Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Archetypes are Not Stereotypes

As I read through submissions I see a great confusion (I believe) on the part of authors when it comes to creating their characters. This confusion seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the words "archetype" and "stereotype" (I will also extend this to cliche). Let's see if we can clear that up today and start with the basic definitions of each of the words:

Archetype is defined as "a typical character, an action or situation that seems to represent universal patterns of human nature."

Stereotype is defined as "an author's method of treating a character or situation in a fixed way"

and Cliche is defined as "an expression that has been overused to the extent that it loses its original meaning or novelty. A cliche may also refer to actions and events which are predictable because of some previous events. 

The problem we often see is that authors are presenting characters in their novels not so much as an archetypal character, but pushing it to such an extreme that the characters become stereotypical and cliche. The end result of this is that the story itself lacks the strength and the uniqueness so necessary in today's publishing market.

When it comes to archetypes, readers love to count on certain things from these characters. As the definition states, these are "universal patterns" meaning that we as readers can all relate to this type of character. The odds are, we all have these type of people in our lives.

The issue, however, is when the author has pushed this to such an extreme. Let's look at a couple of examples:
  • The male best friend of the heroine happens to be either gay or very clearly metro.
  • The heroine who needs to be saved happens to be a book worm or a librarian.
  • The hero of the romantic suspense happens to be an ex special ops soldier who saw his buddy die in a military combat.
By taking this extreme, the author loses the vital connection with the reader. That connection will only work IF the reader happens to have someone in their life that matches that stereotype exactly.

The other factor that comes into play is that the reader has nothing to look forward to. When we writer our stories, we want to keep the reader turning the pages. We want them always on their toes wondering what is going to happen next. If, however, an author moves into that stereotypical or cliche side, we end up already knowing the end. At some level, what is the point of reading when we already know what is going to happen.

If an author reads the submission guidelines for most publishers, they will find archetypes of what they are looking for. We want a hero who is tough, but vulnerable. We want a heroine who knows what she wants and is not afraid to go after it. These "definitions" provide the author a lot of room to craft their stories with a unique and personal tone. These are not carved in stone.

I spoke yesterday about showing the editors and agents you have something new. This is just one of those ways you can do that. Give us the archetype but make it your own! 

Monday, November 24, 2014

What Makes Your Approach Different?

Too often, I find myself passing on projects for the simple reason of not seeing anything new from the author. The writing is fine, but in the end, I feel as if the story being pitched to me simply doesn't stand out from the other things I am seeing in the market, or even more importantly, from the other authors I currently represent.

As an author, whether you are pitching your story to editors and agents to take the traditional route of publishing, or putting together your own marketing pitches to the book buyers and the readers if you are doing this on your own, it is beyond crucial for you to show us that you have "something different." Those people on the buying end need to see why now, they need to get something new, and that something is your book.

If you think about the success and failure of a lot of most products in the market today, the consumers really want to see they are "getting something new" AND that the "something new" is a significant enough change. Cars cannot simply be a new color. Cell phones just can't be a different size or shape. Consumers want to see something tangible. Just "reformatting" isn't enough.

The same goes for publishing. As we evaluate your story, we are thinking not just how it fits with our current line up and voice, but also what unique twist you bring to it that others don't see. I do have to say, I see authors who love writing for the Series houses struggle with this more than others. They try so hard to follow what they believe to be prescribed story lines, but fail to bring their own unique style. You see, the thing is that these lines don't have prescribed story lines, but prescribed themes and voices. They are looking for certain tones. The rest, is entirely up to you.

Another flaw I see are authors who, in their query letters, simply say their story is similar to all of these other authors. Now, while this is a fine strategy to demonstrate a similar voice, the problem is you have now told us that your story is not different in any way to people we already are representing or selling really well. If we have, say a Nora Roberts, why do we need two of them?

