Category Archives: Open Space

The Chapter Chapter

Yesterday an e-mail came from a friend who is making her way through writing her first novel. She told me that while checking up on her chapter lengths, she found the following numbers:

Chapter 1 – 5200
Chapter 2 – 3600
Chapter 3 – 3600
Chapter 4 – 1870
Chapter 5 – 2200

She said she was torn between splitting chapter one in half or combining chapters 4 and 5. The former is what she chose to do, putting in the change at a natural scene break in the first chapter, giving her chapters of 2600, 2600, 3600, 3600, 1870, and 2200 words.

Then she asked me how I determine where to break chapters.

Since I work primarily in plot-driven works, I use what I guess could be called the dramatic arc method of determining the chapter break. That is, the break comes at a high point in the story, perhaps right before a climax of some kind. This has the happy effect of making readers want to continue reading, to start the next chapter even though in purely physical terms they have come to a good place to stop.

And it works. I have had people tell me that they stayed up all night finishing one of my books, or that they were late to work because they wanted to read just one more chapter, and that led to another chapter, then another, and another…

(Hint: if you want to stop reading one of my books, you’d better slide the bookmark in at the middle of a chapter. If you wait for the break, odds are long that I’m not going to give you the chance to put it down.)

Now my friend is writing a mystery, more of a procedural novel, so the idea of trying to end each chapter on some kind of a cliffhanger obviously isn’t going to work (it also wouldn’t settle well for, say, a romance, where the body count is substantially lower than a typical JCF novel). That still doesn’t mean she can’t stop her chapters at some kind of dramatic turning point in the story, whether it’s somebody getting off of a bus in a strange town or the end of a day that has been wearying and brutal. Not every chapter has to end on something momentous, but it should serve in some way as the lead-in to what is to come next.

This brings up a couple of other questions about chapters. Like, How long is a proper chapter? Should they all be the same length? What kind of order should you impose on a chapter?

The answer to the first is, a chapter is long enough to accomplish what you need to accomplish in that chapter. The way I write, which is longwinded, I frequently end up with more chapters than I originally planned.

Since I write so much by the seat of my pants, if I have a note like Ch. 9 – Walter goes to the convenience store to buy some beer and cheese, I may decide, while describing Walter’s walk, that something interesting happens to him on the walk. This stretches the chapter out to the point where he gets to the convenience store at what turns out to be the end of Chapter 9, meaning that 10 deals with his purchase.

Now I could just make chapter 9 one long chapter and take Walter all the way through the trip to the store, but if the chapter turns out to be really long, it might throw a monkey wrench into the pacing of the book. And if the mission to buy cheese is not the climax of the book, it probably shouldn’t be dragged out in an extraordinarily long chapter.

Being creatures of order, we tend to want to parcel our lives up into uniform pieces. This comes in handy when you’re writing chapters because making them a consistent length (mine tend to run 3-5000 words each) keeps control of the pacing of the book and puts a dramatic order on things, such as not over emphasizing the whole beer and cheese thing.

So that’s an argument for keeping chapters the same length. Only I didn’t follow that when I wrote the Angel’s Luck trilogy. I had mostly medium-sized and short chapters in those three books, and I can still quote a chapter from Precious Cargo from memory: In stasis, Peter Chiba slept without dreams.

So what’s the deal with having a one sentence long chapter?

It’s a trick I learned from Kurt Busiek when writing for the ill-fated Open Space project from Marvel Comics. KB taught me that the bigger the comics panel, the more it slowed time down, with time speeding up proportionately as the panels became smaller and smaller (Frank Miller’s The Dark Night Returns takes this to a masterful extreme by using what seems like dozens of panels on a page to represent TV screens, rocketing the reader at an awful pace toward an act of terrorism).

So… wouldn’t it stand to reason that a shorter chapter might move the pace of the book faster as well? It certainly worked for the trilogy, where I was jump cutting between groups of people doing their thing inside of extended action sequences. Now, I suppose I could have made the chapters long and just used scene breaks to pace the action – Tom Clancy is a master at doing just that – but it seemed to work better for me to break them as chapters while slamming the reader back and forth between teams of hard-boiled mercenaries. Which method was right? Either one.

