"Writing Popular Fiction" with Leslie Guccione

Thursday, September 21, 2000

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor for this site and author of 24 books and over l00 articles and short stories.

Leslie is Leslie Guccione, author of 26 books, including the popular Branigan Brothers series. She also teaches on the topic of popular fiction to grad students at Seton Hill College.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews are held Thursday evenings at 9-11 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8-10 p.m. Eastern, 7-9 Central, 6-8 Mountain, and 5-7 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! I'm your moderator and web editor, Kristi Holl, and I'm excited to be here with you tonight. With me is Leslie Guccione, author of 26 books, including the popular Branigan Brothers series. You'll find her novels on the chain bookstores' bestseller lists. Leslie is here to give you practical "nuts and bolts" help in cracking the field of popular fiction. Welcome, Leslie!

Leslie: Hi, everybody!

Moderator: Leslie, did you always want to be (or expect to be) a writer?

Leslie: More or less. I was an art major in college with lots of creative writing on the side.

Moderator: What is a typical writing day like for you?

Leslie: My days have changed as my family has grown. At first I traded kids with friends to write. Then when they got to be school age my day was the same as their school hours. Now as an empty nester, I write or teach writing more or less from 9 till 5 and then some.

Moderator: What is the difference, by definition, between mainstream and category fiction?

Leslie: This is easy on the surface: category fiction are the romances, sci-fi, mystery/thrillers that we buy in paperbacks. They tend to be very focused on characters, and two at that: hero and heroine. Mainstream, that is "bigger books," have room for larger stories, subplots and sometimes better developed plot lines.

Moderator: Are there differences in requirements when writing for them?

Leslie: Often the publishing houses such as Harlequin Silhouette have very specific requirements. These tend to be in the area of focus. One point of view, for example: the heroine's OR both his and her point of view alternating. Plot lines are not as subscribed as some people think, however.

Kevin: Is it the same for mainstream?

Leslie: Not that I've found. With mainstream fiction you can develop more complicated plots and story lines because you have the physical room to do so. (They are longer, for one thing.)

Moderator: What -- if any -- are the differences in how viewpoint is handled?

Leslie: In "category" fiction you tell the story from the heroine's POV, then you can alternate by chapter or scene with the hero's. That, however, is usually it. In mainstream you can get into subplots and minor characters that deepen the story lines.

ShelleyB: Leslie, when you create a character, do you tell him, "you're a middle child and you behave like this," or do they impose their own selves on the story?

Leslie: I'd love to tell you that my middle child - or any other character - does what I want. Alas, if I've brought someone to life worth his or her salt, they OFTEN take on lives of their own and behave in ways I never anticipated. You will hear this often from writers. I think it's partly due to the fact that we create them as we go.

rj: You mentioned that in "category" the plot lines are not as subscribed as in mainstream. How so?

Leslie: What I meant was that in narrow category fiction, often the line you write for already has guidelines, so it IS more defined than mainstream. You may write for a faith-based line or one that wants few, if any sex scenes, or just the opposite, steamy love scenes. Within the parameters of the line the editors look for creative stories that break the mold YET they still have boundaries that define the line. Examples are Steeple Hill, Desire, and Intimate Moments for Silhouette.

Moderator: You've talked about the editor's first ten minutes with your manuscript and how critical that block of time is. What is so important about that ten minutes?

Leslie: CRITICAL, CRITICAL. Editors are overworked, tired people who look at hundreds of manuscripts. The good ones know good writing when they see it. It is said that your editor will look at 1. the title 2. the opening line, and then 3. skip to a block of dialogue to see how you carry out the crucial characterization within your hero/heroine's personalities. It's important to remember this as it's your big (or very brief!) moment to make that all important impression.

enyoc: What is the BEST tip for an unpublished writer to get the attention of an editor?

Leslie: If an unpublished writer is submitting without an agent (the old slush pile), the cover letter is vital. Let your editor know as concisely as possible what you have written and why you're qualified to write it.

Moderator: Switching topics a moment, Leslie, when does good, solid research become too much information?

