A beautiful pay-off: Nicole R. Dickson’s Casting Off

Casting Off

I just finished reading a book that had a remarkably powerful pay-off for me: Nicole R. Dickson’s Casting Off. The story is about a single mom who is six years past being in an abusive relationship. She’s still struggling to find herself, to find security, to find “home.” She thinks she’s spending a summer on a tiny Irish island to study sweaters using a research grant, but of course it ends up she’s really there to change her life.

The pay-off in any novel is only as powerful as the layering of promises and expectations that go into the making of it. In the case of Casting Off, Dickson layers in chapters showing the protagonist’s anxiety and chapters showing the secondary protagonist’s misery. She also takes pains to show how each sweater knitted on the island is done in special patterns that reflect the life of the person who will wear it. Likewise, the sweaters are shown in several cases to be instrumental to the wearer’s well-being. All of this crafting, and more, had to be done to produce the pay-off.

I wish all of you had read this novel so I could just blurt out the details of the scene I found so touching, but since I don’t know who of you has read the book, I won’t give spoilers. I will say that the truth revealed in the scene was expected and unexpected and so beautiful it made me cry for the rest of the book.

If you have a completed manuscript and want to see if your pay-off has been layered properly, there are many ways to go about it. One pretty basic suggestion I can give is to exchange manuscripts with another writer, but make sure each of you leaves out the pay-off part. The pay-off is the scene that your novel builds to. It is usually the climax of the book. (I will confess that in the case of Casting Off, others might identify the climax as coming in a scene after the scene I adore.) The pay-off is the delivery of the promise you made to the reader at the beginning of your book and then built upon in the middle.

So you take your manuscript with the pay-off missing and have your writer-friend read it while you read your writer-friend’s manuscript that’s missing its own pay-off. Each of you should write down what you think is in the missing pay-off and give examples from the manuscript that have created this expectation. Then, share your thoughts. It will be interesting for you to hear whether your writer-friend’s guesses are accurate, but it will be just as helpful for you to see if your own guesses are accurate about your writer-friend’s story. Once you have exchanged guesses, share the real endings and discuss how they met or didn’t meet your expectations and what each could do to strengthen the pay-off. Armed with new insight, you then go back through your manuscript and develop the parts that need developing for a great pay-off.

And you could read Nicole R. Dickson’s Casting Off, if you want an example of a novel that does pay-off well.

Disclosure: I am in the process of reading books by other authors on my agent’s client list. This is how I came to read Casting Off. To be clear, I have not been asked to promote, nor is it my purpose to promote this book other than to say I found in it a great example of an important writing principle. :)


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Where I’m at Part 5Yes, I finally have an agent!

So this not-quite-published-yet writer is one step closer to getting published. I’ve cleared a hurdle that felt so big it may as well have been a pole vault bar. I’ve just signed with the very talented Alexandra Machinist at Janklow and Nesbit, who will be representing me for my third manuscript, still tentatively titled World Maker.

Of course I am over the moon about this! BUT! I know that signing with an agent does not guarantee a publishing contract (not that I doubt the taste or skill of Ms. Machinist in any way). Nor does a publishing contract guarantee awesome sales. There are many hurdles yet to clear, and we’ll see if they’re the standard 100 meter height, the more lofty pole vault height, or something more akin to a mountain.

For now I’m just so happy to have gotten this far!

Here is a brief summary of my agent search:

I completed manuscript #1 in 2006. It’s my 169,000-word science fiction story set on a faraway planet in the future. For me, this story is still my favorite, but I recognized early on that its length is a problem, and that since it was my first try at novel writing it might not be awesome to everyone else, so I started another story.

I completed manuscript #2 in 2011. It’s a 90,000-word YA fantasy set in ancient Greece. This I shopped during the fall of last year, and while I waited to hear the verdict from a bunch of agents who requested the full manuscript, I started manuscript #3.

I completed manuscript #3 (World Maker) in January of this year (4 and a half months!). At the tail end of February I sent it out to nine agents, three of whom I considered the perfect match both for me as a writer and for World Maker as a story. When I heard back from six of those nine, I sent another round of queries, then another some weeks later, then another. Four rounds for me equaled about 50 agents, all of whom I researched at length, and any of whom I would have been pleased to work with.

In May, while waiting on World Maker queries, I started writing manuscript #4. I decided to stop querying on World Maker and simply wait out the responses on what was out already. I had reached the end of my list of agents I thought were a strong match, and I thought if I got no offers I would simply either finish manuscript #4 or redraft manuscript #2 and start again fresh.

On Monday, July 9, 2012, I had four full requests pending on World Maker when Alexandra Machinist called me to offer representation. I stopped breathing. I don’t think I inhaled or exhaled through the entire conversation, which lasted something like an hour. When I hung up the phone I emailed the other three agents with the manuscript to inform them of the offer. One declined to make an offer, one didn’t get back to me, and the other offered representation two days later.

Remember I said I considered three of the agents from my first round to be the perfect match? Well, the two agents who made offers were two of the three! How lucky is that?

In a future post I might share some wisdom I’ve acquired during this quest for an agent (though I don’t presume to be wise, I can relate some details of my experience), but for now I have some work to do on revisions before the manuscript goes on submission again. This time to editors!



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Where I’m at Part 2: my agent submissions for Prosorinos

While still maintaining a grueling pace as a teacher, I managed to send Prosorinos, my first novel, on submission. I queried 14 agents. Here are my stats:

form letter rejections: 8

requests for partials: 3

requests for full: 1

no response: 2

I queried eleven of the top agents representing science fiction and three young agents building client lists. One of those young agents I actually queried in a pitch session at a conference (as opposed to mailing the query), and she requested one of those three partials. She later rejected it saying the subject matter was too dark for her.

That leaves one full request and two partials. One agent starting her own agency (she had worked at one of the big houses in New York) asked for a partial. We exchanged a couple of emails leading to a request for the full. It took many months of waiting to hear (as I remember it, close to a year) before I sent her an email requesting an update on the manuscript’s status. She did not respond. A little time passed and I emailed again. Again no response. To this day I have not received a response from this agent who had my full manuscript.

One of the partials went to another young agent. I followed her on her blog, over time learning that her personality might not be ideal for me to work with, so I didn’t send a follow-up. It didn’t matter. After one and a half years (yes YEARS) she sent me a rejection.

The part that slays me is that the other partial was requested by a very successful and highly regarded agent. She requested the partial exclusively, but since I already had a partial and a full out to other agents, I never did send her my sample chapters. Back then, I was a noob in every sense of the writing word, and I didn’t know how to handle the situation other than to continue waiting on the agents who had my stuff. Knowing what I now know, I would have done things so differently.

The consequence is that I never sent out Prosorinos to other agents. I had waited so long and lost so much confidence that I decided it would be best just to write another novel. A shorter novel more easily sold. I figured Prosorinos would still be there if I could attract an agent with my new novel. Thus, Wishstone was born.

On to next post . . .

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There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.

— Nelson Mandela