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Smells like a bestseller!

Like many in publishing, I was an English major…by default more than practicality, because I was pretty good at reading and writing, knew I wanted to spend my life obsessing over commas, and ran screaming from the room the first time a science teacher broached the possibility of dissecting a sheep’s eyeball (still one of the worst experiences of my life). To this day I don’t really understand the principle of gravity and find it highly suspicious.

My science aversion has not kept me from accumulating quite a few science-loving friends, though; in fact, my college roommate double-majored in chemistry and physics and is now a science professor in upstate New York. She’s always trying to trick me into sciencey things, like a poetry reading based on the periodic table of the elements, which actually turned out to be pretty fun. (Plus there was wine there – fermentation is one scientific process I am not averse to.)

So I was not surprised to find this post from her on my Facebook wall today: a scientific breakdown of the smell of books. You know what I’m talking about –  that big whiff of delicious mold when you step through the door of a used bookstore; the fresh perfume released when you crack the spine of a brand new hardcover. Old or new, the smell of books has been a favorite topic of nostalgians and those resistant to the lure of digital reading. But did you ever stop to wonder just what produces those beloved aromas?

This chemistry website did, and their in-depth report will no doubt enthrall those of you with room in your brains for science and literature.

Do you prefer the aroma of old books or new books? What burning literary question do you think science should turn to next?

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It’s About Time

 

Some very good news was announced last week by the National Book Foundation’s BookUp, one of my favorite literacy programs. BookUp is dedicated to getting books into the hands of at-risk youth, instilling in them a love for reading. The group is now going to focus some attention specifically on a demographic that has needed it for a long time: LGBTQ kids.

Many of these children and teens find themselves homeless when their parents discover their orientation. Some become prey to drug and alcohol abuse; some become sex workers to survive. If books are pressed into their hands that let them know they are okay, that they are not alone, it can make an incredible difference in their lives.

Entitled LGBTQ BookUp, the program will be centered at New York City’s Hetrick Martin Institute, a high school for LGBTQ students. Lambda Literary will partner with the Foundation on this effort, which will include not only reading and study groups, but field trips to The New York Public Library’s Gay and Lesbian collections and various LGBTQ history sites all over the city.

It’s an idea whose time has come, but that time really should have been decades ago. Too many kids have had their lives ruined or even lost because they could not envision a better, more hopeful path. If the program can flourish and grow, perhaps we will see less of this dispiriting trend.

Meanwhile, if you’re not familiar with BookUp and its amazing outreach, you can read more about it here.   Its motto is, “Where Lifelong Readers Begin.”  I like the sound of that.

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Tell the truth about your reading!

At one point or another in our lives, we’ve probably all lied about reading a particular book—whether it’s because we were trying to not get in trouble with a teacher or professor, pretending we’re up to date with pop culture, or just trying to not sound dumb in front of friends or colleagues. Indeed, the Telegraph has posted a list of the books that people have lied most about having read. (No, it’s actually not Ulysses.)

But have you ever lied about having never read a certain book? I ran with self-professed book nerds in high school and college, and because we were all judgy teenagers, there were books that we simply avoided out of ignorance or because everyone else was reading them. For example, there was a time (for a while, until I got caught) that I denied reading Twilight by Stephenie Meyer because most of my friends made fun of it (even though I looooooved that series as a preteen).

Working at DGLM, my reading tastes have broadened considerably. You read everything so you can recognize good writing or storytelling when you see it, no matter what the genre is. As an example, I’ve discovered that I really like picking up a romance at the end of a long week. theceo(I just finished Nancy Herkness’s The CEO Buys In, which I couldn’t put down!) Not that long ago I’d never read an adult romance novel—I had just wrongly assumed that I wouldn’t like them.

I’m grateful for the chance to open myself up to new kinds of writing and get rid of some of the preconceived notions I’d had as a young reader! How have your reading tastes changed over the years? Are there books you love now that you wouldn’t have five, ten, or twenty years ago?

