Pointers from the Pros: Author Jonathan Rabb on “Place as Character”

Pointers from the Pros” gives tips from authors and publishing industry professionals on everything from craft to querying to their experiences on the road to publication.  This post is by guest columnist and Write-Brainiac J.M. Lacey.

The August 2010 Scribblers’ Retreat Writers’ Conference in St. Simons Island, Ga., featured a stellar set of professional speakers.

Author Jonathan Rabb spoke on the Friday of the retreat.

Rabb is the author of the critically acclaimed historical novels Rosa and Shadow and Light, the first two books in a trilogy set in Europe between the wars. The final installment, The Second Son, will be published by Farrar Straus & Giroux early in 2011.

Prior to the trilogy, the Yale and Columbia graduate wrote The Overseer and The Book of Q and contributed essays and reviews to Opera News and the collection I Wish I’d Been There (Doubleday). He won the international Dashiell Hammett prize at the Spanish Semana Negra Festival in 2006 for Rosa, and he teaches creative writing at both NYU and SCAD.


Here are some key points from Jonathan’s program on “Place as Character in Historical Fiction”:

On Research—

  • In historical fiction, you have to feel you “own” what you are writing. The author must have strict authority over that world. You only have about 20 pages to capture the reader’s certainty and confidence in your knowledge. Creating this kind of authority requires a lot of research.
  • Don’t trust the Internet for your research. Reach out to academics. Read their books and ask for their help.
  • Read novels written during the time period your novel is set in (if possible). Find material written in the voice of that time.
  • Once you’ve done the research, you must let it go. You are telling a story, and the story has to have its own life.
  • In historical fiction, everyone knows the end. The writers and readers share an intimacy by knowing more than the characters.

Place as Character—

  • Make Place a character. The only way characters can be compelling is if the space surrounding them is a character. Space defines the relationship with a character.
  • Inject something of the characters in the place. Have tension and conflict exist between the person and the space.
  • While we’re careful not to write a character doing something out of character, the same rule works for place. Don’t write something out of character for the place. Don’t invent a left turn for a real street if, in reality, you can’t make that left turn.


J.M. Lacey is a freelance writer and marketing and PR consultant. She is working on a place-as-character-driven novel. Visit her Web site and blog.

Pointers from the Pros: Killer Nashville Roundup

Pointers from the Pros” gives tips from authors and publishing industry professionals on everything from craft to querying to their experiences on the road to publication.  This post is by guest columnist and WB member Gina Penney.

The weekend of Aug. 20, I was bound for Tennessee to attend the Killer Nashville Literary Conference, which brought together numerous writers, agents, publishers and author Jeffrey Deaver for a weekend of mystery, true crime and thrillers.

The classes were mystery themed and extremely informative.  I had the privilege of attending “Serial Killers and other Serial Offenders,” headed by a panel of four published authors: Richard Helms, Rick Reed, Nelda Copas and Carolina Bertrand.

What I learned from the best:

  • Describe, explain and predict behavior.  These three things are key not only in tracking down potential suspects in crime, but also in writing characters.  In order to write your characters, you have to really know them.
  • Experience can come from anywhere.  You don’t need to be a professional to have the ability to pen a fantastic crime story.  A passion for detail and a strong plot is a good way to start.
  • Research, research, research.  Can this really be said enough?  Not in mystery writing.

Also, I was fortunate enough to attend a breakout session with a panel of agents, including Jill Marr with the Sandra Dijkstra Agency, Cari Foulk from Tribe and Jeff Gerecke with the Gina Maccoby Agency.




Here is what the agents had to say at the informal Q & A session:

  • They want us to submit and succeed.  They’re on our side and rooting for us.  They don’t make money unless we do.  And if an agent asks for money, we should run screaming. 


  • A well-written query letter could mean life or death in how you represent yourself.  Jill Marr mentioned a very catchy one with the opening line: “There just isn’t enough room in the trunk for a spare tire and a dead body.”  Makes you want to read more, doesn’t it?
  • Agents are not only agents—but editors too.  Your work should be in tip-top shape when it reaches them, but remember that sometimes changes are suggested. 


  • Keep in touch with your agent.  Jeff Gerecke said that, if he hasn’t heard from a writer in a year, he’ll stop submitting their work.  It’s a team effort!

Jeffrey Deaver was this year’s guest of honor, and he spoke at great length about his methods of writing as well as the future of the publishing world:

  • In order to be a successful writer, you have to be a professional.  Writing is a business.  It isn’t an easy task to write a book a year; but with dedication and hard work, it can be done—and done well.  Treat it like a job instead of just a hobby, and it could turn into something you end up doing full time.

  • There is a reason no one buys liver flavored toothpaste.  When writing, ask yourself, are you writing liver-flavored toothpaste or mint-flavored toothpaste?  What helps him create mint-flavored toothpaste is outlining his story heavily (on average, about eight months and 150 pages).  This can help you keep your story on track and prevent it from becoming liver flavored.

In summation, Deaver credited his fascination with his stories to his ability to keep the reader asking: “What’s going to happen next?”  We don’t read stories to get to the middle—we read them to get to the end.

Gina Penney is a formatter by day.  By night, she writes freelance projects, blogs and manages the Cincinnati Scribblers.  She is currently at work on her second novel.  Visit her Web site or follow her on Twitter.

