0

Touchdown!

How terrific is it that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has started his own book club? And not just among his friends, but a nationwide, Oprah-style club that’s social-media based and welcomes as many members as possible?

A bookworm since childhood, Luck has always been famous among his teammates for making reading suggestions and even for gifting his fellow players with books he thinks they’ll like.  “He’s definitely well read,” says center Khaled Holmes, “and his recommendations are pretty good.” With The Andrew Luck Book Club, he’s started off with two books. For those young club members he dubs “Rookies,” the choice is the 1990 YA classic Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, an inspiring story—one that Luck has loved since childhood–about overcoming racial divides. For “Veterans,” he’s picked Daniel James Brown’s highly-lauded bestseller The Boys in the Boat, the story of the U.S. Olympic rowing team in 1936.  Readers are invited to comment on and discuss the books through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and Luck uploads frequent videos in which he talks about the books and about his enthusiasm for reading.

To me it all sounds like a fine way to get that tricky demographic, Reluctant Readers, to pick up a book. And it’s great that Luck is targeting both kids and adults.  Both of his book choices share the common theme of athletics, which is not surprising. And though I don’t expect his next picks to be novels by Nicholas Sparks or Barbara Taylor Bradford, it will be interesting to see whether he is able to push beyond sports-related material.

I’d love to see other public figures follow Luck’s lead and start their own book clubs.  Louis CK really gets social media and knows how to work it; I wonder what he might do with his own club? And Barack Obama is going to have a lot of time on his hands very soon….

Do you have any thoughts on what well-known people should start a national book club? If you do, feel free to let me know!

0

Scholars going trade

I’ve been running between conferences—there have been three this month (I’m still not sure how I managed to schedule that) and remiss in posting.   I have, however, been talking myself hoarse, so I thought I might repurpose some of the material I’ve been presenting–in my newly gravelly voice–here on the blog.

Last week I had the good fortune to head down to Emory University, where the campus was in full and spectacular bloom, and I had the opportunity to meet with faculty in various stages of the book-writing process.  Some were at work on scholarly  monographs aimed primarily at an audience of their peers–the tenure book, the promotion book, etc–but others were at a point in their careers with the ability, freedom or inclination to reach out to a broader audience of smart but non-expert readers.  And that’s where I came in–explaining the role of a literary agent, discussing the market, and dispensing some advice for scholars interested in writing for a general or “trade” readership.

I used the elements of a  nonfiction proposal as the scaffold for my talk. I feel like the proposal is a good lens for understanding what publishers are looking for, and as difficult as good proposals are to write (weird hybrids that they are: part argument for the book, part blueprint, part marketing document), each discrete piece has a purpose.   The presentation, given in conjunction with Eric Schwartz, Editorial Director  of Columbia University Press, is reported on in detail here, but I’ll mention a few points that crop up again and again, and not just with clients with many initials behind their names.

First, lead with the story.  Too often I find that authors cannot resist the opportunity to analyze their own project—to immediately let me in on the tropes they’re subverting or the universal themes they’re tackling to explain: What.The.Book.Means.  To which I say: not so fast.  Before we get to the broad brush and the big ideas,  I want to be rooted in the particulars of the tale—true or fictional–the writer is telling. Tell me the story, and start, if you can, with the exciting bits.   Also, that story must be written in lively, lucid prose, scrubbed of the passive voice, double-scrubbed for jargon (including but not limited to: “trope,”  “problematic” used as a noun, “legitimate” as a verb, etc). I let writers know that it’s really okay to use the first person, to deploy some levity in their discussion, and above all, to establish a voice that is uniquely, unapologetically their own.  I’m a firm believer that scholarly integrity and readability are not mutually exclusive.

I love working with academics, experts, scholars—it’s thrilling to be exposed to first-class thinkers, big ideas, and dizzying levels of expertise.  It can take folks a bit of practice to shrug off the conventions of their discipline, but if they can figure out how to deploy their theory lightly and channel deep reservoirs of knowledge into fluid, clear writing, then more often than not, they’ve  got the makings of an extraordinary  book.

 

0

It’s never too late to start writing

What do you think about waiting until you’re almost 80 to start a new career? If you’re legendary book editor Dick Jackson, the answer is no time like the present!