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Death and Hamsters

Although Atul Gawande’s BEING MORTAL is my assigned DGLM office book-club book, I don’t think I can last until our next meeting without singing its praises in some public forum.

When I began in publishing, there was a certain truism that books on death don’t sell. When I was an editor, I looked at worthy proposals that were, according to conventional wisdom and my ed-board, simply too hard. Certainly there had been exceptions—books by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, Jessica Mitford, Sherwin Nuland—but they just proved the rule. For the most part, the book industry reflected our entirely human propensity to avoid thinking about our own inevitable ends.

That Gawande’s BEING MORTAL—a work of such signal intelligence, readability and compassion–has sold so extravagantly, hitting #1 on the NYT bestseller list, is a sign that perhaps we’ve turned a corner. When my fellow DGLM-er Eric found out that I was reading BEING MORTAL, he told me it should be required reading for everyone. And he’s right. Funny, too, because all sorts of books are billed as universally relevant. But Being Mortal really, truly is.

In addition to weeping on commuter trains over my recreational reads (belated apologies to the dismayed lady sitting beside me), I also represent authors whose works engage mortality. Medical Humanities historian Brandy Schillace’s book, Death’s Summer Coat: What Death and Dying Can Teach us About Life and Living, which was reviewed today in the New Yorker.Com, is a wide-ranging and fascinating look across cultural approaches to death, while forensic pathologist Judy Melinek, co-author of the memoir Working Stiff, chronicled her work as a speaker for the dead. Another client, archaeologist Nicholas Reeves is at work on an excavation that aims to find a particularly ancient and famous corpse, Nefertiti (the ancient Egyptian approach to death, or the royal one, anyway, being that you can take it with you.) And I’m reading a proposal from author and neurosurgeon Richard Rapport on How We Don’t Die.

In any event, none of this has yet helped me with the particular challenges of explaining the certainty of death to my children. My younger son recently requested a pet hamster, one who (in contrast to his cousin’s late and much-mourned Hamchop) would not die. When I patiently explained that all living things die eventually, even people, he looked at me for a beat and retorted, “Yes, Mom. I know. All except my hamster.”

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At least nine lives for writers

They say a cat has nine lives. I’d like to argue that a writer has many more. Literary lives, so to speak. I’ve talked on this blog before about talented authors like Sloane Crossley making the move from nonfiction to fiction, and now I’m switching it up to talk about a famous fiction author trying her hand at nonfiction.

Jhumpa Lahiri needs no introduction in literary circles. One of the world’s most accomplished living writers, she has managed to find success in her story collections and novels, including her first Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, a beautiful book which might have one of the best titles ever.

And now, just when you might think a new novel or collection is going to hit the market, she does a complete 360 and writes a memoir. And not only is In Other Words, scheduled to be published February 9th, her first nonfiction, and she wrote it in Italian! It’s about her love affair with the Italian language, and it inspired her to create a book that could be experienced in both languages (for the U.S. edition, she used a translator so those of us who do not read Italian can still enjoy the book). Here is an article that goes into more detail about the book and the author’s process from Harpers.org.

As a publishing professional, it is such an admirable and huge risk to go so far astray from one’s comfort zone and I’d guess that the decision wasn’t well received by all. Some might say it’s gimmicky, or inaccessible, but creative passion sometimes takes us in unexpected directions. And talent is talent. Plus at a certain point in an author’s career, when you’ve had the level of success that Ms. Lahiri has had, she can call the shots to a certain extent on what she wants to do and how she wants to do it.

Reviews have been glowing. Kirkus calls it “An honest, self-deprecating, and very moving account of a writer searching for herself in words.” Personally, I am very much looking forward to seeing what Ms. Lahiri has done with this book, and I just know no matter what I think of it that it’s going to make me long for Italy, one of the most special and beautiful places on earth, and where I spent my honeymoon almost fifteen years ago. How many writing lives do you think you have? And at what point do you decide to reinvent yourself and change direction?