Leslie: Easy. Good, solid research is too much when it reads like good solid research. There's nothing worse than getting a history lesson or instructions for running a boatyard when you're expecting pace, plot and characters you want to follow.

Moderator: Then how is the research "worked into" the novel?

Leslie: That's where the all important -- and I may be beating a dead horse -- SHOW DON'T TELL comes in. Weave in the critical information, whether it's location or elements to running that boatyard through action and dialogue. It's just as easy to have Jake wander to the sail loft with his arms full of nautical line, as it is to tell you reader that Jake needs 20 yards of nylon cord by 4 o'clock or he's out of business. Better still, let him argue, tell someone else about the deadline. Weave it in.

Moderator: About those characters...what about the stereotypes? (Or why CAN'T my hero be a concert violinist who's really an undercover drug enforcement officer?)

Leslie: Funny thing is, stereotypes get that way from popularity. Everybody at the moment seems to love cowboys and babies and weddings and single dads in the category romance field. A while ago it was independently wealthy heroes and posh, high life settings. All editors look for the book that breaks the mold. If you write about characters that are "hot" at the moment then you must strive to give them something that sets them apart.

ShelleyB: I'm judging a contest right now in which every hero in the packet is a single dad.

Leslie: Not for nothing have those contestants been reading what's on the shelves! I have a very good example of breaking the mold. In the 80's when every guy was an executive with money to burn and the story so narrow there were never any other characters, I submitted a single book idea to Silhouette. Just to be ornery, I gave the hero 5 brothers and made them cranberry growers trying to hold onto their property. I was too green to know that what I'd done broke the rules but they bought book number 1 and ten years later I finished with the last brother's love story. The fan mail was steady for 12 years, and I still hear from readers!

enyoc: Wow! How far out of the mold can a writer go and still get positive attention from the editor?

Leslie: This is a good example. It was not far enough "out there" to be unacceptable. That is, my characters behaved as other heroes did. Within category fiction "too far out" often has to do with profession. Cranberries seemed to be OK but anything to do with drugs was not. Cops were fine, though. Feisty, independent women are great, by the way.

bonytyes: What do you see will be stereotypes in the near future? If you write what is on the shelves and it takes 2 years for the book to be printed, it might be a different stereotype by then.

Leslie: For the near future, the ones I just mentioned: cowboys, single dads. ALTHOUGH again, it's the spin you put on these guys. Give them a fresh angle and they'll still sell. What any writer needs to know is that it's the writing that will sell the book.

Moderator: You said "everybody at the moment seems to love..." If we don't want our novels to sound dated before long, what are some things we need to do?

Leslie: One of the most important, and this is especially true when writing YA and middle grade fiction, is to create universal themes that stand the test of time: children and the need to be taken seriously, kids working through the very real issues of dealing with the opposite sex, or family problems. These kinds of things never change. What dates a book, though, even when it comes out, is the language used (especially slang). I was horrified to get a "fan" letter from a classroom in CA who told me that they never used the kind of slang I'd put all through my stories.

bonytyes: Is it true that bestsellers are predetermined by bookstores?

Leslie: Bestsellers predetermined by bookstores is new to me. I do think marketing is the key and that can mean booksellers deciding what they're going to push.

ShelleyB: Sales are predetermined by advance orders though--true or false, Leslie?

Leslie: Yes. In category fiction, especially, the bulk of the sales is often through subscription.

bonytyes: I read they pick books they want to sell and promote them, thus turning them into bestsellers.

Leslie: I've read that, too. It may start back at the publishers, though, when THEY decide what to promote.

enyoc: Who is most responsible for proper marketing?

Leslie: Your publisher, although on a smaller level there is much you can do: book fairs, promotions at malls. It helps to belong to organizations that guide you in this, too.

Moderator: Writers hate having to sell themselves on paper, yet we must. Can you give us the basics of that all important query or cover letter?

Leslie: A query asks if they will read what you've written, so it's critical to put down what the book is about and WHY you are the one to tell the story. You must get that editor interested. The cover letter goes along with a synopsis (usually) or complete manuscript and has the same elements but leads into what is included.

Moderator: What if you have no publishing credits to speak of? How can you sell yourself then?

