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#notagoodidea

As you all know, we’ve been pushing the whole build-your-platform-through-social-media idea pretty much relentlessly since grumpy cat memes and the Kardashians became a thing.  We’ve also suggested that understanding how social media works and knowing how to use it properly (for good, not evil) is essential.  We’ve seen how often it can backfire and how damaging the repercussions can be.

That was brought home to me this week by two separate “#Ask___” Twitter events.  First, E.L. James had to deal with responses that ranged from mildly sarcastic to outright insulting when she agreed to participate in an online chat to promote her latest iteration of 50 Shades.  Then, in a very different arena, presidential candidate Bobby Jindal’s #AskBobby hashtag elicited some pretty rude commentary about the Louisiana governor’s policies and even personal life and left a lot of people wondering if someone so clueless about how Twitter works could actually be a good president.

What’s amazing about both of these situations is that these are folks who should know better—or at least their handlers and p.r. people should.  The social media universe is mostly a Hobbesian place—all cynicism, righteous anger, and meanspiritedness—where moderation in opinions or dialogue is in very, very short supply.  And, those who are out there promoting themselves, their work, or a cause, need to figure out how not to fall victim to the pitchfork wielding mobs (metaphorically speaking, of course).  So authors need to beware.  In order to reap the benefits of an effective social media presence, you need to understand the potential pitfalls and be thoughtful about how to avoid them.  Like any tool, this one can help build or destroy.

What useful things have you learned from your experiences on social media?

 

1

Living Sentences

 

I’ve been thinking about sentences today. This morning I came across a Buzzfeed post rounding up “53 Of The Most Heartbreaking Sentences In Fantasy Books”, including DGLM author Jacqueline Carey at #9. Then around lunch time David Morrell’s RAMBO was included in a HuffPost list of great opening sentences. And just now a Facebook pal shared this beautiful Paris Review essay about discovering a sentence from his long-out-of-print book had a wild and unexpected new life. The signs are clear – sentences are the theme of the day, and it got me curious about sentences that truly stand out.

Fiction writers work so hard over every detail of their books, carefully choosing a setting in place and time, planning out the key plot events, bringing the main characters to life. But it seems that many of the most quoted (most Pinterested, Instagrammed, tattooed, wedding-vowed) sentences have very little to do with the story or its characters. Just browse the most popular quotes on Goodreads, and you’ll see that I’m right – very few of these offer any sort of spoiler, or are hard to understand if you haven’t read the book. They are sentences powerful enough in their meaning and in the beauty of their language to live outside of the book that was their first home.

I spent some time pondering my favorite sentences from my lifetime of reading, and wanted to share a couple with you here.

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Corrigan had lost his line with God: he bore the sorrows on his own, the story of stories.”
― Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin

“No bathroom on earth will make up for marrying a bearded man you hate.”
― Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

“How quickly he fell; how soon it was over.”
― Donna Tartt, The Secret History

 

Have you ever loved a sentence from a book you haven’t read? What are your favorite sentences?

Share in the comments!

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Start ‘Em Young

My friend the biographer Brian Kellow (ETHEL MERMAN: A LIFE, PAULINE KAEL: A LIFE IN THE DARK, and this Fall’s upcoming CAN I GO NOW? THE LIFE OF SUE  MENGERS, HOLLYWOOD’S FIRST SUPERAGENT) came up with a great Facebook post last week that got a lot of us to thinking. He included a photo of a half-dozen original copies of his mother’s favorite books, and went on to indicate how his parents’ taste in reading helped define them, and helped shape him along the road to adulthood.

My own parents didn’t always have a lot of time to read. When they did, their inclinations were pretty straightforward. Dad always preferred non-fiction. I remember him reading David Ogilvy’s CONFESSIONS OF AN ADVERTISING MAN and William Shirer’s THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH. But when he was younger, he developed an affinity for Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman. I loved the old 1920s leather-bound editions of these authors that he had kept since college, and that held pride of place on our family’s bookshelves.

Mom used to like to disappear into the latest sprawling historical epic, be it Leon Uris’s EXODUS or James Michener’s HAWAII or THE SOURCE. I was somewhat distressed when she chose to buy and read a paperback novelization of the romantic-comedy movie FOR LOVE OF IVY in 1968. Well, that was a tough time in her life, for a lot of reasons, and I shouldn’t have begrudged her that search for a bit of  escapism.

It was always a sad feeling I got whenever I would enter the homes of friends whose parents didn’t seem to read; who had no bookcases in the living room. And I’m grateful that my parents taught me to read at a young age and, without really even trying, instilled a love of books in me right from the start.

What books do you remember your parents reading when you were growing up? And did you ever go on to read the same books?

