Are you in search of answers? No, this isn’t some solicitation for a 1970s new-age Human Potential Movement seminar. I’m talking straight answers to your most perplexing writing quandaries—by a well-respected expert, no less: the Irene Goodman Literary Agency’s own Barbara Poelle.
Barbara has penned the exceedingly popular Writer’s Digest column “Funny You Should Ask” for the past four years, and continues to order up explanations to authors’ most pressing questions with two parts inspiration, one part irreverence and a dash of effervescence—all with the casual candor of a cocktail-hour conversation (which may or may not be fueled by a few actual cocktails).
Today we bring you good news: Barbara is seeking submissions. We want your questions! Queries she’s covered range in tone and tenor from writers seeking general advice on the writing life to insider info on pursuing publication, and everything in between. For those who have yet to indulge in the wisdom of “Funny You Should Ask” or require a refresher, below are a few of Barbara’s greatest hits from the past year:
I am writing a thriller and my agent keeps telling me to “pull back.” But it’s a thriller! I’m concerned that she doesn’t read enough in the genre to understand how fast- paced they are these days. But I also want her to love it enough to sell it. I know you sell a lot of thrillers—what do you think?
Sincerely, Less Than Thrilled
Dear Not Thrilled,
You know how freshly baked Subway sandwich bread always smells good? It wafts out into the street as you walk by, and no matter what you were thinking, the record in your head screeches and your brain interrupts to say, Oh man, that smells amaaaazing.
That’s sort of the feeling I have when I hear, “I’m concerned she doesn’t read enough in the genre to understand …”—except when the record screeches, it smells less like Subway bread and more like decomposing goat corpse. I assume that this is an agent you chose due to the fact that she has thrillers on her list, and that you have had many a discussion about the genre you write in and the market for said genre—right? So what I’m more interested in addressing is the “pull back” comment that you don’t agree with.
There are plenty of thrillers that amp things up to a certain level of pacing, content and prose that will blow your hair back, or even off (here’s looking at you, Josh Bazell), and there are others that still make your breath catch in your throat without leaving actual fingerprints on your neck (waves excitedly at Gregg Hurwitz). There is, however, a very fine line to tread between a “cinematic” thriller and an action movie that’s poorly translated into print, and I can say I have seen a few manuscripts of late that have John McClane fist-fighting the jet plane way too often to keep the reader grounded.
Now, we can all point to great writers who top the bestsellers lists with plot and pacing like they snorted rocket fuel, and when you top the list, you can do that too. But to really cement your initial contract with your debut readership, you are going to want to work very, very hard to keep things insanely taut, yet accessible. People don’t want to read “action;” people don’t want to read “thrills.” People want to read characters committing to action and characters making decisions that lead to thrills in the face of impossible obstacles, both internal and external. Hell, a man could just sit on a bench for an entire thriller if in the opening scene a bomb was wired to explode beneath that bench. (Hold up. How badly do I want someone to write that book?)
Anyway, this is what I would have you consider: Have you created characters or caricatures? Are their decisions informing the plot, or is stuff just blowing up? [Editor’s Note: You know I can’t publish that, Poelle. I changed it to “stuff.”] Make sure you are grounding the action in authentic and supported catalysts from three-dimensional characters, both the protagonist and the antagonist. Otherwise it’s like that time I went to two Sharktopus showings in two different NYC bars, one at 9 p.m. and one at 1 a.m., and then woke up the next afternoon with mascara on my teeth and Cheetos in my hair: Sometimes too much of a good thing is just too much.
Can a manuscript ever be “too unique”—meaning that since there isn’t anything like it out there, you probably can’t sell it?
Signed, Been There, Wrote That
Dear Been There,
No. That is not a thing. It can be a thing that I’m not able to sell something—but not because it’s “too unique.”
A variation of this question that sometimes comes from clients or previously published authors is: “Do you have a sales issue with an author trying a new direction?” No way! (Right, Ashley Ream and The 100 Year Miracle?) I love it when an author knocks my socks off by finding an exciting and unexpected way to tell a story. That’s the angle to be taking. Not, “There is nothing like this out there,” but, “I have never done anything like this before, but watch me shine!” Embrace the uniqueness of your approach—don’t seek out some invisible comparison already on the shelves.
I’ve heard that including chapter titles in novels is passe and the sign of an amateur. What are your thoughts?
Yours, Passe the Potatoes
Chapter 1: What If That Is What It’s All About?
It was 1983. Brett, that mulleted roller god, had just circled the Great Skate patrons for the prize round of “The Hokey Pokey.” The music started. I put my right hand in. The rest should have been history. But no! As we put our whole selves in, he skated over, feathered bangs ruffling in the self-made breeze, and handed the jumbo pink bear to the girl next to me. To this day I am boggled, incensed, inflamed by this travesty of justice. I hokied! I pokied! She didn’t even turn herself around.
Now that is an amateur.
Hmm? Oh. You with your chapter titles? It’s fine to use them as long as they enhance rather than distract.
Think your inquiry has publishable potential? Then Barbara needs to hear from you! No question is off limits, as long as it’s relevant to some aspect of the writing life or the publishing world. Submit your questions (anonymous aliases welcome, a la Sleepless in Seattle) to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Funny You Should Ask” in the subject line. Select questions (which may be edited for space or clarity) will be answered in future columns, and may appear on WritersDigest.com and in other WD publications.