As reported in a fascinating article in Publisher’s Weekly, Jackson retired from book publishing in 2005 after a long and very successful career as a children’s book editor. It was in 2013 when he was being treated for cancer that this creativity as an author was piqued and he began pitching ideas to former colleagues. He is still in treatment and his cancer is not in remission, and yet he now has 8 (yes, that’s 8!) picture books under contract! The first of which, HAVE A LOOK, SAYS BOOK, has just been published by Atheneum, where he previously had his own imprint. At the age of 81, he is making his debut as an author! And what a debut it is, with illustrations by Kevin Hawkes. Future books will be illustrated by Jerry Pinkney and Laura Vaccaro Seeger. It helps to have the kind of deep experience and relationships in children’s book publishing that he has, but even so it’s an amazing journey he’s taken from editor to author, especially given the circumstances of his age and health.

I hope this story serves as inspiration for those of you aspiring writers who might be feeling discouraged or frustrated that the process isn’t always fun, fast or rewarding. You never know when or how that might change and you will get the spark that becomes your first published book. Keep on keeping on!

1

Music is Fuel For Your Writing

Everyone knows the expression, “Music is food for the soul.” Here’s my spin on it: Music is fuel for your writing. Last month, I had the privilege to attend one of NYU’s Media Talk series, and the one thing I remember the authors saying over and over again was that they did not necessarily enjoy the writing process (I myself can attest to that). So, what do I do to get in the writing mood? I put on some music. I have a playlist carefully put together just for my listening/writing pleasure.  I personally prefer music without lyrics, so here are a few my favorites :

Honor Him/Elysium/Now We Are Free by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard

My Name Is Lincoln by Steve Jablonsky

Song For Bob by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

In this short blog post/exercise, Melissa Tydell explains how music is key in an author’s writing journey, and I implore you all to give this exercise a try if you don’t already. You’ll never know what beat gets you writing because, as we all know…

 

5

When to put down a book

Some people have to finish every book they start reading. I am not one of those people. There are so many amazing books out there that I want to read that it feels wrong, even irresponsible, to spend time finishing a book that has completely lost my interest.

For instance, if a novel’s written in the first person and I can’t relate to that character, then I’m going to stop reading. If a plot is dragging or meanders without a clear end in sight, I’ll usually put the book down unless I’ve become emotionally invested in the characters. Stories and characters that feel familiar are also begging to be dropped and forgotten. Very rarely will I put a book down because of the writing or an unlikable character. I can power through subpar writing if the story is that good—the kind of good that keeps you up at night and practically forces you to turn the page to find out what happens next. Plus if it’s published, then the writing can’t be that bad…right? And I love unlikeable characters, especially a flawed protagonist, which seems to be a hallmark of good fiction.

A book needs to force me to put it down. It’s not easy, but it happens and I’ve learned to recognize when it’s time to move on. What do our readers think? Do you ever stop reading a book? What makes you stop? And if you’re also a writer, are you aware of the possibility that someone might start and stop reading your work? What impact does this have on your writing?

Who is your reader?

One of the critical questions I ask my clients to address in their proposals is who their reader is.  They not only need to define them demographically, but also statistically.  This is to show the editor considering the material that the author understands their audience and is aiming his or her book directly at them.

For example, last week I received a cookbook proposal on a very strong idea.  The problem with this was that though the idea was unique, the author had completely neglected who the reader should be and in so doing, the contents of the proposed book didn’t work at all.  Back to the drawing board.

In another instance, I spoke with a client at the very beginning of her proposal writing and addressed how important it would be to the eventual sale of her book that the potential reader be very clearly defined.

Both of the above have to do with non-fiction.  When you are writing fiction, you also need to keep your reader in mind.  Decide where he or she would look for your book in the bookstore and if at all possible, try not to mix in elements from other genres to such a degree that you cross categories (you might turn off a whole group of potential fans).

So often, I find that the author overlooks this, but I cannot stress how important this question is to answer—it not only helps the editor considering the material but, in the case of nonfiction, it also helps the writer as they proceed with putting together their manuscript.

