Advice – Parvus Press

The First Fifty Pages – A Walkthrough

Logo for "The First Fifty Pages" blog post series

Hi Parvuteers! Last week we talked about how important the first fifty pages of your book are to me both as a reader and as a publisher. I thought it might be a useful exercise to look at a couple of well-known books and see where they are at page 50. For the purposes of this exercise I’m mostly grabbing paperbacks. The whole “page 50” notion is supposed to be more directional than literal, but since it offers a nice, definitive spot it’ll be a good point for discussion.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
I’m pretty sure this was the first Hugo/Nebula winner I ever read, and to say that it’s had a huge impact on my tastes would be putting it mildly. Let’s just say that from where I’m sitting, I can see the original version of Analog magazine where Ender’s Game first appeared as a short story on page 100.

I’m going to assume that if you’re bothering to read this, you’ve read Ender’s Game. If that’s not true, follow us and Twitter and Facebook and tweet us (@parvuspress) with the hastag #thereisahugegapinmyscificollection. I will send the first two people to actually do this a fresh copy of Ender’s Game straight from Amazon (not any of my many signed copies, you vultures).

Let’s take a look at all of the goodies crammed into the first 50 pages. I’m going to bullet this cause there’s so MUCH going on.

  • Character Development
    • Ender wants to be a normal kid, but he’s not. He’s a Third.
    • Ender fights with his mind in the most coldly calculating manner imaginable
    • Peter is an ambitious sociopath, and Valentine is the peacemaker
  • World Building
    • We’re on earth, with humans, in a near-future scenario
    • Earth has been attacked by Aliens, twice, and almost lost both rounds
    • The government monitors all children and recruits those with military talent to a special school in space. It also controls how many children a family can have
  • “Voice” and Story
    • Each chapter starts with transcripts, underpinning the idea that the government/military is watching everything and everyone.
    • We’re going on a “coming of age” kind of journey. It’s not a revenge tale, or a conspiracy story, or a planet-hopping space epic.
    • Ender leaves home, rides a spaceship, and arrives in Battle School

I had to restrain myself from penning a 10,000 word dissertation on what makes Ender’s Game so good, but it should be clear that there’s a lot we can all learn from how Mr. Card opened this novel. I will also point out that after 50 pages Ender has put a kid in the hospital, opined on how he wished here were a real boy, and traveled to/arrived at Battle School. There’s a ton of plot going on in addition to all of this other character and world building stuff.

Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
Before he was “that guy who finished the Wheel of Time”, he was that guy whose sophomore work Mistborn had a pull quote from Romantic Times Book Reviews on the back cover. Seriously, they called it “an exceedingly satisfying book”. Anywho, Sanderson is well-known for his deep world building, engaging characters, and zany magic systems. He knocks all three out of the park in the first 50 (note that the first 50 includes the prologue cause, y’know… you read that too).

  • Character Development
    • Kelsier is a snarky, sardonic badass  who is laser focused on his own goal and he doesn’t so much care about the price he and others pay for it. It’s not that he’s heartless, but he recognizes that his real enemy is the status quo.
    • Vin begins the novel as a timid street rat with trust issues who thinks she needs to be part of a group to survive
  • World Building
    • We have a class-based society with corrupt nobles and an oppressed but superstitious working and serf class
    • Magic exists, and some special people can use it.
      • Also, there are “inquisitors” who walk around with spikes in their eyes!
    • There’s an active seedy underbelly to this city
  • “Voice” and Story
    • We don’t get deep into the main plot, but we get an appetizer by watching the first “crew” of criminals scam another crew and pull a fast one on the government. This is essentially a microcosm of the larger story we’re about to get.  It helps us understand that there’s going to be a lot of moving parts working together
    • You’ve got that Sanderson style of writing interactions between good friends. In addition to being a key part of his voice (he does it well in everything) it also helps us understand that this is not a lone-wolf story. Kelsier is not a “man apart”, but rather the respected leader of a team.

