their website preparatory for the upcoming conference in September. I wrote to them and said, “I am taking on new clients who are part of God’s plan for my life rather than my plan so I am open to submissions that are authentically from the heart and soul of the author. I haven’t received a prescribed list, so I can’t give one out. Recent new clients run the gamut from historical comedy and Biblical historical novel to gritty contemporary suspense, a mystery series set in the 1920s, an African-American inspirational novel and a nonfiction book about evolution. Did I know before I read their work that I would be working with new writers in these categories? Not!
Perhaps it would be easier to look for writers who fulfill prescribed niches, but I am unable to do that. Biblical fiction is certainly not a popular genre today—and yet, the novel I recently read as a submission about the life of Mary Magdalene swept me away and made me see her life differently. I called to sign that author immediately. Multicultural novels or those featuring Muslim characters can be problematic to place. But if I love a book so much I feel others will want to read it too and share it with everyone they know, I have a strong sense of championship for working with the author and helping her to build a career.
Another problem that I frequently see in submissions and leads me to decline to represent them is that the writer has not yet learned what a novel is. This seems surprising since most writers have read many novels before they decide to write one. Unfortunately, attending concerts does not guarantee one can compose a symphony and living in a house does not make one an architect. This particular art form of the novel is often misperceived by those who are first starting to write one. Sometimes a writer’s gifts are so wonderful, that she can achieve publication without actually understanding what a premise is or even the elements of a novel. One of my clients published several novels with a major NY house before she figured this out. Her novels did not sell very well. She was asked to change her name to stay in print. Her career was going nowhere. But her writing was so beautiful, her insights so deep and interesting that her editor stuck with her as she learned the craft of writing a novel. And, then, she took off. That doesn’t happen very often!
A novel is a specific creation with very specific requirements. If the most basic requirements are not met, the writing is not a novel. No matter how fine the prose or powerful the themes or provoking the underlying truth, a work of writing must have a certain structure in the same way that a sonnet has a structure or a sonata does. There are other aspects of craft including prose style, voice, tone, point of view, brevity, flashbacks and reverie, artful beading in of backstory, dramatic tension, setting and all ways that protect what John Gardner calls “the fictive dream.” Without a foundation, walls and roof there is no house regardless of the kind of bathroom fixtures, the arrangement of rooms, the storage spaces and hallways, the artful decor and color palette. Structure and premise are that foundation upon which a novel can be built. It is not a formula, but a description of how a novel is put together.
A novel has overall structure/plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end: The beginning sets up the primary conflict of the novel, introduces the characters (including setting) and sets the plot in motion; it establishes the story situation and the protagonist's compelling motivation to save the planet, win the prize, (the protagonist has a problem that s/he cannot walk away from, that s/he cares deeply about, and about which s/he has to put himself or herself at risk).
The middle is a series of attempts by the protagonist to resolve the primary conflict, leading from one minor conflict and problem to another, the trouble growing greater, the risks expanding to the point it seems the hero cannot possibly succeed.
The end is the resolution of the original conflict and the protagonist's achievement of the brass ring through saving the planet from nuclear disaster, winning the guy of her dream or the case that saves his marriage and profession.
There are excellent models for structure/plot. Find the one that works for you. Keep looking until you have the ah-ha that lets you know the model will serve you in your work. A short list to try first: The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler; A Story is a Promise by Robert Johnson; How to Write a Damned Good Novel by James Frey; and Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. If none of these work for you, find one that does. A model that works for you will shorten your learning curve. I also strongly recommend The Moral Premise by Stanley Williams to understand the premise that is at the heart of both fiction and film and how to use it successfully. I have taught workshops on this subject for years, so it was with great delight I discovered a writer who had developed the details of this all-important aspect of the novel.
The following is the best short definition of the structure of a commercial novel I have ever found. Consider it until it makes total sense to you. It was written by Dean Koontz.
(1) The author introduces a hero (or heroine) who has just been or is about to be plunged into terrible trouble. (2) The hero attempts to solve his problems, only slips into deeper trouble. (3) As the hero works to climb out of the hole he’s in, complications arise, each more terrible than the one before, until it seems as if his situation could not possibly be blacker or more hopeless than it is—and then one final unthinkable complication makes matters even worse. In most cases, these complications arise from mistakes or misjudgments the hero makes while struggling to solve his problems, mistakes and misjudgments which result from the interaction of faults and virtues that make him a unique character. (4) At last, deeply affected and changed by his awful experiences and by his intolerable circumstances, the hero learns something about himself or about the human condition in general, a Truth of which he was previously ignorant, and having learned this lesson, he understands what he must do to get out of the dangerous situation in which he has wound up. He takes the necessary actions and either succeeds or fails, through he succeeds more often than not, for readers tend to greatly prefer fiction that has an uplifting conclusion.
Notice that the book does not begin with backstory and explanation. It begins where there is conflict, action, tension. Backstory needs to be woven in bit by bit as the story itself progresses. Notice that the solutions to the problems faced by the protagonist(s)—both unsuccessful and successful—derive from the individual character, who s/he is and how s/he is motivated.
The protagonist(s) of a novel must meet certain criteria in whatever conventional or odd ways is true to them. Each must:
be bigger than life in some way, have a special quality
be admirable in some or many ways
be likable and competent
be worthy of the reader's respect and interest
be emotionally engaging for the reader
be committed by necessity and character to achieving a goal
be unable to walk away from conflict, challenges and trials (motivation)
be the initiator of the action of the novel
have fewer allies than enemies; have a rough row to hoe from beginning to end
create change and be changed by the events of the novel in an emotionally charged and logical way through each plot turn and challenge
learn something that will provide an ‘aha’ for the reader
A novel must in every chapter and scene, on each page, engage the reader emotionally and keep the reader engaged, give him a reason to turn each page and reasons to laugh and cry, to fear and root for the protagonist. If the protagonist lacks emotional logic, has nothing to risk or gain, does not care about the issues and actions of the story, there will be no way for the reader to engage. If the plot doesn't have fresh and credible twists and turns that continually challenge the protagonist and surprise the reader and if the character is not at risk in some significant way, there is no tension, suspense or reason to keep turning the pages. Which brings me to another major criteria agents and editors use to determine whether to work with an author. Is this novel REALLY making us laugh, cry, turn the pages, get inspired? What is the "master effect?" When we set the novel aside, will we wipe the tears away, wish it wasn't over, long to read more about these people and wish we knew them or feel inspired? Every novel does not have to be transformational—perhaps it provides a humorous respite from the cares of daily life and an uplifting story.
If you can master these elements of storytelling: Writing authentically (What Hemingway meant when he said you sit at the typewriter and open a vein); producing a novel that has a clear premise (which may not be obvious in the first draft); adhering to the structural requirements of this art form; write about characters we care about; develop a plot in which the problems progressively worsen; and keep the reader emotionally engaged, then agents and editors who read your work will be WOWed and jump to call you to make sure they contact you first before anyone else can.