Z.A.Nelson

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I'm currently working on my query package for my first novel, Skin Shedders, and was wondering if an…
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  •  · You are very eloquent for a 14 year old - my daughter is 13 and communicates with grunts and gesture…

Thanks for all your advice. It'll make my query letter and synopsis much stronger, as well as support ones I'll write later on.

I did like the scene, but I think it would be more dramatic if you shortened the sentences while Maya had shape shifted. I also think that if you changed her emotions while she was a wolf--something like she had an instinct to eat her friends, like they were food--would be helpful. I also think that showing here friends' reactions more would make it more dramatic, as well as her conflicting emotions of what they thought of her. Because James was able to recognize her I think that flushing out some sort of relationship: him accepting her more than the others, defending her, helping her, something like that would show a character arc. It would start a new character relationship.

I'm not sure if my advice was helpful, but good scene.

I didn't realize I was doing that in the synopsis, and I will try to show it more. I would have a more finite ending in the end, but the end sets up the next book. Thank you for your advice.

Thanks for your advice. I'll implement it.

Added a forum 

I'm currently working on my query package for my first novel, Skin Shedders, and was wondering if anyone could give me advice. It is a YA fantasy of 85,000 words. I also want to know if it sounds like a book anyone would want to read (and if you would like it).


Dear agent,

I’m writing to seek representation for my first novel, Skin Shedders, a YA fantasy of 85,000 words, inspired by Brandon Mull’s Spirit Animals and Taran Matharu’s Summoner series.

The book opens in a small village in the war-torn kingdom of Verius. It follows Drake, an orphan whose parents had been murdered when he was a toddler. He goes through the Skin Shedding Ceremony, and as his new position of nobility progresses, he is increasingly wrapped up in the dealings of Yiron, the noble who owned the estate before Drake. Yiron is intricately tied up with Drake’s past, and the secrets to who murdered his parents. 

As the book progresses it hints at mysteries—mysteries about the past that Drake has become embroiled in. Why are the assassins being sent after him? What’s the voice he hears? 

I am fourteen and have wanted to write a book for some time. I look forward to writing more books in the series. 

I enclose my three opening chapters and a synopsis. I am looking forward to hearing from you. 


DRAKE (16) is an orphan living in Verius, a kingdom that’s been at war for thousands of years. His parents were murdered when he was a child, and Drake wants to find the man who killed them. Drake has a mysterious disease that has been slowly progressing, the medicine he stole not helping.

He is caught trying to steal bread, then subsequently thrown in jail. Drake knows that no one will find him, and he will stay in jail until he is killed by the disease. After a few days, a noble finds Drake in the cell, freeing him.

The noble knows of the disease Drake has and sends him with the other sixteen-year-old children in the village. They are going to have the Skin Shedding Ceremony performed, enabling the children to Skin Shed.

Drake’s disease progresses, so he is taken to the capital city of Farith to have the Ceremony performed before he dies. Drake has the Ceremony performed, but when they try to reverse it, it goes wrong, and he runs away. Drake finds a Dar, a messenger for the king of Dirikan. He accidently kills the Dar, Skin Shedding into a giant boar in the process, which shouldn’t be possible.

Drake is found by CALLUM, next in line for the throne. Drake and Callum are brought to Farith by one of the King’s spies. Drake overhears the spy and one of the High Court conversing about Callum and him.

Drake is sent to his estate, an estate previously owned by YIRON, the noble that murdered Drake’s parents, and had disappeared years ago. Drake accidentally finds a room hidden by Yiron, and slowly discovers more about what he was doing.

Drake is conscripted into the Verin army, as well as Callum. During a battle, Drake Skin Sheds into a boar again. Callum hides the evidence. They are ambushed by Dirikanians and Drake shows the King’s spies what he can do.

Drake shows Callum the room, and they discover that they need to go to Dirikan, the kingdom that they have been at war with. As they stay in Farith they are attacked by the Sun’s Shadows, a religious group of assassins sent by the King. Drake and Callum escape, Callum Skin Shedding into a giant harpy eagle.

They reach Dirikan after being attacked once again, trying to find out how to gain the files they need. Drake is pickpocketed by ARLEN, a Dirikanian. King Serden finds out that they are in Dirikan and they are caught, but not before Drake finds out Callum is Dirikanian.

With the help of Arlen, they escape Dirikan with the files the needed.

A couple weeks later, Callum brings the news that the King has cut off labor to his estate. It forces Drake to go to the proving grounds.