Whether you are writing non-fiction or fiction, being totally clear about who your audience is is vitally important.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

14

Writing by hand

As a kid—before computers were widely available, and before I was allowed to use a computer without a strict time limit—I always equated pens and penmanship with being a Writer. There was something so thrilling about sitting down with a new notebook and a pen and filling it up with my story ideas. (I also just liked to look at my handwriting, to be honest.) I’d start a lot of stories in class (usually during math) and go for pages and pages, the scratch and flow of pen on paper so much more satisfying than equations and formulas. It will probably not surprise you that math was unfortunately my lowest grade in high school.

That love of writing by hand hasn’t gone away as I’ve gotten older. I’m picky about the writing utensils I use, whether they’re for professional, academic, or downtime purposes. There are only three kinds of pens I’ll use for writing letters, and I’ve stocked the DGLM office with my preferred inky brand (Precise V-5s, if you were wondering). But with most people writing on computers these days, I have to wonder: do people use pen and paper to write stories anymore? What are the pros and cons of writing on a computer versus writing by hand? I confess to having converted to the digital side; I occasionally will draft poems using paper and ink, but mostly prefer my laptop, to get spacing and line breaks more precise on the first go-around.

The king of all pens.

The king of all pens.

I will say that writing using pen and paper tends to make me a more careful writer. I’m more conscious of the words I’m putting down, and it’s often a useful way to get a first draft, even if I hate that first result. It’s so easy to simply backspace over something on a computer and forget the original idea that might come in handy later. With pen and paper, you see every staggering, stop-and-go moment of the process, every cross out and idea. Of course, it’s not the most efficient way to write—especially if you have deadlines looming and 200 pages to go.

But what do you think about writing by hand? Do you think it’s dead? Do you think it’ll ever truly go out of use?

 

*swoon*

4

Does writing make you crazy, or are you crazy, therefore, you write?

In our line of work, we are privileged  to have up-close, intimate access to the writer’s process.  Often, that means being privy to the heights and depths of literary creativity: insecurity, delusional behavior, neuroticism that would make Freud rub his hands with glee, grandiosity, envy, and procrastination (in fact, there’s not that much difference between an adult author on deadline and a 10-year-old who’d rather be outside shooting hoops than tackling his math homework).

No matter how accomplished or relatively sane the writer, there’s no avoiding the mind games inherent in the act of creating a book.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve talked some of our most successful, well-established clients off the proverbial ledge; how many conversations involve me explaining that there’s no way their work is total crap or their careers a travesty.  Did I mention these are successfully published authors who’ve gained accolades, had bestsellers, and whose Wikipedia pages are as full of errors as everyone else’s?

Which is why I found this infographic Galleycat pointed me to so amusing.  Thing is, the emotional rollercoaster most authors experience as they write their books is almost a necessary part of the process. In fact, without those highs and lows, your work would probably be flat and colorless.  There are a lot of things that get in the way of good writing but smugness has to be at the top of my list.  A healthy dose of insecurity and self-doubt means you’re probably on the right track…or on a track….

The Stages of Writing a Book- How an Author Feels (1)

7

My 32 Favorite Books

Any book lover hates getting the question, “so what’s your favorite book?” Because it’s impossible to choose just one! Since it’s my BIRTHDAY today, I decided to go for the ultimate act of self-indulgence and list my 32 favorite books – one for every candle on my cake. These are the books I’ve read, re-read, and recommended, the ones I cherish most!

 

