I Know How You Feel. I’ve Been There.

In my career as an author, I’ve faced every challenge you’re facing now. Writing a compelling book takes serious work, but the rewards are so worth the effort.

Let me tell you a true story. Years ago, like every new writer trying to break in with their first novel, I sent queries to agents, then waited and hoped. One morning, I got a call from a New York literary agent who said she was so excited by the description of my book, she wanted to see the full manuscript immediately. Ecstatic, I sent it that very afternoon.

Soon after, I got her terse written reply: “Alas, the manuscript did not live up to my expectations.” Those were her exact words. I was devastated. Tears flowed. Then weeks of agonized self-doubt. Maybe I didn’t have what it took to be a writer. I was ready to give up.

Then, a few days later, that same query attracted legendary agent Albert Zuckerman of Writers House who has shepherded dozens of bestsellers. He, too, asked for the full manuscript. He read it – and loved it! He offered to represent me, I eagerly signed the contract, and within weeks Al sold the book to Audrey LaFehr at Penguin, who said it was the best historical novel she had ever read.

Amazing, isn’t it – from “alas” to “the best.” That book sold 75,000 copies and became the first in my seven-book Thornleigh Saga series. My sales have now topped over half a million books. So, I’m here to tell you that although the journey to write a book and get it published can hit you with heartbreaking moments, it can also bring joyful surprises. If you persevere, success can be yours.

Countdown to Launch!

PageTurner_Facebook_banner

I’m excited about this! My “Your Path to a Page-Turner” Program will launch at the end of April. We’re putting the finishing touches to the videos now, and I can’t wait to offer the whole program to you.

·       Be inspired and energized by my 23 new videos that cover the essentials of creating a story that will leave readers saying “I couldn’t put it down!” – and learn how to get it published

·       Take your writing to the next level with my unique “Practice Like a Pro” exercises

·       Join my private Facebook group, a new online community where your program colleagues and I will support you on your writing journey and cheer you on

·       Get my insider tips on how to navigate the world of agents and publishers, so your book can break through and make it to the top

I’ve created the “Your Path to a Page-Turner” Program to help you write a book that will excite agents and publishers and thrill readers. Full details coming here soon!

Grow as a writer. Dare to succeed.

Barbara Kyle

P.S. You’ll find helpful writing tips on my Facebook page “Barbara Kyle, Mentor to Writers.” If you visit it, please “like” it!

Pitch Perfect: 10 Tips for Writing a Successful Query

Finished your book? First, congratulate yourself. Writing a book is a marathon, and only those who’ve made it to “The End” understand the determination it requires.

Now you want to get it published, and that’s your next challenge. In today’s tough marketplace you get only one chance with each literary agent or acquisition editor at a publishing house to interest them in your story. That one chance is the query letter.

It may be the most important piece of writing you’ll ever do.

What is a Query Letter?

It’s a sales pitch, pure and simple. Its sole purpose is to intrigue a publishing industry professional enough to want to read your book. A successful query is one that gets them to ask you to send your manuscript. Like I said, simple.

Well, not quite. As former agent Nathan Bransford says, “A query letter is part business letter, part creative writing exercise, part introduction, part death defying leap through a flaming hoop.”

So here are some tips to help you clear that hoop.