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher
Ah yes, the first book in the Dresden Files. No one has ever accused Jim Butcher of not being able to build a compelling world or write interesting characters, and the first 50 pages of this series sets up some relationships and character traits that have persisted through 15 books and counting. Go back and re-read these particular first 50 pages and see how much he crams in.

  • Character Development
    • We meet, and love, Harry Dresden. He’s a grumpy professional wizard working in modern day Chicago. Not afraid to stand up to folk and things who are… “bigger” than him.

Seriously, check out this amazingly crafted paragraph:
“Cujo growled at me in the rearview mirror again and I beamed at him. Smiling always seems to annoy people more than actually insulting them. Or maybe I just have an annoying smile”

Let’s unpack it:

    • Harry gives the bad guy’s henchman a silly nickname. This gives you great insight into his personality
    • Harry goes out of his way to antagonize the guy without actually picking a fight
    • Harry acknowledges that maybe he’s just annoying
    • We meet and get to take the measure of John Marcone. Yes, Butcher uses a shortcut here with a kind of soulgaze that allows him to exposit on Marcone’s character but in that same interaction we also get to see him act in such a way that bears out the exposition. He’ll be doing a lot more of that later in the series.
    • And of course, we meet Harry’s on again, off again, off some more, maybe on, back off, off for realsies, maybe on, someone dies now, on again paramour Karin Murphy. Butcher uses tropes and our pre-conceptions about hard-bitten detective types to give us some initial introduction, and then proceeds to do his own thing.
  • World Building
    • We’re in the “real” world
    • Some kind of magic exists and there are many practitioners  of it
    • There are references to several different kinds of magic, as well as the world of Faerie
    • We’re in for an urban setting
  • “Voice” and Story
    • It’s a detective novel
    • This thing is going to be told in first person, and it’s going to be by a sardonic, smart-ass with a mental smirk.
    • In 50 pages we investigate a murder, go for a ride with a crime kingpin, and take a case with the stereotypical damsel in distress. Not bad for a day’s work!

Each of these three books delivers a lot in the first 50 pages. Yours may not be quite as action packed, but make sure that you’re giving the reader enough to form some meaningful judgments about the rest of the work. If you can nail your first 50, you’ll have your hooks into the reader (and your publisher…) and they will eagerly follow your characters through the rest of the journey.

Follow Instructions, Iconoclast!

Follow instructions!

Happy Monday, Parvus People! This week’s blog post is straightforward and aimed squarely at writers submitting their work to publishers. The rest of you can check out and come back later in the week for a super important announcement that I’m not allowed to talk about right now or the Hive Mind will reduce my brain to a nutrient paste. So – submitters, read on!

Writers, read submission guidelines and follow them. Yes, there are some industry standard practices that are a good idea (Word count on title page, page numbers in manuscript, and so forth), but these practices are not as important as following the publisher’s submission guidelines.

Follow all the guidelines the publisher is giving you. If you’re going to deviate, it’s best to offer an explanation.

Let’s look specifically at our guidelines. We ask for a some specific info in your submission email. Firstly, your full contact info. This lets us get in touch with you if we want to buy your book. It’s important. But what if you aren’t comfortable sharing your phone number (There are a world of valid reasons for this other than paranoia)? Say so, with an apology.

Why do we want your phone number? A few weeks back, I was reading a manuscript and was having a hard time getting in the right headspace to properly evaluate it. This happens a LOT when you read a half dozen manuscripts in a sitting. The author had provided their phone number and I was able to make a quick call, clarify the discord between the author’s writing and my reading, and give the manuscript a fair read. Without that phone number, I may have made a note to look into the issue later, set the manuscript aside, and forgotten everything except that I didn’t enjoy reading it.

How about the word count of the novel? We’re a digital first publisher – why should we care about how long a book is? It’s not like it impacts our costs, right?

Again, this is mainly about giving your manuscript a proper read. Without word count, I’m left floating a bit on what to expect from the pacing of your novel. A 60,000 word and a 120,000 word novel develop at a VERY different pace. Give me the word count so that I can properly calibrate. Also, knowing I’m about to dive into a longer novel will warn me not to start reading it twenty minutes before I have to walk into a meeting. It’s a notice to the reader that they need to set aside more time to evaluate the book.