Leslie: Include whatever credentials are relevant. Do you belong to a writers group? Are you a member of a national organization? Many big ones like Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and Romance Writers of America take unpublished members. Tell your editor why you've chosen the plot if you have the expertise that will make a difference. Even list academic credentials if they apply.

enyoc: What would qualify an unpublished writer to be "The One" to write any story, especially in fiction?

Leslie: For example . . . "Dear Editor Smith, I have a degree in English. I belong to the Romance Writers of America and my family has owned a boatyard for two generations. This mystery revolves around a man who inherits a boatyard..." Play with whatever it is you have to work with.

ShelleyB: In the synopsis, should you focus on the relationship at the expense of the plot? How much of the latter should be included?

Leslie: Shelley, this is where knowing your market is critical. For example if you're submitting a romantic suspense to a category publisher, then by all means focus on the characters. Other way around for mainstream. Give the plot its due and then weave in who does what to whom. Never forget points of view, by the way, as well as setting and time.

Blue Phantom: If the guidelines say "query only," does that mean you hadn't better send in the first three chapters, or an outline/synopsis?

Leslie: I'd say yes, do what they say. Send what they ask for. Query means query.

Megan: Do you submit a synopsis to see if it gets accepted before writing the story?

Leslie: We all work differently. I have sold around 25 books on the synopsis and three chapters method. In my experience, if they like the package, then they'll ask for the whole book.

bonytyes: Does the editor always look for a satisfying ending to the book or can it be vague and left up to the reader's interpretation?

Leslie: YES editors want a satisfying ending. That means that all loose ends are tied up, questions are answered and problems are resolved in a way appropriate to the story. That doesn't necessarily mean a happy ending.

rj: Do you sit down to deliberately manufacture a "category" book, or do you just write and then submit according to what turned out?

Leslie: Every teacher I know says write from a complete outline; that is, know where the story is going before you write it. I do, but as I said earlier OFTEN characters take off and things develop as you go along.

ShelleyB: Unpublished writers can't sell on a proposal, can they? Don't you have to prove you can write a whole book?

Leslie: It depends on who you approach. I think some houses will read 3 chapters and outline/synopsis and either buy or then ask for the completed story. (And by god, you'd better have it handy!)

Megan: Do you need an agent? How do you find one? [Moderator note: Do you have to make the first sale yourself?]

Leslie: The children's market will still read unsolicited manuscripts. For most adult fiction of any kind an agent is required, although within category fiction the houses that send guidelines will read partials. A partial is three chapters, or about 50 pages. No, you do not have to make the first sale yourself if you have a agent.

Moderator: But how do you get that agent?

Leslie: Finding an agent is tough. Two of the BEST ways are: 1. go to writers' conferences, and join those professional organizations. Editors and agents attend them, looking for new talent. 2. And network. Get a writers' group and get out there with news, gossip, and trade secrets.

enyoc: If you catch an editor's attention within the first ten minutes, will he generally read the entire manuscript or just skip through it?

Leslie: To answer that, here's some trivia. Last year BY MISTAKE my agent received my partial, the rejection AND a sort of review of the partial. It turns out the partial had been circulated through a number of hands. This is standard but in 25 years in the business my agent said she had never seen the actual "report" from one editor to another within the house. This means that more than one set of eyes looks it over if they think it has potential.

Blue Phantom: When you said, "you had better have it handy!" are you saying they won't give you time to complete the manuscript once they want it?

Leslie: Yes, they will, but time is money and you want to be able to deliver a fabulous book that is polished and revised and shines, not a first, second or even third draft.

Moderator: Leslie, when we were talking earlier, you said that certain writing techniques set the professional writer apart from the amateur (in the editor's eyes). Let's talk about some of those techniques now, the ones that will raise a manuscript to a higher level. First, you said "no floating body parts" -- is this some kind of science fiction?

Leslie: I wish it were, but no. Floating body parts can inadvertently read like sci-fi though. Like :

Mark's eyes scanned the room as he waited for Ashley's reply.

Her head spun around. "What did you say?"

He replied, "I know you were with David."