As you write your query letters to editors and agents, I want you to think about how you are showing us that your story is somehow different. Show us that you are unique. If you have noticed, by the way, I am using the word "show". What I see more often than not, are authors who simply tell me they bring a new voice. Remember, we push for that "show don't tell" aspect in your writing, so you need to do that here as well. Make it clear to the editors, agents and book buyers that you bring that "something new" to the table. Make it clear that your story is one that cannot be passed on.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Keep Those Romances Focused And To The Point

Let's start with the basics of romance writing. We'll call it Romance 101!

In a romance, the central focus of the story line is the development of the relationship and the romance from the beginning to the Happily Ever After. The focus is on the couple. Pretty basic, right?

Unfortunately, far too many authors tend to complicate the story with an excess of sub-plots, back story and so many characters we forget the central story arc. When you are writing a romance, it is crucial that you keep that relationship in your sights at all time. Think of it as your thesis statement that guides any academic writing you might do. This is the goal, the purpose, the driving force. It is everything!

What I have seen lately is a tendency for authors to fill their stories with a lot of extra "stuff". In an attempt to justify everything that happens in the story, the author fills the story subplots and external conflicts that completely detract from the story. It is as if the person thought, "Hey, my hero is angry today. I wonder what caused him to be that way." At which point they launch into this huge back story about how, when he was in the 3rd grade someone pushed him off the monkey bars...

But they don't stop there. The add this amount of "stuff" the the heroine, to the villain, and to every nook and cranny of the conflict in the story.

Now don't get me wrong. We need to have those reasons why our characters do things, but it doesn't have to be over-the-top and excessive. We can have sub-plots. We can have extra characters. But  when the story has too much to deal with and we completely forget that there was a relationship to work on, then we have a problem.

The solution for this is pretty basic.

Plot out the relationship. Just think about how those characters get from point A to point B. They meet, and somehow, during the course of 75,000-100,000 words, they have hit the happily ever after. That is the story arc.

Now, you can build in the NECESSARY (and yes I am stressing that word) elements that will be the glue to hold that story line together. Find ways to take the "one-stop-shopping" approach as well. If one best friend can do the work of the parents, the boss, the best friend and the siblings, then use that one person and keep it simple.

This is one of the biggest reasons I find I am rejecting stories time and time again. My database of submissions is full of  "too much" for why I passed on a story.

I promise you, it isn't that hard to fix.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ask And Ye Shall Receive

When I opened Greyhaus, one of my three goals was to increase communication between the writers and the publishing professionals (editors and agents). For too long, it seemed that the writers were doing everything they could to "do what the editors and agents wanted." And yet, on the reverse side, the editors and agents would often read submissions and questions, "what on Earth are these writers doing and why?" There seemed to be (and yes, I do think it is still there) a huge communication gap.

As an agent, I know I try my best to get information out there to writers about the publishing process. I want people to know, not just what I am looking for, but also how I look at projects and so forth. But I also know that is not enough. This is about communication BETWEEN the authors and the editors/agents.

A definition I have always turned to when it comes to communications is the "getting and the giving of information". In other words, this is a two-way dialogue and there is only so much I can do on my end. There is the other 50% of the equation which would be the authors to ask and inquire on their end.

I know there are writers out there struggling in this business. They want to know how to approach things such as submissions, contracts, and working with editors and agents. They want to know how to craft great characters and develop plot lines that can be marketable. But what I find is interesting is that, too often, they only ask of each other. It becomes an issue of the blind leading the blind. Eventually, working in that closed system leads to a lot of frustration and confusing. In many cases, it also leads to writers who might have really had the talent to just give up.

But I do want to say there are editors and agents out there who want to help. To get it, however, you simply have to ASK! Editors and agents are out there on social media. We blog, we tweet, we Facebook. Editorial groups such as Avon, Harper Collins Impulse and Mills and Boon are always opening their lines of communication to allow authors to pretty much ask anything they need or want.

Agents and editors are VERY available to attend conferences. Here at Greyhaus, I have opened the door to setting up live chats with your writing groups using SKYPE. We can simply chat and answer questions. But again, to make all of this happen, it requires someone on the other side to do one simple thing.


Understand the resources are out there. You don't have to struggle alone.