My Ten Tips

  1. Limit your query to one page. Even if it’s an email, stick to the one-page rule. It’s what publishing professionals expect.
  1. Structure your query in five brief sections: introduction, basics, hook, mini-synopsis, bio.
  1. This is your chance to connect with the agent or editor on a human level. If you enjoyed a talk she gave at a conference, say so. If you love his blog, tell him that. If you’re a fan of an author she represents or publishes, gush a little (but just a little). Be real. Build rapport.
  1. State your book’s title (in caps), its genre (e.g. mystery, romance, thriller, YA fantasy), and the word count rounded off to the nearest hundred.
  1. Give one concise and intriguing sentence about the story. For example: “THE KITE RUNNER is a tale of fathers and sons, of friendship and betrayal, that sweeps from Afghanistan in the final days of the monarchy to the atrocities of the present.
  1. Mini-synopsis. Describe your story in two or three short paragraphs. This is hellishly hard, like trying to enclose an ocean inside a bottle. My advice is don’t try to cram in the entire plot; it will make you crazy. Stick to the central character and the story’s central conflict. Don’t get sidetracked into subplots or theme. Read the back covers of books in your genre and note how the publisher has described the story’s protagonist and conflict is in a single, engaging paragraph. That’s the effect to aim for.
  1. Include in #6 one or two comparables. A comparable is a successful book you mention to explain your book’s target audience. Agents and editors need to know where your book fits into the market. A good way to say this is that it “would appeal to fans of [author]'” or is “in the vein of [book].” Keep it recent; publishers aren’t interested in what sold forty years ago. And keep it rational; no boasts about how your book will be a bestseller.
  1. Tell something about yourself, preferably related to writing. For example, mention anything you’ve had published, such as a short story, or any writing contest you’ve won. If you’ve had nothing published, stick to info about yourself that you feel might be of interest.
  1. Finally, close your query with two crucial points: tell them the full manuscript is available, and ask if you may send it to them.
  1. Send as many queries as you like. The rule about not sending multiple submissions applies to manuscripts (once they’ve been requested), not to queries. You can broadcast queries.

All my best,

Barbara Kyle

P.S. You’ll find lots more information and tips about getting published – including truths about the publishing industry – in my book Page-Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel that Publishers Want and Readers Buy. It’s available from Amazon.

“Literary” or “Popular”: Which Kind of Writer Are You?

A half-dozen genres constitute “popular” fiction: romance, mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Genres matter to publishers, because a book has a better chance of selling when readers know its category: there’s a proven market. So, the likeliest way for an emerging writer to break into the business is with a genre book.

But some novels don’t fit a genre, and are often classed as “literary.”

What differentiates literary fiction from popular fiction? Well, there are no hard rules, and there’s a great deal of overlap, such as the literary thrillers of John LeCarré. However, in broad terms, I would differentiate the two by these five criteria:

Action. In popular/commercial fiction the protagonist is pro-active; he or she is actively seeking something, actively dealing with conflict. In literary fiction the protagonist is often more passive and introspective.

Conflict. In popular fiction the protagonist struggles against primarily external forces of conflict: other people. The literary protagonist often faces mostly internal conflict: him/herself.

Causality. In popular fiction the world is a place of cause and effect: characters take actions that have meaningful results. This expresses the connectedness of life. In literary fiction, randomness often rules the universe, expressing the disconnectedness of life, the sense that people have little control over the haphazard nature of existence.

Language. In popular fiction all that’s necessary in style and language is clarity, what George Orwell called “windowpane” prose. Literary fiction focuses on artistic language. The aura of poetry is the hallmark of a literary novel.

Closure. In popular fiction closure is essential—that is, at the end there’s a meaningful resolution to the protagonist’s struggle. Literary endings are often open-ended, sometimes even ambiguous.

So, which kind of writer are you?

All my best,

Barbara Kyle

P.S. Find out more about what agents and publishers are looking for in my book PAGE-TURNER. It’s available online from Amazon!

 

The Essential “Three A’s” of a Page-Turner

In my career as an author, I’ve faced every challenge you’re facing now. Having had ten novels published with sales of over half a million books, I know what agents and publishers are looking for, what they want—and don’t want.

What they always want, whatever the genre, is a page-turner. A book that leaves readers saying, “I couldn’t put it down!” So, let me share with you my thoughts about the essential “Three A’s” of writing craft.

Actors
People. A book’s characters. They are the lifeblood of your story. People are what readers come to a book for, and why they stay. Long after a book’s plot intricacies and carefully sculpted sentences have become a blur in the reader’s memory, what lingers is the impact of the characters. Vibrant, unique characters live on for years, even—from Moll Flanders to Ebenezer Scrooge—for centuries.