Her hand flew to his face. "How dare you?"

It can be the best dialogue written but those body parts get all the attention and for the wrong reasons. Instead give the action to the character himself.

Mark scanned the room. Ashley slapped him.

Moderator: You also mentioned the importance of powerful verbs Vs those pesky adverbs. Can you explain what you meant there?

Leslie: In almost every case your image will be every bit as clear (if not clearer) without them. We all make the mistake of thinking that tacking on adverbs will strengthen the verb or give the reader added information. In reality adverbs are often redundant or they TELL instead of show. It's much more effective to pick a stronger verb and let it stand alone. Trust your reader to know what you mean. Rarely are words that end in LY needed.

1. REDUNDANT John inched slowly into his seat VS John inched into his

seat. (The word "slowly" isn't even needed.)

2. Adverbs "tell" like this: "Sit down," John said emphatically.

This way "shows" instead: John pointed to the chair. "Sit right there. Don't move."

3. A better verb choice: NOT The wind blew the leaves rapidly across the field. INSTEAD The wind scattered the leaves.

Moderator: You also mentioned my biggest weakness -- the dreaded exclamation mark!!! Why can't I use exclamation points since they work so well!!!

Leslie: We all need exclamation points occasionally! However every time you use them your reader goes right to the point, instead of the verb. See what I mean! It hits your reader over the head with your intentions, as if you're saying, "Get it, reader? He jumped! Because the house is on fire!!"

Moderator: Can you show an example of how you should rewrite a piece of dialogue that's filled with exclamations so that you no longer need them?

Leslie: If you must use ONE or TWO, don't then tack on anything else. Let them stand alone. "Fire!" Not "Fire!" John screamed. This is redundant. Let's create a quick scene...

"Run!" Jennifer screamed. "That dog's at your heels. Beat him to the gate!" Here the reader sees the exclamation points and gets the breathlessness like a bucket of water in the face. Instead try: The dog raced from the garage. "Run," Jennifer screamed. "That mutt's at your heels. Beat him to the gate." Put the breathless quality (whether fear, shock, or delight) into the scene itself. Let your reader jump into the action and follow along without being dragged. By the way, this is where revision and multiple drafts are essential to tight storytelling.

Kevin: Those are great examples -- easy to see the comparison!!!!

Leslie: I know!!

Moderator: Ha ha! How about an example of narration or action that uses exclamation marks? Just removing them leaves the prose flat -- so what should a professional writer do?

Leslie: The quick answer is: write like a professional. Use and choose every single word to your advantage. "Fire!" "Jump!" "How many time do I have to repeat myself!" These all can be justified. It's subtle but if your character's behavior is clear and you use strong, evocative verbs and tight, active sentence structure you'll have the tone you're looking for. Your sentences will read better without the exclamation point. Save them for the unexpected. Post this on your bulletin board. The last thing you want is an editor who skips over your dialogue because she's numb from your yelling "Look at this! I'm writing with power!"

Moderator: Could you also talk about description here (of people and scenery both)?

Leslie: Yes. "Show don't tell" is an old saw but another key to effective writing. Description of nearly anything can be put into a character's thoughts, observations or speech. That is, let your reader see Mary through John's eyes. Don't lay it all out in narrative summary. Letting your reader see the garden she's sitting in through John's arrival at the gate keeps your reader in John's head. This is critical to good storytelling. Narrative description is boring and borders on telling rather than showing action. The first hard and fast rule to any description is that whatever you describe, be it behavior, scenery or setting, must move the story forward. Genre fiction is full to overflowing with heroes and heroines glued to each other's gorgeous eyes, tight jeans and lush, exotic scenery. Make what's described a natural consequence of who that main character is or let it enhance what the reader learns about the characters or the plot. For example:

John juggled his armload of blueprints and cobblestone samples as he nudged the gate open with his hip. Over the complaint of rusted hinges someone gasped.

"Who's there?" came from behind a flash of straw hat in the tangle of honeysuckle.

"I might ask the same thing. I own this place."

"Close your eyes."

"Wait just one minute. I'm John Hackett and you're trespassing." He squinted at the blur behind the overgrowth.