Are there other ways of imposing order on chapters? Certainly. And these imposers might just help you in timing your dramatic arcs if you’re having a problem fitting them where they need to be.

For example, as I got deeper into writing A Death of Honor, an interesting order imposed itself on the chapters. I didn’t realize it at first, but after 5 or 6 chapters, it occurred to me that the book would work incredibly well if each one was half a day in the protagonist’s life. So I gave you chapters titled “Friday Night,” “Saturday Morning,” “Saturday Night,” and so on.

A benefit of this kind of imposed order is that it can help you build suspense (if you’re writing a suspense kind of novel) by reminding your readers of an impending deadline.

For example, let’s say your book opens with a woman getting a phone call from kidnappers saying that she has 36 hours to fork over ransom money or her beloved poodle will be horribly killed. Instead of paying money she can’t raise, she draws on her experience as a telephone solicitor to track the scum down and get her dog back. Why not structure it so each chapter takes place in the space of one hour as the woman frantically works her way closer to the villains? Further, if each of your chapters comes in at 3,000 words and you throw in a chapter-length 37th hour for winding down, that gives you a manuscript that will run 111,000 words – not a bad length for a thriller of that sort.

So that’s the bird’s eye lowdown on chapters. Like everything else in writing, the rules are steadfastly XYZ unless those rules don’t serve your book. While each novel we write is essentially a first novel since we haven’t written it yet (H/T: Lawrence Block), what makes a first first novel so grueling is that these are the things you need to work out for the first time. Chances are, if you act in the best interests of moving the story ahead, you’ll be fine.

It’s a scary thought. But the rewards can be so worth it.

Just a simple storyteller
Troubadour on call whenever
The gods moved his heart to speech
He was something of a hero
To the conscience of the people
To the children on the beach

(via iTunes shuffle play)


Agents and What I Know About Them (and how I got mine)

The debt has been called in. For more than three years, I’ve been saying that I would address the topic of agents, but I always found something else to write about, if I wrote at all.

Now the jig is up. I recently received an e-mail from a hard-working up-and-coming writer about just this subject, so what better time to answer it than now?

With this caveat: I got my first agent about twenty years ago. During that time, some things have changed radically. We’ll get into that when it comes up.

Given that, here’s what I know about agents, in a handy Q and A format.

Why do I need an agent?

Excellent question. Some authors, like Joseph Wambaugh, don’t have an agent, preferring to do all the sales and negotiation themselves (and Wambaugh is an ex-cop, so he might have a leg up on the negotiating thing).

Other authors want agents to use as a buffer between editors and themselves, putting the agent in the role of a go-between, bringing word of revisions wanted by editor to author, and conveying weeping and gnashing of teeth from the author to the editor.

Most of us fall in between somewhere. I would rather talk directly with an editor about creative matters and let the agent talk money. I think it makes for a more friendly working environment.

That said, I have an agent for the following reasons:

  1. I don’t want to worry about the money side of things. I let my agent handle that.
  2. My agent negotiates with publishers to keep rights that might come in handy later (e.g., film, foreign).
  3. My agent has sub-rights agents who market those retained rights to foreign countries and the movies. I don’t have the connections to do that myself.
  4. My agent thinks ahead on new industry developments like electronic rights.
  5. My agent has a line on what legal issues may befall an author and knows how to deal with or circumvent them.
  6. I occasionally get e-mails from folks wanting adaptation rights to my books. Some have money in their pockets, some are working on a wing and a prayer. My agent separates the wheat from the chaff.
  7. If I have a non-editorial problem with a publisher, I let my agent take care of it.

Other reasons: Some agents act as pre-editors since most editors are too busy to spend time on manuscripts and grooming authors like Maxwell Perkins once did.

Some reasons for not having an agent:

  1. Saving yourself between 10 and 25% of the money you get from the publisher

Is the percentage worth the services an agent provides? That’s for you to decide. If you’re an old horse trader from way back, you may not feel you need an agent. If you can’t even negotiate a curve, you may want to consider getting one.

Does an agent need to live in New York?