Architecture
Story structure. The backbone of your book. You likely have a good instinct for this already, but instinct will take you only half the way. When it falls short, an operational understanding of story structure gets you moving again. This knowledge is essential, yet often under-appreciated by emerging writers. The cleverest wordsmith and most gifted creator of characters cannot bring these riches to a wide audience unless they are delivered in the “Story” form the human mind is hard-wired to receive.

Adornment
Style. The actual words you write. I use the somewhat dismissive term “adornment” to convey the vital truth that of the “Three A’s” style is the least crucial. Don’t misunderstand—word choice is important. Tinted by evocative imagery, it can even be sublime. But a deeply engaging story with vibrant characters will live for a reader even if the prose is unadorned. The reverse is not true: exquisite prose cannot carry a stagnant story about dull people.

So what, exactly, constitutes a page-turner? What is the mysterious literary essence that hooks a reader and doesn’t let them go? I offer this one word answer: emotion. Character creation, story structure, and style are not ends in themselves. They are merely tools to produce the result we want: a meaningful emotional experience for the reader.

When characters in a story move readers to pity, or laughter, or loathing, or dread, or just the simple warmth of human fellow-feeling, that’s what makes them keep turning pages. They crave to know: What’s going to happen to these people? They care.

Whether you’re revising a story, or just starting one, or are still in the dreaming stage, focus on this guiding mantra: Make Them Care.

Grow as a writer. Dare to succeed.

All my best,
Barbara Kyle
www.BarbaraKyle.com
bkyle@barbarakyle.com

P.S.  Big thanks to all who’ve posted such glowing reviews on Amazon for Page-Turner. I’m delighted the book has meant so much to you!

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

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What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

I once heard bestselling author John LeCarré give an interview in which he spoke about the role of conflict in fiction. He said: “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story, but ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ — that’s the beginning of a story.”

Readers love to see characters thrown into a crisis, forced to grapple with problems. Why? I don’t think it’s because we’re sadists. It’s because we read novels to experience an emotional bond with a character who faces a dilemma. We feel: what would I do in that situation? That’s the reason we read stories.

Yet emerging writers often shy away from depicting their characters’ conflict. This undermines the power of their book, because nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict. So, embrace all richness that conflict gives you as a writer.

When I’m planning a book, scene by scene, I ask myself, partly in jest: “What could possibly go wrong for these characters?” Ask yourself that same question continuously about the story you’re developing: “What could go wrong?” Then, seriously, make that happen.

Here are three tips for working with conflict in your story.

Tip #1. Don’t be intimidated by the word conflict. Conflict does not mean combat. It just means problems. What problems does your protagonist — your main character — face in trying to achieve his or her goal? Conflict occurs because the protagonist, wanting something, comes up against some someone with a goal that’s in direct opposition to theirs. So, create situations that put increasing pressures on your characters, forcing them into ever more difficult dilemmas, so that they must make increasingly risky choices, leading them to take actions that eventually reveal their true natures.

Tip #2. Escalate the conflict in your story gradually. To be believable, characters in a story, just like people in real life, will naturally start by taking the most conservative action possible to get what they want. If they don’t – if they leap into taking extreme action – they will come across as unrealistic, and you’ll lose your reader. So, the long middle section of your book will be composed of a series of events that spring from conflict that gradually escalates.

Tip #3. Your protagonist can be in conflict on three possible levels:
• Internal conflict: conflict with oneself.
• External conflict in the form of inter-personal relationships: family, friends, colleagues.
• Extra-personal conflict: conflict with the larger community in the form of powerful institutions, such as the government, the church, the school system, the army.

The most compelling stories, the stories that stay with us forever, often involve conflict on all three levels: personal, inter-personal, and extra-personal.