Pointers from the Pros: Author Vincent Coppola on Pitching Nonfiction Projects

Pointers from the Pros” gives tips from authors and publishing industry professionals on everything from craft to querying to their experiences on the road to publication.  This post is by guest columnist and WB member J.M. Lacey.

The August 2010 Scribblers’ Retreat Writers’ Conference in St. Simons Island, Ga., featured a stellar set of professional speakers.

The award-winning Vincent Coppola spoke on Friday of the retreat.

Coppola’s journalistic career spans more than 25 years—ten of which he spent at Newsweek, where he covered the early AIDS epidemic, the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the Atlanta child murders. As well, he has written feature stories for magazines including Tina Brown’s Talk, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Worth, Redbook and Atlanta.

In addition, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism grad has written three nonfiction books: The Sicilian Judge: Anthony Alaimo, an American Hero; Quest: A Search for a Soul for Modernkind; and Uneasy Warriors: Coming Back Home: The Perilous Journey of the Green Berets.

Here are some key points from Coppola’s program on “Pitching Nonfiction Ideas to Agents/Editors and Crafting Book Proposals”:

In General—

  • Look for an idea no one has had before.
  • Give people a voice.
  • Writing is more inclusive than feeding our own egos and souls. We can do good and serve a larger cause.
  • Think about what makes you unique to write a story—your background, where you grew up, etc.

“I was a working-class kid among the Ivy League elite.”

—Coppola (He was one of three out of his graduating class hired by Newsweek.)

On Book Proposals—

  • A bad idea is worse than none.
  • Why is this idea unique? Argue and explain why the concept is special. If your viewpoint is not original, you have to convince someone why it’s going to be a bestseller like the similar book(s) that is (are) out there.
  • A nonfiction book proposal typically runs 35 pages. The proposal shows the publisher/agent you are a good writer, that you’ve done your research, and that you have a good grasp of the story.
  • Sections:
    • 1) Seduction.
      • Why this person, event, movement.
      • Why this is a story.
    • 2) Audience.
      • Who is the audience? There has to be an identifiable readership.
    • 3) Detailed outline.
      • Chapter by chapter. This is your selling proposition. If the proposal is accepted, the book is ready with the chapter synopses.
  • Submit a real sample chapter. This is where you really seduce the publisher/agent.

On Agents—

  • Agents are flooded with book proposals. But there are hungry agents—young agents who will look at a manuscript.
  • There is always room for a good story. If you have a story, can tell a story, you will be successful.

J.M. Lacey is a freelance writer and marketing and PR consultant. She is working on a novel that gives voice to two unique subjects. Visit her Web site and blog.

In the Blogosphere: 8/9-8/13

“In the Blogosphere” is a series, which lists links to writing-related blogs I’ve stumbled upon throughout a given week (usually).

I’m admittedly behind with my Blogosphere posts—I have about 50 links saved, dating all the way back to May/June-ish (oh noes!)—but they are all still worth a look.  I’ll catch up eventually, right?


You know how, when you go to some writers’ conferences, they give you a goodie bag?  Well, here are some links that are better than that!  Yes, they all are from kids’ lit conferences, but the skills are not just for kids’ lit writers.

Here, get soundbites from tons of industry professionals at the recent SCBWI L.A. conference—courtesy of the fabulous Michelle Schusterman of YA Highway.

The more I say "goodie bag," the more I want to giggle. #growup

In this post, over at Adventures in Children’s Publishing, the inimitable Martina Boone presents us with literary agent Elana Roth’s two cents about high concept (from the SCBWI ME/DE/WV conference).

Also, if you *weren’t* one of the thousands who attended this week’s free online writing conference, WriteOnCon, get out from under your rock and click here to check it out.  Most (if not all?) of the posts and vlogs are up there.  Such a fab event!


Here *are* some things specific to YA writers.

This adorable post, by the equally-as-adorable Nathan-Bransford-repped Natalie Whipple teaches you how to Tweet and blog like a YA author.  Yes, I am guilty of all these things.

I’ve posted links on this subject before (mostly by Andrea Brown lit agent Mary Kole), but here is Deborah Halverson—The Editor’s—take on swearing in YA lit.

Also, over at his blogThe Book Deal—editor Alan Rinzler shares tips on writing YA from three Dystel & Goderich Literary Management agents, Stacey Glick, Michael Bourret, and Jim McCarthy.


It’s all about the mission, baby.  The Storyfixer, Larry Brooks, discusses what makes a successful short story.

In this post at See Heather Write, freelancer/editor Heather Trese uses one of my favorite shows (How I Met Your Mother) to discuss character consistency.  Or lack thereof.

Why, yes - I *am* the cheesiest!

And while we’re on the subject of characters, Seth Frederiksen talks about how to make leading characters great at Fuel Your Writing.

As a little precursor to a “Pointers from the Pros” post I will be running soon, here’s The Donald (Donald Maass), over at Writer Unboxed, talking about creating tension.

*In case you missed my D.Maass/RWA10 post earlier this week, here it isPimping out her own blog? Why, yes, she is! (And talking about herself in third person, too—what a freak-a-zoid!)

I don't know what you hearrrrd about me . . . (What ever happened to 50 Cent anyway?)


I heart these fellow Clevelanders and YA authors, Lisa and Laura RoeckerHere, they talk about how writing novels is a little like peeing your pants.

Oh—and this is why I love YA author John Green:

*See what I did there? 🙂