In the proving grounds, Drake kills General Dorasthen, knocked unconscious in the process. He has a vision of Yiron, showing Drake what he needs.

The King sends the Sun’s Shadows against Drake again, flooding his estate. They are beat back, but Drake and Arlen are forced to leave before Drake is given to the Sun’s Shadows. As they escape, Callum joining them, they are attacked again, Callum being captured.

Does it sound engaging? And, once again, would you like to read it?

From what I understand of your post you are saying to build the universe up slowly through different novels. Is that what you were intending?

Thanks for all the insight. It'll definitely make my sentences stronger.

After improving my sentence:

"I visited the hidden room frequently, making sure that I wasn’t followed each time, but never sure that I was truly alone. My nerves were always on end, my eyes seeing shadows."

Thanks for your comment, Tracy.

I do know who the character is, as well as the plot. I have actually finished the rough draft (Yay!) and have everything all sorted out.

I am looking for a way to make a larger multi-series world, tying multiple of my prospective novel's worlds into it. I was wondering if anyone has worked on it, and if they had any suggestions of how to make it all work.

There is too much backstory in the synopsis, and it doesn't explain character connections as much as an agent normally wants. There are also quite a few characters in the synopsis, and it would be worthy to check if some should be removed.

Added a post 

Of all the writing habits I have, one of the worst – the worst from good financial sense point of view – is that I like writing LONG books.

My first novel was a spine-breaking 180,000 words. Not one of my novels has ever been less than 110,000 words. The first “short story” I wrote was 8,000 words, which is to say miles too long to be an actual short story. Heck, even this email is likely to be far longer than any other email you get in your inbox today.

Ah well. There are some things you can’t fight, and my addiction to length is one of them.

But that also means that when it comes to short-form copy, I’m at a loss.

I’m not especially good at book blurbs, which want to be about 100-120 words (depending a bit on layouts and where you’re expecting them to appear.) Since titles need to be short and punchy, I’m not especially good at those either.

In a word: I’m pretty damn rubbish when it comes to coming up with titles … and this email is going to tell you how to write them.

Which means if you want to ignore the entire contents of what follows, on the basis that I obviously, obviously, obviously don’t know what I’m talking about, then I have to say that the evidence is very much in your favour.

That said, I think it’s clear enough what a title needs to do. It wants to:

  1. Be highly consistent with your genre
  2. Offer some intrigue – for example, launch a question in the mind of the reader
  3. Ideally, it’ll encapsulate “the promise of the premise” in a few very short words, distilling the essence of your idea down to its very purest form.

The genre-consistency is the most essential, and the easiest to achieve. It matters a lot now that so many books are being bought on Amazon, because book covers – at the title selection stage – are no more than thumbnails. A bit bigger than a phone icon, but really not much. So yes, the cover has to work hard and successfully in thumbnail form, but the title has more work to do now than it did before.

Genre consistency is therefore key. Your title has to say to your target readers, “this is the sort of book that readers like you like”. It has to invite the click through to your book page itself. That’s its task.

The intrigue is harder to do, but also kinda obvious. “Gone Girl” works because of the Go Girl / Gone Girl pun, and those double Gs, and the brevity. But it also works because it launches a question in the mind of the reader: Who is this girl and why has she gone? By contrast, “The Girl on the Train” feels a little flat to me. There are lots of women on lots of trains. There’s nothing particularly evocative or intriguing in the image. I don’t as it happens think that book was much good, but I don’t think the title stood out either. (I think the book sold well because of some pale resemblances between the excellent Gone Girl and its lacklustre sister. The trade, desperate for a follow-up hit to Gone Girl, pounced on whatever it had.)

The third element in a successful title – the “promise of the premise” one – is really hard to do. I’ve not often managed it, and I’ve probably had a slightly less successful career as a result.

So what works? Well, here are some examples of titles that do absolutely nail it:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Brilliant! That title didn’t translate the rather dour and serious Swedish original (Man Som Hatar Kvinnor / Men Who Hate Women). Rather it took the brilliance of the central character and captured her in six words. She was a girl (vulnerable), and she had a tattoo (tough and subversive), and the tattoo was of a dragon (exotic and dangerous). That mixture of terms put the promise of the book’s premise right onto the front cover and propelled the book’s explosive success.

Incidentally, you’ll notice that the title also completely excludes mention of Mikael Blomkvist, who is as central to that first book as Salander is. But no one bought the book for Blomkvist and no one remembers the book for Blomkvist either. So the title cut him out, and did the right thing in doing so.