Most importantly – following the publisher’s guidelines sends two important signals. One: You’ve taken the minimum amount of time to understand who you are submitting the novel to. If you aren’t doing this, there’s a good chance the following are true:

A) You have no idea who we are, so your novel is probably not a good fit for us.
B) You can’t pay attention to detail. When I notice an error early in your manuscript it’s not because you overlooked one small thing in the insanity of writing a novel; it’s because you can’t pay attention to detail and I should stop reading.
C) See “B” above. Because this is the SUPER important point. If you telegraph an inability to focus on detail in your submission, the publisher will see this same flaw in your writing, rather than a simple slip.

Two: You’re indicating to the publisher that you may be difficult to work with after the book is sold. At the minimum, you’re showing that you won’t pay careful attention to what the publisher and editor ask of you throughout the process and you may need extra hand-holding. This could very well be the difference between “Buy this manuscript now” and “I like it, but…”

tl;dr Follow the publisher’s guidelines carefully when submitting a manuscript. There’s not a single good reason on planet earth not to do so.

Thanks for sharing some time with us. Got something to say? Tweet at us!  @ParvusPress

Pirates, Parrots, and Problems with Voice

Happy Monday, Parvus People! First off this week, I wanted to share some statistics compiled from our submissions. So far, 70% of our subs have come from the US, 10% each from Canada and the UK, and 7% from Australia. What about that other 3%? Well, that accounts for submissions that didn’t include an address. It’s important to include your full contact info on your submissions so that we can track you down if we like your manuscript!

Of our fantasy submissions, two thirds have been of the “epic” variety. The remainder are mostly urban fantasy with a few “other” thrown in. Hat tip to all you hardboiled fantasy writers out there! The average fantasy manuscript, of any and all flavors, is 104,000 words. Over on the sci-fi side of the house, it was 86,000 words. There’s a joke in there about the attention span of sci-fi readers or the verbosity of fantasy writers; I’ll let you all fill it in on your own, though.

Nifty? Not nifty? We’ll dig out some more entertaining statistics next month. For now, though, let’s move on to this week’s Lesson From the Submission Pile (We really need a better name for that):

Problems With Voice:

“Voice” is one of those obnoxious meta terms that everybody throws around but nobody really defines all that well (Nobody except Grammar Girl, that is. Stop and read this: Yes, voice is the “feel” of the writing. It’s a mixture of the pacing, language used, grammar, etc. It’s that unique patois which results from all the small writing choices you make. Like using “patois”. That’s a choice I made to make this paragraph a bit more authoritative; give it a French sound, dress it up a bit, etc.

How can you, the writer, identify “problems” in the voice of your manuscript, then? Isn’t the voice entirely subjective?

No. It’s not entirely subjective. In fact, there is one thing that a lot of new writers get wrong when it comes to the voice of their stories and it’s this: You describe scenes with the words you would use instead of the words your narrator would use. Stick with me for a few minutes and I’ll explain:

MOST fiction is written in third person limited viewpoint. For this little adventure in explanation, let’s pretend the narrator is a movie camera. It makes this a bit easier to visualize.

In third person limited, the camera is basically sitting on the POV character’s shoulder like a parrot on a pirate. There’s a cable that runs from the camera into our POV character’s brain, so we can read their thoughts if we want. The camera is a parrot plugged into a pirate’s processing port.

So we see the scene from a spot JUST next to the POV character’s eyes (which lets us, the reader, look around the scene a bit and notice things before the character does), but that line into their brain means we can see their thoughts. It ALSO means that the thoughts of the POV character can influence the camera. How does ANY of this impact voice?

If you choose to tell the scene entirely from the camera’s viewpoint, we are entirely in the voice of the narrator and we can use whatever words we want to describe a scene. Imagine we are watching two men boxing. A ninja and a pirate. Our POV character is the pirate. (…parrot plugged into a pugilist pirate’s processing port…). Check out this line of text:

Paulie the Pirate grinned, showing a mouthful of teeth that resembled the shattered storefronts of an inner city strip mall. He hitched left, winked, and threw a powerful right hook that caught Nancy the Ninja completely unawares. There was a sickening crunch of cartilage giving way under the force of Paulie’s punch as her nose didn’t just break but crumpled.