  1. Seuss’s ABCs (proud to say this is my 11-month-old-nephew’s current fave)
  2. Go Dog Go by P.D. Eastman
  3. Richard Scarry’s Busytown (probably where my big-city dreams first took root)
  4. The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper (a pen name for Arnold Platt of the publisher Platt & Munk!)
  5. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
  6. Meet Kirsten by Janet Shaw (the first book that broke my heart)
  7. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (the first book I remember reading on my own!)
  8. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary (the author’s 100th birthday was last week so my book club is reading this one this month…life comes full circle)
  9. Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace(the whole series is a fave, but this is the first I read and, as book lover’s bonus, centers on Betsy’s own writing, her Uncle Keith who is an author, and a theatrical production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin!)
  10. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett(I yearned for the glamor of being orphaned and indentured, in a freezing attic with bread crusts to eat.)
  11. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
  12. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (the second book that broke my heart. RIP Beth, it’s an injustice that you died and bratty Amy married Laurie.)
  13. Emily of New Moon (while I of course adore the Anne series, I gotta give the nod to L.M’s slightly less famous trilogy…)
  14. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  15. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  16. The Great Gatsby (I know, me and everyone else in America. But I just love it so and will gladly read any/all Fitzgerald fanfiction you throw my way. #FitzgeraldForever)
  17. Lolita (come for the scandal, stay for Nabakov’s incredible prose…in his second language, no less)
  18. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (vastly more fun than Grapes of Wrath, if you don’t mind the page count.)
  19. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  20. Paris Trout by Pete Dexter (To Kill A Mockingbird…but better!)
  21. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (I know, I know! Snobby post-college me loved it and post-30 me defiantly still does)
  22. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  23. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (I’ll pause here to let Miriam yell at me about how much she hates The Goldfinch)
  24. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (the first book I read after moving to NYC and now one of my lifetime faves)
  25. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse (a book lover’s bookstore book…need I say more?)
  26. Claire Marvel by John Burnham Schwartz
  27. The Round House by Louise Erdrich (suspense, coming-of-age, and marginalized communities all in one amazingly powerful literary novel!)
  28. My Education by Susan Choi
  29. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (warning: a brutal, beautiful, unforgettable novel)
  30. The Magicians series by Lev Grossman (a lot of fun in its own right and for its nods to other fantasy classics)
  31. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  32. …??? Leaving this one blank! What will be the next book I love and recommend and re-read?

 

This book-list-as-memoir was a lot of fun…and I think you can see the exact moment where I left the Midwest and started exploring literature outside the classics. Looking forward to a lot more exploration in the next 32 years! Share your favorites in the comments to make sure I’m not missing out! 

And thanks to Kemi for this perfect birthday card: 

Reaching out

For most of the time that I’ve been in publishing, I’ve found clients in one of four ways: the slush pile, referrals from clients, seeking out authors for ideas I’ve come up with, or convincing a person I’ve come across to write a book. I’ve long been reflexively skeptical of supposed innovations on the query system—everything I tried for a long time turned out to be a huge waste of time that generated no better results than just letting the slush come to my inbox.

But four or so years ago, I looked at my list and my slush pile and realized how heavily they both skewed toward a narrow range of voices. And as I looked for ways to fix this problem I listened to a lot of wise people (including the fine folks at We Need Diverse Books) on the perils of any system in which gatekeepers simply wait for things to come their way.  So now I try to actively participate in things happening outside my inbox, making sure that writers know that my door is open (and my list inclusive).

Authors looking for an agent have a lot of great opportunities now not just to seek an agent, but to reach out to the best possible fit for them and their work. Many wonderful agents participate in these new ways to find clients (and quite a lot of them were on the bandwagon before I got my head out of the sand). And for me, they’re a good way to proactively seek submissions from a diverse pool of authors so I can make sure that my client list supports a wide array of voices.

TwitterLogo_#55aceeTwitter pitch parties like Brenda Drake’s PitMad still involve authors querying agents, but it means I get to find those projects that seem like a good fit for my list and invite the authors to send their queries my way.  And resources like Manuscript Wish List, co-created by Jessica Sinsheimer and KK Hendin, allow me to highlight book concepts that I’d love to see, which gives me a chance to proactively seek a broader and more balanced list, both via the Twitter hashtag and their fantastic website (for which you can find my profile here).  And I’m really excited about the upcoming Twitter event #DVPit, which Beth Phelan created to “showcase pitches about and especially by marginalized voices.”  If you’re a writer from a marginalized community looking for an agent, I strongly encourage you to check out that link before Tuesday, because it looks like it’ll be a great event!

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the sheer volume of emails in my Weekend Reading folder, many of which come from sources like the above. I look at my To Read list right now and tremble in fear. But I love knowing that the chances that I’ll find a gem that I have a vision for among those projects is far higher, since I’ve already done some of the work in getting authors who have written the kinds of books I’m looking for to reach my way.