The Da Vinci Code

Brilliant. Dan Brown is fairly limited as a writer, but it was a stroke of genius to glue together the idea of ancient cultural artefacts with some kind of secret code. Stir those two things up with a bit of Holy Grail myth-making and the result (for his audience) was commercial dynamite.

And – boom! – that dynamite was right there in the title too. The Da Vinci part namechecks the world’s most famous artist. The Code part promises that there are secret codes to be unravelled.

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

This was Clare Mackintosh’s breakout hit, about a mother whose young son was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. The promise of the premise is right there in four very short words … and given a first person twist, which just adds a extra bite to the hook in question. A brilliant bit of title-making.

___

So that’s what a title wants to do. A few last comments to finish off.

One, I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite rare a title alone does much to propel sale success.

Because there are a lot of books out there, and because everyone’s trying to do the same thing, there’s not much chance to be genuinely distinctive. My fifth Fiona Griffiths novel was called The Dead House, but there are at least three other books on Amazon with that title, or something very like it. That didn’t make my title bad, in fact – it did the promise of the premise thing just fine – but I certainly couldn’t say my title was so distinctive it did anything much for sales.

Two, if you’re going for trad publishing, it’s worth remembering that absolutely any title you have in mind at the moment is effectively provisional. If your publishers don’t like it, they’ll ask you to change it. And if they don’t like your title #2, they’ll ask you to come up with some others. In short, if, like me, you’re bad at titles, you just don’t need to worry too much (if you’re going the trad publishing route, that is.) There’s be plenty of opportunity to hone your choice well prior to publication.

Three, you don’t want to think about title in isolation. There should, ideally, be a kind of reverberation between your title and the cover. That reverberation should be oblique rather than direct. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go had for its cover image a butterfly trapped against a window – a metaphorical reference to the anguish of the book’s premise. If instead it had shown a mother obviously distraught as a car struck her son, the cover – and title – would have seemed painfully clunky and ridiculous.

If you get a great cover image that doesn’t work with your chosen title, then change the title. If you have a superb title and your cover designer’s image is too directly an illustration of it, then change the image. That title/cover pairing is crucial to your sales success, so you can afford no half-measures in getting it right.

That’s all from me.

My kids are making elderflower cordial and singing as they do so. They are also wearing helmets for no reason that I can possibly understand.

Till soon

Harry

PS: Want to know what I think of your title? Then I’ll tell you. Just pop your title (plus short description of your book) in the comments below. I’ll tell you what I think.

Added a post 

Usually, on Thursday afternoon or so, I start pondering what I’m going to write about on Friday.

This week: no pondering. There’s only one thing I could possibly write about.

The biggest book-related newsflash this week – or this year – is that Barnes and Noble is changing ownership. The ins and outs are a little complex (and everything is not quite settled), but if all goes according to plan:

  • An investment firm, Elliott Advisers, is to buy Barnes and Noble, in a deal which values that business (including its debts) at about $700 million.
  • That sounds like a lot of money, but given that B&N’s sales are $3.6 billion, the pricing actually feels pretty cheap – reflecting the dismal state of B&N.
  • Elliott is also the 100% owner of Waterstones, the British equivalent of B&N. Both those chains are proper bookshops, appealing to proper book lovers. In that sense, the chains are distinct from the supermarkets, who just sell a lot of books but don’t care about them, or the British High Street & travel operator, WH Smith, which is as much a stationer and a newsagent as an actual book store.
  • Waterstones was rescued from impending financial disaster by CEO James Daunt. It was Daunt who negotiated the sale of the firm to Elliott.
  • Daunt will now act as CEO to both firms – B&N and Waterstones – and will divide his time between London and New York.

As it happens, Daunt also owns and runs his own mini-chain of high-end London bookstores. It was his experience at those stores which won him the position at Waterstones.

So, assuming that all goes according to plan, James Daunt will be the book world’s second most powerful human, after Jeff Bezos.

So what does that mean – for readers? For writers? For publishers? For anyone?

Well.

It’s a big and important move. James Daunt has a huge reputation in the UK and it’s probably deserved. His secret sauce for success? Quite simply this:

There is no secret sauce.

In the UK, Daunt simply took everything back to basics.

He turned bookselling into a proper career. (Albeit, inevitably, a badly paid one.) He retained staff who cared passionately about books and waved good-bye to the rest, perhaps a third of them. He cut costs. He made his stores prettier.