Back when I was looking for an agent, my answer was yes, or at least within easy driving distance. My logic was that part of my percentage was going to him to schmooze editors at lunch and be a physical presence in their offices.

Since then, I think the paradigm has shifted. Checking the Internet for literary agents, you’ll find that, thanks to e-mail, fax machines, cell phones, and frequent flier miles, they now live everywhere. There are agents in Tampa, Florida and Phoenix, Arizona.

Me, I’m still a little old school. I think I’d lean toward a New York agent. But if I found one whose vision matched mine and it turned out they lived in Walla Walla, I wouldn’t instantly write them off the way I once would have.

So how do I go about finding an agent?

Pretty much the same way you go about finding a publisher. Get a copy of Writer’s Market or Literary Marketplace on your desk. Then write the best query letter you can and make sure you have the best manuscript you can write to back it up.

As you start looking, you’ll see that there are a whole lot of agents out there. How to sort? Well, like publishing houses, you can quickly weed out agents who wouldn’t be interested in what you’ve written. Sending a manuscript titled Blood, Guts, and Thunder to an agent whose authors write titles like Love’s Unexpected Tickle is a mistake.

One thing to consider: who is an author that writes like I do and who is his/her agent?* Query them. If it’s a bigger agency, you might not get them, but you might get an assistant… and the power of the Big Name Agency.

Which prompts another question. Big agency or small? With a big one, you do have that name power. But you also have a large client list and risk getting lost in the shuffle. Smaller agency? No name, but a hungrier agent and more individualized attention.

On the other hand, if you get a new agent at a big agency, they can be hungry, too.

So how do you find an agent? The same way you find a publisher. Painstaking research, lots of postage stamps, and a thick skin.

Do I have to have sold a book first in order to get an agent?

That’s the great Catch-22 of the industry. You have to have a sale under your belt in order to get the attention of an agent, yet you can’t sell a book unless you have an agent.

Actually, I don’t think it’s as absolute as all of that. I know writers who sold a book first, and I know writers who got an agent first. There are still publishers out there who are friendly to unagented manuscripts, so a great piece of writing can still go in through the slush pile and make it into print. And there are agents who will take a look at unpublished writers.

Other tactics: some writers have sold a book, and before negotiating the contract, ask the editor for the name of a good agent and try to snag one that way, guaranteeing them at least one commissioned sale. On the other side of the coin, some agents look through magazines and other places where short stories congregate in the hopes of finding a new client and make the first approach. But you’re not reading this because you’re waiting to be discovered, are you? Good for you.

It helps to approach the agent with credentials. Where an editor might want to know what qualifies you to write the book in question (You’ve written The All-Carb Macrobiotic Diet and you’re… a plumber?), an agent may be more interested in your writing experience. What kind of writing have you done in the past that lets you think you can pull off this novel?

Huge Hint: If you’re a first-timer, don’t even bother with a proposal for a novel you haven’t written yet. Write the manuscript first. Crossing the finish line is a huge task, and gives you a leg up on Everyone In The World that has An Idea For A Great Book.

Anything else I should know about agents?

Well, in my search experience, I found that I was generally treated worse by agents than publishers. Yes, I followed everyone’s guidelines and presented my most professional package. But I must have had a string of agents who had bad days and felt the only way to deal with their stress was to send a little spleen and sarcasm my way. Editors, on the other hand, were always polite, even when sending form rejections.

I think this may be due to the fact that, while Editors need Writers, the Writers need Agents (and Agents need Editors, making this a nice Rock-Paper-Scissors triumvirate). Your position in the food chain determines the demeanor you see. I once walked away from selling my first novel to a certain editor because we had creative differences over how the book should begin. But she was always gracious and kind, and kept the door open to work with her in the future. A similar situation with an agent might result in a slammed door.

It could also be because editors can triage authors at the manuscript stage, whereas agents have to deal a little more directly with personalities. If you don’t believe me, take a look at some of the horror stories shared by Miss Snark, literary agent. In one memorable post, she explains why agents are so humorless in their responses: “More than half the time, you aren’t joking.”

What about other media like comic books? Would it be better if I had a creative team in place?