In contrast, consider what we call “soap opera.” The term is often used as a pejorative. Why? After all, soap operas, watched by millions, are highly engrossing.

I think the reason we sense weakness in the soap opera form is that it shows us conflict on only one level: the interpersonal. It does that with great panache — it’s the strength of soap opera, because interpersonal relationships are so engaging. But it’s also incomplete. Characters in a soap opera rarely face internal conflict – there’s rarely a crisis of conscience – and they never do battle with extra-personal forces. For example, if a cop enters a storyline on a soap, you can be sure he’ll soon be caught up in the highly personal concerns of other characters — the story will not be about corruption in the police department. So, there’s virtually no conflict with the self, nor with society. It’s all one level – momentarily very engrossing, but ultimately unsatisfying.

We are moved most deeply by stories in which the characters are engaged in all three levels of conflict. That’s partly what creates the enduring power of classics like David Copperfield. Frankenstein. A Passage to India. Heart of Darkness. The Age of Innocence. The Grapes of Wrath. Gone with The Wind. To Kill a Mockingbird.

Never shy away from embroiling your characters in many swirling currents of conflict. It will prove their mettle, make them reveal their true selves. Conflict is the fuel that propels every page-turner.

Happy writing!

Barbara Kyle

 

P.S. Want more tips? Get my book Page-Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel that Publishers Want and Readers Buy.

What’s Holding You Back?

There’s always one obstacle that gets in the way of writing, isn’t there?

When I was starting out (eleven novels ago), my personal obstacle was what I call the “tyranny of expectations,” that unhelpful inner voice demanding perfection in a first draft. I learned how to silence that voice — and my writing process blossomed.

The #1 barrier that’s holding you back might be something quite different. But I promise you, there’s a way forward. I’m here to help you tackle that obstacle, and overcome it.

I’m creating an online program — an exciting step-by-step journey — that will free your writing and launch it to the next level. My goal is to tailor the program to give you the most useful and liberating results.

So, I’d really appreciate your thoughts right now.

Please, tell me what’s the #1 thing holding your writing back. Shoot me an email at bkyle@barbarakyle.com. Make your answer as short as one word, or as long as several paragraphs, or anything in between.

Together, we’ll set you free.

All my best,
Barbara Kyle
www.BarbaraKyle.com
bkyle@barbarakyle.com

Grow as a writer. Dare to succeed.

Making an Entrance

My New Year’s wish for you is the joy of writing.

Here’s a tip to bring verve to your story’s opening. It’s an excerpt from my book, Page-Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel that Publishers Want and Readers Buy.

MAKING AN ENTRANCE

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First impressions are crucial. We all know that about “real life.”

But it’s equally true of a reader’s first impression of a fictional character. Their response to your story’s protagonist is especially important.

Yet new writers often waste this opportunity by introducing their protagonist in idleness or passivity. Be smart – put the visceral impact of the 1st impression to work for you.

Think of your story as a movie, and your protagonist as the star, and give him or her a dynamic and meaningful entrance. Focus on two steps:

  1. Determine the character’s defining quality
  2. Show that quality through action

Action is the key. Description of a character tells the reader mere facts and has little visceral effect, whereas showing the character’s defining quality through action produces an emotional response in the reader, leaving a deep and lasting effect.

Screenwriters do this very consciously. Watch any film you admire and notice how the scene in which the hero or heroine first comes on screen demonstrates their defining quality. In other words, it shows the character’s essence.

When actors first read a script this “essence in action” is the very thing they look for. I know – I made my living as an actor for twenty years.

As a writer of fiction, you can use this screenwriting technique to powerful effect. Strive to write an entrance scene for your protagonist which, if your story were made into a film, would attract an A-list actor to the role – a star.