And, in a move so radical that it shook British publishing to its core, he let each store manager select their own inventory. So, yes of course, every store was expected to stock major bestsellers of the moment. But beyond that, what stores sold was guided by local passion and local knowledge. From a reader’s point of view, stores got better. There was more energy, more passion, more commitment.

But publishers, for a while, didn’t know what to do. In the past, publishing worked like this:

  1. Publishers paid Waterstones a big chunk of cash to get into a 3-for-2 front-of-store promotion. So Waterstones was actually retailing its shelf-space. It wasn’t really curating its own retail offering.
  2. Some of those 3-for-2s did really well, and became huge bestsellers.
  3. Others didn’t, and the volume of returns was enormous (often 20% of total stock.)
  4. Publishers pulped those returns, ditched those authors and just made money from their mega-successes

That was check-book publishing and check-book retail.

Daunt killed that, and terrified publishers. How could they market books if the key step wasn’t just throwing bundles of money at retailers? [and if you want a reminder of the different publishing options, you can get that here.]

Well, they solved that problem … kinda. But all they really did was turn their attentions (even more than before) to the supermarkets and other mass retailers. Waterstones’ local stores are great and feel like real bookshops … but they can’t build a bestseller as they did in the old days, because each store chooses its stock according to its own tastes.

Daunt’s path in the US is likely to follow the exact same route.

He’s commented that one of the issues he feels on entering a typical B&N store is quite simply “too many books.” Too much stock. Too little curation and guidance. Not enough knowledge from the booksellers. An atmosphere so flat, you could swap it for cigarette paper.

He’ll cut stock. Reduce staff, but retain the best and most passionate members. Eliminate central promotions. Get better terms from publishers. Sharply reduce stock returns.

Do the basics, but do them right.

The impacts, positive and negative?

The positive:

Elliott’s cash plus Daunt’s knowhow should save specialist physical book retail in the US. That’s massive. It’s the difference between a US publishing industry that operates much as it does now and one that would be almost wholly slave to Amazon. That also means that trad publishing is likely to survive in roughly its current shape and size, rather than being sidelined by the growth of digital-first publishers (notably self-pubbers and Amazon itself.)

The negative:

US publishers will have to learn the lessons already absorbed by the Brits. If B&N no longer operates national promotion systems as in the past, publishers can’t make a bestseller just by buying space. Yes, they’ll go on seeing what they can do on social media and all that stuff. But, as in the UK, they’ll be even more dependent on supermarkets. The make-or-break of a book will be not “Is this wonderful writing?” but “did we get enough retail space in enough supermarkets at a sufficiently attractive price?”

I know any number of authors where Book A did incredibly well, Book B did poorly … and Book B was better than Book A. The difference, in every case, was that the supermarkets backed A and not B, and there’s damn all a trad publisher can do once the supermarkets have said no.

Oh yes, and supermarkets don’t really give a damn about the quality of writing. They don’t know about the quality of the writing. They just buy on the basis of past sales (if you’re John Grisham) or a pretty cover (if you’re a debut.)

Of course, they’d say their selection is a damn sight more careful than that, and it probably is. But that’s still “careful by the standards of people who mostly sell tinned beans and dog food for a living.” That’s not the same thing as actually being careful.

That sounds like a fairly downbeat conclusion, but the Elliott-saves-B&N news is still a real big plus for anyone who loves traditional stores, print books and traditional publishing. It’s the single biggest win I can remember over the past few years.

What that win won’t do, however, is weaken the hold of supermarkets and Amazon over book retail. Those two forces are still huge. They’re still central.

And of course, talking about print books has its slightly quaint side. Me, I prefer print. I hardly ever read ebooks. I just spend enough time on screens as it is.

But print books constitute less than 30% of all adult fiction sales, and online print sales accounts for a big chunk of that 30%.

In other words, all those B&N stores up and down the US are still only attacking 23% or so of the total adult fiction market. However well Daunt does, that 23% figure isn’t about to change radically. (Or not in the direction he wants, anyway.)

But, just for now, to hell with realism. Let’s remember the magic of a beautiful bookstore.

Daunt does. Here are some comments of his from 2017:

“[there is a sense that] a book bought from a bookshop is a better book.... When a book comes through a letter box or when a book is bought in a supermarket, it's not vested with the authority and the excitement that comes from buying it in a bookshop. …Price is irrelevant if the customer likes the shop. The book is never an expensive item, [particularly for the many customers who] we know are quite happy to go into a café and spend dramatically more on a cup of coffee."

Quite right, buddy. Now go sell some books. The readers need you.

Till soon

Harry

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