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Panel etiquette

Over the years, I have been asked to participate on a number of panels.  Some of the experiences have been very positive—I have learned a lot and met some really terrific people.  Some of them, however, have  been…less than perfect.

In order to understand exactly how a panel should proceed, I went on Google (but, of course) and found some good advice.   When things go smoothly, everyone has a good time.  Sadly, that’s not always the case.

A while back I was asked to be a part of a panel on the state of self-publishing.  Having a lot to say on the subject (and I thought a good amount of knowledge as well), I agreed.  Everything began positively,  but then one of the participants simply hijacked the proceedings and took over the discussion.  Soon, the panel moderator lost all control.  At the time, I vowed never to repeat that experience.

Last year, I moderated a panel, chose the participants and presided over a lively session.  That experience  was a good one.  I very briefly introduced myself and then each of the participants and made sure that each of them contributed equally to the discussion.  It was, I thought, very successful and I think the audience learned a great deal—and we all enjoyed ourselves.

Over the weekend, I again participated on a publishing panel.  This time, the moderator not only took far too long to relate her own story, but then interrupted me and the others in mid-speech. Everyone in the audience noticed and even commented on this afterward.  Her behavior was offensive and disrespectful and, because of this, I was unable to fully enjoy this particular event.

Panels are meant to inform and teach.  Moderators should use their position to control each speaker and support them and to move things along, not as a bully pulpit.  I think after this last experience (combined with some of my previous ones), I will limit the panels in which I participate in the future.  We publishing folks do these things in our free time and they take us away from other important activities.   I would much rather “teach”  and learn than be diminished by someone who either deliberately or through ignorance doesn’t follow the etiquette of panel participation.

What has your experience been as a participant in panels or audience member?

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A Word on Fan Fiction

It was in my early years of high school that a classmate introduced me to the world of Fan Fiction. I thought it was the most amazing thing ever, because not only did I already have the habit of rewriting the ending to every book / movie I wasn’t quite satisfied with, but I also wondered if there were others like me, people who enjoyed doing something similar. I was happy to find out that there were a million and one!

Many years later, and with the increase of its popularity, there seems to be a debate about the benefits of fan fiction. Does it indeed help writers learn and improve their craft, or is it more of a crutch, preventing them from moving on and creating their own original works?

I will say this: Fan fiction can be helpful, but I think it depends on the writer. Some take the opportunity to be truly creative, experimenting and finding ways to strengthen their skills; others fall into a certain pattern for the sake of getting the most likes/reviews, and it’s not really about the writing anymore. Then, I guess, it’s also what you read. If a person spends time reading things of little quality, then nothing can be gained from it. I think it is important for every writer to keep in mind the ultimate reason for writing fan fiction, which is writing their own original work. And honestly, for some people it’s simply to get more out of their favorite books and there is nothing wrong with that.

I ended up being more of a fan fiction reader than a writer; however, what I did get from it was the first inclination of what I wanted to do when I grew up. I found myself at various times patiently sifting through all the different stories until finally finding one that truly struck me. It was always a gratifying feeling finding that needle in a haystack and those were the moments when I knew I wouldn’t mind doing something like this for the rest of my life (this was way before I knew literary agents existed!).

What are your thoughts on fan fiction? Here’s a list of published authors who have a thing or two to say about fan fiction. 

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Common query and writing mistakes to avoid

I’ve been seeing a lot of no-no’s recently so here we go: what not to do. Buckle up.

  • Long queries that ramble on will significantly hurt your chances. Agents receive a lot of queries, and we don’t have a lot of time to read them. Get to the point—4-5 short paragraphs max should be enough. We don’t need a scene by scene rundown of the book. The idea is to hook us and make us want to actually read your book.
  • On a somewhat related note, before you add your writing credentials to your query, ask yourself if they’re truly credentials worth mentioning. If you have an MFA and your short fiction’s been published, by all means let us know. If your grandma read the first 5 chapters and loved it, we don’t need to know.
  • There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing, but for the most part, we usually won’t represent a book you’ve already put up on Amazon. Publishers want original works, which means we want original works. So write an amazing new manuscript and send us that!
  • Word count isn’t important except when it is. Stay in the average range for your genre and category. This helps show that you’re familiar with your market. Yes, of course there are exceptions, but your 600,000 word thriller isn’t one of them.