"No, you wait. You Hacketts may own Cliff house but these gardens belong to everyone in Wingate who ever pulled a weed."

He smothered a laugh. "And does all of Wingate garden in the nude?"

"I told you to close your eyes."

I would hope that in those few lines the reader gets a sense of place, from the torn up, overgrown garden to the implication that it's an estate our nude sunbather has somehow lost. The reader has already begun the process of creating mental images of the characters through speech and situation, tone of voice, John's sense of authority and the unnamed woman's sense of outrage. All this then becomes integral to the story, yet none of it is laid out as a string of facts. Also no exclamation points. No need to tell the reader it's an abandoned garden, that John Hackett is going to redesign it as part of his plan to turn it into condos. Let our nude sunbather banter and accuse him of hypocrisy. Let John defend himself. Then as he works and finds a broken headstone with the family name on it, the READER begins to guess and second guess...and involve him or herself in the story.

Moderator: You also talked about "checkpoints" when the final draft is nearly ready to submit. Can you tell us what your personal checkpoints are?

Leslie: Sure. Tonight I've referred more than once to multiple drafts. Here are my personal checkpoints AFTER my book is the best I think it can be. 1. Do I avoid floating body parts? 2. Are my verbs active rather than passive, that is, do I avoid helping verbs like is, as, was, do, does that have no action? 3. Do I ALWAYS use the most effective verb possible and avoid adverbs? 4. Do I end scenes and chapters with a hook to keep my reader moving? 5. Does every sentence end with the important point? Does every paragraph lead into the next? 6. Does my opening line yank the reader in? 7. Do I put key information and description into dialogue rather than narrative summary? 8. Do I avoid repetition of characters' names which pulls the reader out of his POV? 9. Do I stick to consistent points of view? 10. Do I put the reader to work so that he/she is engaged in a fun, scary, thrilling or otherwise impossible-to-put-down story?

Moderator: Excellent checklist, Leslie! Let's finish up tonight with some of the questions still in my moderator box. These first two rather go together.

bonytyes: How many drafts do you create on an average to get a book manuscript just right?

enyoc: Before you submit a manuscript how many times have you read it yourself?

Leslie: I read it over and over as I go, then all the way through. Drafts more so in pieces. Some sections 2 or 3 times, others half a dozen. As I go, I read it aloud to myself and to others. There is nothing like a fresh ear to help you find mistakes or tighten otherwise strong storytelling.

james55clinton: For publishing, is a 'New York' agent better than someone from Hoboken?

Leslie: NYC agents are certainly in the hub of things, greater NY Hoboken included. West coast agents have stronger links to film land. Some agents are halfway between. Many are in Boston.

Blue Phantom: Editors scare me. I'm not an assertive personality. So how can I move from my comfort zone by my cozy computer, into the world of sharked-toothed editors?

Leslie: Here's the easy answer: get an agent. Let him/her do the door pounding, begging and crying. Yes, I know, you have to find that agent. The right match can make your life simpler in more ways than you can imagine, but 15 -20% poorer.

bonytyes: Who is your favorite character in your books and why?

Leslie: Always the one I'm working on. The one I'm proudest of is Jake Hackett, my deaf teenager in TELL ME HOW THE WIND SOUNDS. Because of Jake I was able to write the Hear No Evil series for kids with a deaf heroine, and I get e-mails and letters from deaf kids who tell me they make their friends read the books so they know what it feels like to be hearing impaired. That's a great feeling.

Moderator: That's neat! I'm so sorry to interrupt here, but we're out of time tonight. Thank you so much, Leslie, for coming tonight and sharing with us! You've taken a lot of the guesswork out of mystery of writing popular fiction with your practical helps and how-to's. I'm glad you could come!

Leslie: Thanks to all of you. This has been wonderful -- now get back to those manuscripts!!!!!

Moderator: Do come back here in two weeks for our next interview! Look in next week's e-mail update for more information on this. If you don't get the Long Ridge weekly updates about new articles, interviews, and transcripts, click here, enter your e-mail address, and press ENTER to sign up! http// Until then, happy writing!

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