So you can read my books

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


There's a scene in Stephen King's SALEM'S LOT that I've used as a counseling illustration for years.

At least I hope that scene is there in the book. It's been awhile since I last read it. But if it isn't there, it ought to be.

SALEM'S LOT was King's second published novel, and he wanted it called SECOND COMING. But the publishers thought that sounded too religious.

And even then, publishers didn't want to scare off a major portion of the reading audience by implying there were spiritual themes in the book.

And before we rail against the publishers, think of how many people yawning in church pews you've seen. Being preached at is all too often boring. It is what it is.

The publishers also did a last minute price cut from $8.95 to $7.95 {yes, those were the prices for hardcovers back in 1976}, producing an "unholy grail" for collectors. Only 4 copies of the unchanged dust covers are known to exist. eBay anyone?

Anyway, on to the illustration :

Ben Mears, our author/hero, has persuaded the sheriff to sit in the morgue with him. If at sundown the 3 day old dead do not rise, Ben will happily be led to the looney bin. The sheriff, plagued with deaths and disappearances, does not need an addled author making his life harder. And so the sheriff agrees, thinking that at sundown, his life will be made just a little easier.

Shows you how plans unravel. Sundown comes. The shelves of the morgue fly open, the newly awakened vampires rise from the cold steel. The sheriff turns horrified to Ben.

"I believe. I believe! Now what?"

But that was just it. Ben had worked so hard to get the sheriff to believe, he had thought no further than this point. He had made no plans at what to do next. Because King needed him alive for the rest of the book, Ben did indeed come up speedily with a plan.

But we are so often like Ben Mears. We struggle, labor, and work for a goal, only to surprisingly achieve it, not knowing what to do next. We haven't planned for "What now?"

We writers work, polish, edit, revise, then finally mail off our query to agent after agent. Submit. Get rejected. Get nothing. Submit again. And again. And yet again.

Then : the agent asks to see a partial or a full. What?! And then we discover what we should have been doing all along as we queried. Which is, you ask?

Thinking why an agent would say no to a partial or a full and fixing those problems BEFORE we send our dream novel out the door.

And why would an agent say no?

Janet Reid gave us some reasons earlier in my posts. Rachelle Gardner gave us some more in February :

1. The story falls apart after the first 2-3 chapters.

We polish that first chapter, those first 30 pages. But do we go any further? We ought to. As we're waiting for those replies to our queries, we should slowly go over the first six chapters, trying to see them through the jaded, weary eyes of an agent. Then, the next six. And the six after that. Until the whole novel gleams.

What flaw might a weary agent see? The monster called BackStory gobbling up the momentum and suspense of your novel. Is your hero in some form of jeopardy each chapter? Do things slowly worsen for him/her?

Go to the middle of your novel. Read with an agent's eye for pacing, suspense, and action. Do snails race past your Hamlet hero? If so, your novel is in trouble.

Go to the the last chapter. Compare it to your first. Are they like those before and after pictures in those diet ads? They better be. There should be growth in the problems and perceptions of your hero that were introduced in the first chapter. If not, your novel is adrift with no sense of direction or destination.

Without that, the agent will not put down your novel with a smile and the words, "Now that was a great read!"

2. The manuscript doesn't pass the "put it down" test.

An agent has a life outside your manuscript. I know that's a shock. But there it is. She has to put your manuscript down to live that life. Look at the adventures, the one-liners, the thrills, the suspense in your novel. If there isn't much of any of those things I've just mentioned -- how eager do you think she'll really be to pick it back up?

And if she isn't, how is she going to convince a jaded editor that there will be lots of readers who won't be able to lay your novel down?

Think of the illusion of victory in history.

I have a scene in FRENCH QUARTER NOCTURNE where Samuel is meeting Colonel Strasser fresh from Casablanca in Sam's club, where all times meet in the year 2005. Strasser asks Sam, "You know how the war ends, don't you?"

"Yes," said Samuel. "Everybody loses."

Use the illusion of victory in your novel. The hero only thinks she's won. It was a hollow victory. She struggles as everything becomes storm around her. The antagonist wins. Laughs and leaves our heroine on her knees. The heroine discovers there is a difference between defeat and losing. Defeat only teaches us what to do better in order to win. And the antagonist discovers her victory was illusion.

