Sunday, August 16, 2009

An editor and agent on the craft of writing

Vicki on hand to introduce today's guest blogger today: the delightful Verna Relkoff, editor and partner in a literary agency. The things that annoy Verna are pretty simple - and pretty common.
Verna Relkoff here. Creative Writing teacher, editor, and an accidental agent. Agenting was never an aspiration but I was approached by Morty Mint (former president of Penguin Canada and USA) to work with him as an agent—it seemed an interesting and fun move. This led to an internship at Writer’s House in NY… fabulous experience, and a partnership in Mint Agency.

Because I neither write mysteries nor blog, I went on your typeM4murder blogspot.com and was delighted by the conversation. When I taught writing I argued often that many of the best writers today were writing mysteries. Unlike literary fiction which allows a great deal of indulgence, mysteries and other “genre” fiction must draw characters quickly and precisely; state the problem immediately; and keep the action rolling. Incidentally, one of the best write-ups on how academics seized the novel form is in a latter chapter of John Ralston Saul’s, Voltaire’s Bastards.

I was asked what I look for as an agent/editor when I get a manuscript. Actually, I look for the same qualities that so-called genre fiction offers: immediate action, strong characters, and a clear problem. I love openings so absorbing I wake up about page five and realize I’ve been reading.

You are, however, successful writers and I assume you know a great deal about structure and style so I think you would best be served in a discussion about irritants. The following are more subtle things that drive me crazy.

1. Orientation: It is such a matter of courtesy to keep your reader apprised of where they are. If you want people to notice the scenery, you must let them know the road they are on. Go back to the old ‘topic’ sentence idea and lead with an orientation sentence. New writers in particular, trying to be subtle or non-repetitious, often leave the reader wandering around in the dark.

2. Psychic Distance: This follows on the heels of orientation. If you are seeing through the eyes of the protagonist—show the reader how she/he sees the landscape. Use the eyes as a camera. How does a person see a landscape or a room for example: overview first; middle distance second; close-up third; and inside the character last. A camera/eye that jerks back and forth is really difficult for the reader to track. Best resource: Chapter 5 (Common Errors) in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. It is difficult reading, invaluable, and in places screamingly funny.

3. Tags: After you have introduced a character, the next time you use the name, remind your reader who this person is. You don’t need to hit the reader over the head—but insure that you give some cue as to who they are. Again, every time you force your reader to leave the story, you take them out of the narrative dream--two or three times and they are out of the book.

4. Sentences: The most important or heaviest part of a sentence is the end. The second most important part is the beginning. Don’t bury a salient point in the middle—it is often lost. In keeping with the topic of sentence structure: writers will often add a prepositional phrase at the end of a sentence—a little explanation. This dilutes the language. If you lop the phrases off, the prose immediately becomes shaper and clearer.

As with most agents/editors, what I love most is good craft. Writers who know how to submit a manuscript, where a semi-colon goes, how to draw original characters, have the writing dexterity to re-create the character’s world with words, and know what a good plot looks like are delightful. And yes, James Lee Burke is just about as good as it gets!

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