Here are three examples of the kind of dynamic entrance I mean:

  1. In A.S. Byatt’s POSSESSION, the young scholar Roland Mitchell, researching a Victorian poet, opens an old book in the London Library and out fall two unsigned love letters written by the poet. Roland impulsively steals the letters – and thus begins his audacious quest for the truth about his subject. Roland’s essence is his ambition to excel as the foremost expert in his field.
  2. Ian McEwan’s ATONEMENT opens with Briony Tallis, a precocious child, obsessing about the play she has written, and orchestrating her young cousins to take roles in her fictional world. Her need to control people, and her obsession with storytelling, are the essence of her character.
  3. My novel THE QUEEN’S LADY, set in London, England in the reign of Henry VIII, opens with seven-year-old Honor Larke risking her life to try to find her servant-friend amid a May Day riot. When she sees the mob viciously attack a foreigner, then move on, Honor’s curiosity and pity drive her to help the dying stranger. This is her essence, shown in action.

The examples above are all opening scenes with a protagonist, but your opening doesn’t have to feature the protagonist. You may want to kick-start the story with some other event – for example, one featuring the antagonist. What’s important is that when you do bring your protagonist on stage, give them an entrance in which the action they take resonates on a meaningful, emotional level with your reader.

Whether your hero or heroine is a rogue, a lost soul, a killer, or a saint, their entrance is your opportunity make them a star.

Happy new year. And happy writing!

Barbara Kyle

Crafting a Page-Turner

I love helping writers who are serious about their craft. So, let me share with you the following excerpt from my new book Page-Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel that Publishers Want and Readers Buy. As a novelist with over half a million books sold, I hope you’ll find Page-Turner helpful and inspiring.

The Plot/Character Debate

Critics will sometimes categorize a novel as either “plot driven” or “character driven.”

When they call a book “plot driven” it’s their shorthand for saying the story is exciting, but the characters are a little thin. For example, a Tom Clancy techno-thriller might be called “plot-driven.”

When a critic calls a story “character driven” it’s shorthand for saying the characters are complex and fascinating, but the plot is a little thin. Many literary novels, such as Saturday by Ian McEwan or Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, might be called “character driven.”

Shorthand may be necessary for critics, but for writers this binary reduction is a false analysis. It’s meaningless. Because the simple fact is that all stories are character driven.
Plot cannot exist without characters. Characters create plot.

Cause and Effect

What’s at work here is causality. Author E. M. Forster summed it up thus: “The king died and then the queen died,” is just a sequence of events, but “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The queen’s sorrow caused her death. The characters caused the plot.

Two Famous Examples

To illustrate this dynamic further, let’s look at two of Shakespeare’s best known characters: Hamlet and Romeo. What do we know about Hamlet’s character? He is introspective, analytical, cautious. What do we know about Romeo’s character? He’s passionate, intrepid, bold.

In Act 1 of Hamlet, Hamlet encounters the ghost of his dead father who tells him he was murdered by his own brother, Claudius. This stuns Hamlet, because his Uncle Claudius is now married to Hamlet’s mother and is king. The play is about Hamlet longing to take revenge on Claudius but being constantly restrained by his own meditative, analytical character.

Now, what if Romeo found himself in that situation? Desperate to avenge his father’s death, Romeo, being passionate and impetuous, would kill Claudius in Act I and the story would end—there would be no Hamlet plot.

Likewise, by the end of Act I of Romeo and Juliet Romeo is so madly in love with Juliet he’ll risk everything to be with her, even risk being killed by her family. But if Hamlet found himself in Romeo’s Act I situation, he might become so engrossed in pondering the existential nature of love that Juliet, unaware that he adores her, would obediently marry Paris, the man her parents have chosen for her, and the story would end. No Romeo and Juliet plot.

So, never forget this. Character creates plot. Period.

The above is an excerpt from Page-Turner. Want to read the first chapter? Be my guest! Read it here.

And you can buy Page-Turner right now:

In the US: amazon.com
In Canada: amazon.ca
In the UK: amazon.uk

Grow as a writer. Dare to succeed.

All my best,
Barbara Kyle
bkyle@barbarakyle.com
www.BarbaraKyle.com