Every chapter should end with things doing an about-face or worsening. Each chapter should begin with the hero dodging and evading certain defeat to continue on.

3. The mysterious Nazca Lines For Writers :

I wrote a post that might help you in polishing your entire novel so that it will not be rejected from an agent who has asked to see a partial or a full. Rather than repeat it here, I'll give you the link :

And since we started this post with SALEM'S LOT, here is an excerpt that might give you an idea why it was snapped up by an agent :

In the fall, the sun loses its thin grip on the air first, turning it cold, making it remember that winter is coming and winter will be long.

Thin clouds form, and the shadows lengthen out. They have no breadth, as summer shadows have; there are no leaves on the trees or fat clouds in the sky to make them thick.

They are gaunt, mean shadows that bite the ground like teeth.
Now, can you see why that agent snatched his book up? I end with one of my favorite movie scenes. Two men of different faiths, one a poet, the other a poisoned Viking, both pray as they face the advance of an overwhelming horde and certain death.


  1. I just finished painting the walls and immediately clicked onto your post. This was so informative. It gave me food for thought about my own novel.

    Now the fun begins ... going from chapter to chapter to see if I have those elements. I might need to do more fine tuning. In my novel I got caught up more in the feel of the writing. I have been told by several readers that my prose is lyrical. Talk about a wonderful compliment. That is what I strived for when I wrote it, since it's a fantasy novel. Now I have to see if it could pass the test. I hope so. I'm going to start to query tomorrow. EEK! I have been putting it off for too long.

    I am so happy to hear that you are generating interest in your novel. GOOD LUCK! I will be waiting to see the post of you signing a book deal. I have a feeling it will happen before the end of the year. Call me psychic. I have a good track record, I just hope I'm not wrong this time. IF not by next month no later that the end of January. I just want to give myself an extra month, but I still think you will have a wonderful Christmas present in store. YOU are just too talented not to be signed!


  2. Michael : From your keyboard to the Great Mystery's eyes. I pray you are right.

    I hope that all your painting is behind you. I wish you luck with your query. If you need help with it, my email address is in my profile.

    Now, it's back to editing and polishing THE LEGEND OF VICTOR STANDISH.

  3. That's all I do is "wax on-wax off" until everything flows and glows. Sometimes the problem can be knowing your story too well.

  4. A great story intrudes on your life as you try to go about your business. With every blink of my eyes, I see the characters and am driven to finish the book.

  5. Wendy : Yes, sometimes you have to trust your instincts and just walk away from it.

    Plain Jane : That's the way it is with me, too.

  6. Great reminders, Roland! Funny-Stephen King's later prose isn't nearly so beautiful. I think Salem's Lot was actually written before Carrie, but Carris sold first--I wonder how many rounds of cleaning and polishing he did on this. I read it, but I was 12, so I only remember the basic story (undoubtedly colored by the movie version, starring 'Hutch' *shifty*)--Even The Shining, his first blockbuster, isn't gorgeous like that--I wonder if his sales success with that made him focus more on 'every man' language...

    Okay... just processing... I think it's true, though, that often novels have those 'oh crap' moments where the MC doubted success, so has not gone farther in thinking--those are very nice growth opportunities.

  7. Hart : I also think that time is an issue. When you're writing your first novel, you have the time to polish and refine. Once you are on a publisher's deadline, time is no longer your friend. How many movie sequels suffer from the same problem. The first one was done with loving care. The second was rushedd out to market to take advantage of audience interest while it was still there.

  8. Elena : Thanks. I haven't forgotten about Friday. I'm just ear-deep in revisions on THE LEGEND OF VICTOR STANDISH. The little gypsy can get into more trouble in less time than a Black Panther at a Klan meeting!

  9. I LOVE The 13th Warrior! That has to be one of my favorite movies of all time. Okay, back to your fabulous post. This is excellent advice. You're right, agents have a life and if our book isn't interesting enough to hold their attention then they'll return to their lives and we won't have made a strong enough impression.

  10. Heather : I love the 13th Warrior, too. Yes, my greatest fear is that I'll bore the agent which, of course, means I'll never get the chance to bore an editor! Thanks for commenting. I'm off to the blood wars.

  11. I'm not to that point yet, but I can see this is invaluable advice. You're such a great and entertaining teacher! Thanks!

  12. Lots to think about here. Thanks!