 Nothing wrong with this, right? Well, nothing related to voice, at least. Now, let’s view the scene with input from that cable to the POV character’s brain.

Paulie grinned. He had been telegraphing weak lefts through this whole fight and the vain ninja thought she had him all figure out. He hitched left and winked and he thought, “Yar, this here’ll be damnably rewarding”. She never saw the right hook coming. He heard a satisfying wet snap as his fist smashed her nose into a shapeless blob of flesh.

There are a number of differences. We see some of Paulie’s thoughts, we see that he has been “telegraphing weak lefts”, data that we can be certain of because Paulie knows they were intentional. Our dispassionate narrator from the first sample wouldn’t be able to so bluntly describe such bluffs, because he doesn’t see it coming any more than Nancy does.

The key difference, however, is the description of the sound of Nancy’s nose breaking. In sample one, our narrator is a proxy for us. It is a dispassionate third party and it does NOT enjoy the sound of a nose breaking (because it’s an icky sound). To this narrator, the sound is “sickening”. In the second sample, the narrator is pulling a live feed from Paulie’s brain. To him, that is the sound of victory, so the sound is “satisfying”.

Note that we don’t have to limit ourselves to grammar and vocabulary that Paulie would use. The narrator is still an independent entity that is delivering us this story. But we DO have to recognize the influence of the POV character’s thoughts on the narrator’s view of events.

SO: Re-read those same two samples but SWAP the descriptor for the sound. Read it as “satisfying” in the first sample and “sickening” in the second. Doesn’t work, does it? THAT is a “voice” problem. Voice problems tend to arise from adjectives. They tend to be the narrator describing something the way the author sees it in their eye rather than from the viewpoint of the narrator/POV character relationship.

Here are some quick and dirty examples:

 Thorgbald prepared for battle. He tightened the straps of his bracers, rolled his neck, and tied back his silky hair…

No. His hair might be silkier than the silkiest silk, but Thorgbald is prepping for battle. He’s not thinking about the silkiness of his hair.

“Jenna had a shit day. Just shit. First, Thorgbald broke up with her to go fight in some Barbarian/Pirate/Ninja tournament, then she had lost her crown to her sister. Angry, frustrated, and hungry, she folded her arms under her ample bosom…”

Or she slammed a fist against her voluptuous thigh, or rested her hands on her shapely hips… You get the idea. The author might be picturing Jenna as a big-breasted woman, but Jenna certainly isn’t thinking about the size of her breasts in this scene. Or the sensuality of her thighs or inviting swell of her waist or any other such silliness. Stop staring at your character’s breasts, too. It’s just odd.

And, lastly,

Commander Jaxxor of the StarCruiser ‘Malevolence’ was looking forward to this. He had come from the farthest reaches of the galaxy in order to assert his dominance over the Barbarians, Pirates, and Ninjas of this sliver of the multiverse. With the barest of efforts, he swung his energized vibroblade through Thorgbald’s meaty torso. The energy weapon split Thorgbald from his well-muscled shoulder to the opposite voluptuous thigh with all the effort of pressing a kabob skewer through a cremini mushroom.

See that metaphor at the end? It’s beautiful, but that’s probably not a comparison that Jaxxor would make. Make comparisons that make sense to your POV characters’ experience and worldview.

 Fine tuning voice is an incredibly complex aspect of writing and something that only comes with practice and time, but it is the difference between writing a good novel and starting to master the art of being a novelist. If you’ve had negative feedback on voice in the past, or had readers tell you “The story was interesting, but I just had a hard time getting into it”, re-read and look for descriptors that don’t quite fit the POV you’re using in a scene.

Best of luck, writers, and please keep sending in your manuscripts! We’re still looking for more books to fill out our 2016 publication schedule. Visit our submissions guidelines here:

Make Your Job Harder

A close-up of a grouping of clover.