The good news is that we outline our query instructions here. Unfortunately though, a good query doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good book, so here are a few common writing pitfalls to avoid.

  • Infodumping is a big no-no, and I often receive SFF sample pages that make this mistake. Blurting out everything about your world and characters at once is telltale sign that your novel isn’t quite there yet. Conversely, many sample pages read like an entirely different language with invented concepts and terms that strewn throughout the prose with no explanation. Can’t represent what I can’t understand.
  • Don’t overly describe your characters’ actions and emotions. The reader doesn’t need to know all the little movements that entail Joe boarding a bus. Likewise, the reader doesn’t need lengthy explanations of Joe’s innermost feelings. Better yet, don’t tell me your characters’ emotions at all. Good writing describes; truly great writing evokes.

Finding an agent is hard enough. Give your work the best shot it deserves by steering clear of the literary atrocities above. Have any other tips for our readers? Share ‘em in the comments.

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#snackbooks

From an early age, my father started training me in the art of noticing terrible, terrible puns. Like, truly awful. My mom was very good at tuning them out (and remains so) with a good roll of the eyes or shake of the head. I, on the other hand, started noticing them. And making them myself. So when I stumbled upon Tim Federle’s TEQUILA MOCKINGBIRD in McNally Jackson last summer, I laughed myself sick.

Luckily, I am not alone in my sick sense of humor. Yesterday, Barnes & Noble started a game on Twitter called #snackbooks, combining food and books (two of my favorite things!). They contributed “Wafflehouse-Five” and “A Guac to Remember.” They got a significant number of responses. Some of my favorites included:

Life of Pie

Munch Ado About Nothing

War and Peas

The Lion, the Witch, and the Warheads

As I Lay Frying

….there are also countless others, but go check out their Twitter page here to see some of the other contributions. (Some enthusiasts even designed covers!)

My personal contributions are:

The Sound and the Fry
Alice in Waffleland
Anne of Green Gobbles
Feast of Eden

What would some of your #snackbooks titles be? 

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Why reading matters

As a parent of young kids, my Facebook feed is inundated with articles about parenting, and this week everyone seems to be passing around this piece by Leonard Sax, the famous child psychologist. Evidently, in his new book THE COLLAPSE OF PARENTING, Sax argues that, “American families are facing a crisis of authority, where the kids are in charge, out of shape emotionally and physically and suffering because of it. He calls for a reordering of family life in response.” 

Now, I haven’t read the book yet, but in the article Sax offers some concrete advice for helping parents regain their authorityno cell phones in kids’ rooms at night, family dinners, no earbuds in the car, and getting outdoors. All of which are certainly good pieces of advice that I’ll take to heart, particularly how to handle electronics when the kids get to the age of fully abusing them. It’s already starting with my seven-year-old, who fancies himself a budding iphone film director…

Yet, I have to say, among Sax’s advice was one glaring omission that should be obvious to anyone in our industrywhat about reading? 

Perhaps Sax does encourage reading to one’s kids in his book (like I said, I haven’t read it yet), but I’m a little disappointed he doesn’t list reading as a primary method for helping families. I would think the daily structure of a child listening to a parent read aloud, particularly at bedtime, would be an ideal way for parents to reclaim authority from their kids. And of course, the benefits of
reading are pretty darn fundamental, don’t you know
and don’t just take my word for it, it’s science

So, how many of you read or used to read to your kids aloud? And thanks to that reading, were your kids  absolute angels who always respected your authority? Of course they were! So I’ll be curious when I read THE COLLAPSE OF PARENTING to see if Sax does actually encourage reading aloudif anyone has read it yet, please let us know!