You’re getting into an area I’m rather vague on, even though I’ve done it, I loved doing it, and would do it again at the drop of a hat.

What I do know is that the comics industry is a lot like acting, screenwriting, and working as a DJ at a radio station: unless you’re a superstar (Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman), if you get a little big for your britches, there’s always someone waiting in the wings who would do the job for free just for a shot at the big time. So no matter what you do, you must tread lightly.

As far as going into a comics project with a creative team in place, I really can’t say. I do know that there are agents who work the comics industry, and some book agents who cross over or are interested in crossing over. I suppose this would make you much more selective during the sorting process.

As for me, I lucked out. If I want to get back into comics again, my agent is interested in working in the field, so I wouldn’t have to start a search. But he may be more exception than rule. Sorry I’m not of more help here.

So okay, how did you get your agent?

All right. You’ve cornered me. At long last, here’s the story.

I published a book first. But I tried – I really tried – to get an agent without them knowing that I had published a book.

Here’s how it happened.

After selling A Death of Honor to Del Rey, I wrote a novel about small town police work called The Mushroom Shift and got it into the slush pile circuit, whereupon I started The Company Man. Some time went by and a publisher was dragging their feet on getting back to me on Mushroom, so I decided that maybe I should get an agent to move things along. After all, I knew I could sell SF books, but maybe mainstream was a different animal.

As a subscriber to Writer’s Digest, I occasionally got mailings from the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. They were pushing their critique service, but I went around that and queried them about Mushroom. I can’t recall exactly what I said, other than the fact that a publisher was looking at it, but I remember not playing up the fact that I’d sold a novel to Del Rey. My thinking was that I wanted them to take Mushroom on it’s own merits (I should note here that I was still in my twenties and still had some vestiges of creative idealism).

But fate being the funny thing it is, here’s what happened. A Death of Honor came out. The Del Rey staff loved it, and whenever someone came into their offices, they pushed a copy into their hands. One of these hands belonged to Bill Haas, who at the time was a Foreign Rights Agent for Scott Meredith. He read the book and loved it.

Then one day Bill went into the office of a colleague. He looked down and saw a manuscript on the desk. He looked at the cover page and said to the agent, “Do we represent this guy?”

The agent said, “No. It just landed on my desk. I’m supposed to take a look at it.”

Bill Haas said, “Look real hard. I just finished reading this guy’s first novel and it’s terrific.”

The manuscript he saw was, of course, The Mushroom Shift. The agent’s name was Kurt Busiek (yes, Kurt Busiek the comics writer and creator of Astrocity – this was during a period when he tried to get out of comics and into publishing).

And so I ended up with an agent, not in spite of A Death of Honor but because of it. Had I been older and smarter, I would have bludgeoned them with ADOH, but hey, it worked out.

When Kurt went back to the comics (taking me with him for my brief stint writing for Marvel’s ill-fated Open Space series), I was handled for a year by Carmen Ficarra. When Carmen left for Penthouse magazine (and tried to take me with him – saying I could write any fiction I wanted, as long as it had a sex scene in it – I politely declined), an agent named Joshua Bilmes asked to represent me.

Joshua became a Vice President when Scott Meredith died, and a year later when the Scott Meredith Agency itself died, Joshua called me and asked if I wanted to come along to his new one-man shop – JABberwocky, A Literary Agency. I did.

Thus, I’ve had experience with big shops and small, without ever actually looking for another agent.

So that’s my look at agents, fragmented as it is. I hope this helps. And if I have been so badly out-of-touch that a lot of this information is sour, then, well… that’s what the comments sections is for.

I know I’ll never make it on the cross
Spent my days looking for what my daddy lost
He was too proud to have a boss
Sold himself out then he couldn’t afford the cost

(via iPod Shuffle)

*If you’re one of these “but nobody writes like I do, my novels are unique unto themselves, I’m a real American Original” types, then you’d better re-up your subscription to Writer’s Digest for another year and keep working at thinking commercial. After all, I can say that only I can write Joe Clifford Faust novels, but I also work at making them salable. Say it along with me: We are in this business to have fun and make money… and there is no sin in making money.