Happy Monday, Parvus People, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day to those of you celebrating this week. Being in the storytelling business, we’re big fans of the blarney.

Before we get into submission lessons, if you haven’t seen it already, you should check this week’s Blog Post of our compatriot and Consulting Editor, John Adamus. John talks about showing vs. telling (Something that you’re probably reading about by now) but he does it with stripper metaphors:  John’s Blog. I know you folks are tired of seeing “show vs. tell”, but it’s a skill that is still underdeveloped in a lot of the submissions we receive.

Our focus this week, fair friends, is going to be on how to make your job as a novelist harder. It appears to be a topic that many of you are interested in! So, without any further delay, let’s dig in.

The easiest way to make your job harder is to decide that it’s not enough to JUST be a novelist. You should also be a poet, or lyricist, or short story writer. It is common in fantasy novels (and marginally less so in sci-fi) to include an epigraph at the opening of a chapter. This is sometimes a quote from some fictional wise man in your universe, recalling a quote from a major character in an early chapter (A technique we love when used well), or even a bit of poetry.

I implore you, dear writer. If you are not a poet, do not include poetry in your novel. Most novel readers do not read poetry. Most novelists do not write poetry. When a person who Is not accustomed to interpreting poetry reads less-than-stellar poetry, it’s a disaster for both reader and writer alike.

If you must include poems in your novel, find a poet and ask them to write them for you. The same goes for songs. Find a songwriter, give them the rough sketch of your idea, and trust them to write the lyrics for you.

But, should you want to make your job harder, feel free to try to learn to write effective poetry while you are working your way through a 100,000 word manuscript.

What about short stories? The skills are more closely related; so what’s so bad about including a short story in your novel? Again, it’s about reader expectations. A reader picking up a novel is not expecting to find short stories peppered throughout. If they did, they’d pick up a collection of short stories.

Novels are full of side stories, vignettes, flashbacks, etc. that are mostly self-contained bubbles of story hanging off the main host, but they are not entirely self-contained. They must attach to the main story, either by way of a character weaving the telling of the story into the main through line of their arc, by ending without fully resolving their small plot (because the resolution of said plot is part of the larger story arc), or by some other means.

A short story is a fully self-contained tale with a beginning, middle, and end. If you absolutely must include something of this nature into your novel for reasons that don’t immediately leap to mind, have a character deliver it to us in a first person narrative. Have them relate the events that occurred to them. In this way, at least, you are weaving the short story into the larger narrative.

Or, you can choose to make your job as a novelist impossible by peppering your novel with short stories. Not only will you give your reader a jarring experience and break the spell of the narrative, but you will have the joy of forcing yourself to excel in two very different writing styles just to be considered adequate overall.

If you’re writing a novel, friends, just write a novel. Don’t compound the monumentally difficult task in front of you by attempting to master multiple different styles of writing and story composition in the same work. Give me a complex narrative full of foreshadowing, mirroring, allegory, callbacks and rich characterization. Isn’t that enough of a challenge for you?

Your Prologue Is Hurting Your Novel

Before we begin this week’s blog post, let me give you a little background information that will help you understand our perspective on prologues. 28% of the submissions we receive have prologues. The vast majority of those, 75% are fantasy. 25% of those books with prologues are science fiction.

Of the books that did not have prologues, there isn’t a single one that I read and thought “You know what would make this better? A prologue”.

Of the books that DID have prologues, nearly all of them suffered from the weight of the prologue holding the story back.

So, this week’s discussion is going to center on prologues and why you probably shouldn’t include one in your manuscript. I’d like to focus on what a prologue needs to accomplish in order to justify its existence.

A prologue sets up the reader to enjoy your story. It whets the appetite for the main course. Many people will advise you that the prologue establishes the world or setting. While it MAY do that, that is simply one function a prologue can perform. It is not the reason for the prologue to exist. The prologue makes promises to the reader. It tells them that, if they’re patient, the story will reward them with awe and beauty. And it hooks the reader with a question.

Look at one of the single most effective prologues in modern novels; George R. R. Martin’s prologue to A Game of Thrones. Spoilers (of the prologue only) follow:

What happens in this prologue? Martin introduces us to three characters – two of whom are dead by the end of the prologue and the third of whom dies shortly thereafter. He introduces us to the cold, icy setting of the world north of the wall; but it’s a bare bit of forest of no particular import. We are barely introduced to the Night’s Watch and the idea of the wildlings.

None of these things are really all that important. None of these really serve as an introduction to the world or the setting, as most people believe a prologue should. But, at the end, we see the Others, The White Walkers. We see these other-worldly, clearly magical villains and we watch them kill a member of the Watch, who then rises as a lich to kill his former companion.

THAT bit there is the important part of this prologue. Martin is telling us that there is magic in this world; evil, dark magic. He is telling us that there is an ancient enemy who swells its ranks as you try and fight it by raising the dead. He does this because the next chapter shifts us to Winterfell, a thoroughly unmagical place. In fact, there is very little magic observed in most of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire.

The prologue was a promise to fantasy readers that while most of the books were about the machinations and politics of Martin’s richly detailed world, there was also magic pulsing in the background. It would be important, but it wasn’t going to be available as a tool for our heroes to Deus ex Machina themselves out of every jam.

And it gave us the question – Who are these Others? When will the rest of the world get wise to the danger they pose? This would be a background question for the reader to keep in their mind as they watched the game of thrones unfold. It’s a question that maintains tension throughout the novels; why is it important which Baratheon boy holds the throne when the real threat is an army of the undead coming from the north?

That, my friends, is what your prologue should do. It should leave the readers with a question that will lurk on the edges of the key scenes in your novel. It should promise something to them and keep them reading. Here’s the secret that a good prologue hides; Make the readers the promise of danger, excitement, or thrills and they will grant you an entire chapter one to set up the world.

The prologue buys you the time (and credibility) to deliver the exposition you need. If you’re putting that exposition in the prologue before hitting the reader with an exciting Chapter 1, you’ve gotten it backwards and they won’t even make it that far.

So; take another look at your prologue. Is there action, tension, and mystery? If not, dump it immediately. It’s an anchor you’re asking the rest of the book to carry around. Look at your chapter one; does it contain all the elements of your story in microcosm? Does it have momentum? Does it compel the story forward? If so, you probably don’t need your prologue.

My perspective on prologues in manuscripts is this: If the book opens with a compelling chapter one and keeps my interest moving through, I may find myself thinking “Great book. Could be better with a prologue to set up mid-point events. Should talk to the editor about that.” However, if I’m reading a prologue that is dragging me down with exposition or that seems wholly disconnected from Chapter One, I won’t have faith that the writer is skilled enough to make the rest of the manuscript worth reading.

At the end of the day, that’s the most important promise that your book’s opening makes, whether it’s a prologue of a plain old chapter one, you are promising the reader that you are skilled enough to have crafted an enjoyable story. You are promising the reader that you are worth their time.

Unless you’re certain that you’ve got a killer prologue, dump it before it kills your novel.

Paper Dolls and Strong Women

Hello, Parvus People! Firstly, we must thank you for another week of solid submissions. You’re making our job of selecting our debut acquisitions incredibly difficult. We hope to have some announcements on that front by the end of March, though, so keep an eye on your social media feeds!

This week, I’d like to continue our post series on feedback from the submission pool by focusing on characterization. One of the biggest challenges in writing is developing the skill to write fully realized, three dimensional, believable characters that are different from yourself. If you’re a nice, easy-going, gregarious person, it may be a real difficulty for you to write a believable villain who shares none of those traits.

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Beginnings are a Bitch

The response to our first call for submissions has been excellent so far. We were incredibly impressed with the quality of manuscripts submitted and that just goes to reinforce our decision to launch Parvus Press. There are some amazing stories out there, sitting on hard drives and ready for a publisher to put some muscle behind them.

As we’ve read through the submissions, we noticed a few common areas for improvement and I thought we should share them out for everyone’s benefit.

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