1

Listen up

It’s no secret around here that I’m obsessed with podcasts—I started a one-woman mission to convert the DGLM staff to Serial fans last year after all.  And you wouldn’t want to get me and Sharon going on You Made It Weird or to get stuck listening to Jim and I dissect episodes of How Did This Get Made.  (I also listen to Undisclosed, TAL, About Race, Hound Tall, Stuff You Should Know, Nerdist, and Serially Obsessed.  Feel free to make me recommendations for others in the comments!!)  My latest podcast obsessions are Mystery Show hosted by Starlee Kine (who you might’ve heard on other podcasts or public radio shows) and Criminal hosted by Phoebe Judge.  In Mystery Show, Kine takes a mystery that cannot be solved on the internet and tracks down answers people have been wondering about for a long time (like how tall Jake Gyllenhaal is really? or who is the rightful owner of a belt buckle found on the street decades ago that has a toaster with toast that actually pops up if you flip a lever?).  It’s weird and hilarious and the stories Kine uncovers along the way have so much charm.

Criminal also often involves mysteries, but much more, well, criminal ones.  The stories are surprising in very different ways from Mystery Show’s, but with a much more serious edge.   Criminal’s latest episode synced itself onto my phone this morning, so I had to give it a listen as I got ready for work.  And you guys, it turns out to be all about books.  And in particular, rare books, plus one particular rare book thief who’s been caught many times but can’t seem to stop.  Give it a listen—you won’t regret it.

 

13

Right Behind You

Yesterday I had an interesting–and rather bracing–exchange with a writer whose work I read, admired, and ultimately, after much time and consideration, decided not to represent. I’d sent her a note that was well-meaning but bland; I wrote that I’d not “fallen in love” with the material, and without the ability to be a wholehearted champion for the work, that I didn’t feel I could represent it. I got a civil but pointed note back, urging me to reconsider–not my decision–but the very pat “didn’t fall in love” phrase that has become the book world’s answer to “it’s not you, it’ s me.” This writer pointed out that it’s patronizing and more or less reviled by authors. I agreed that it is an easy shorthand, the catch-all diagnosis of the publishing business. But perhaps we who work with words have a certain responsibility to be a little less lazy when stringing them together.

Still, turning people talented people down is never easy, and we agents are often wrong. I’m at a writer’s conference now, and every editor and agent here has a tale of the book that got away—or more precisely, the book we failed to see.

Taste is apallingly subjective, and sometimes it’s hard to put a fine point on exactly what drives my reservations. More often than not, it’s a combination of factors; undeveloped storyline, characters with whom I’d rather not pass 350 pages, utter lack of editorial vision for how to place it. Sometimes I read the testaments of lives of people far braver and more extraordinary than I will ever be, but I worry that the telling does not match the tale, or the story is suited to a smaller circle of readers than most publishers would wish to reach.

I grumble and occasionally rail at the rejection letters I receive as well, but is there a way to soften the blow? Many notes I send are form rejections. We try hard to craft one that is professional and respectful, though it is by definition impersonal. It would be impossible to respond to all the mail that we receive. But know that despite all the maladroit notes and form letters, the late responses and the missed chances, most agents really do get it. We get the frustration, the disappointment, we respect your efforts and exist to support them. True, the works in question are not our own, but they are our livelihood, a reflection of our taste, our ideals, and often long collaborative efforts. It would be absurd to imagine that my emotional stake in a book is as great as that of its creator, but we agents are right behind you.

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What I’ve Learned as a Writer Working at a Literary Agency: The Essential Elements of a Pitch

On the last day of my MFA program, I attended a lecture about how to secure and work with an agent. The lecture was very informative and covered a lot of what I’ve learned since starting to work at an agency; however, as a writer, I wanted to know more about query letters. She didn’t quite get into the importance of pitching your novel. She merely said, “write a short synopsis.” This was so vague! How short is short? What details should you give? What does an agent need to know about your novel, and what can you leave out? Luckily, this got me thinking, and I made a list of the items that I want to see when reading a pitch in a query letter.

Main character(s) – You should include your protagonist(s) and antagonist(s), along with their roles in the novel.

Relative age – Whether directly stated or implied through action/conflict/setting of the story.

Genre – This can be stated before you pitch your novel. You can say it directly (e.g. “In this fantasy novel…”), or you can imply it in the pitch (e.g. “Jamie wants only to be king, but can he defeat the Lord of the Dragons?”). Just make sure it’s clear somewhere in the query letter.

Inciting event – What starts the conflict of the novel?

An idea of the direction in which the plot goes – What can I expect to read about?

Promise of emotional payout – Probably the most important to make sure you’re including. Why should I care about this novel? What can I expect to feel? Though, this should NOT be directly stated (e.g. “You’ll cry when you find out how his daughter was murdered.”). You should imply it (e.g. “When his daughter is sacrificed by his religious leader, he has to choose between loyalty to the religion that will make him king or vengeance.”).

You do not have explain the conclusion of the book—this isn’t a true synopsis, but a pitch. You want to use the query letter to draw your reader in and make them want to read more. If you spoil the ending, what’s the point?

What do you think? Are there any other essential elements that will make a pitch perfect?

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Lessons from a ghostwriter

The work of a writer can take on many forms. Whether it’s articles, nonfiction, short stories, fiction or some combination of all of the above (thinking of Stephen King, Ann Pratchett, our own David Morrell and many others). But I think it’s safe to say all writers do one thing over anything else – they write.

So I found this article in PW interesting as it is written by a ghostwriter or collaborator who had worked with several authors on their own nonfiction projects, and then she decided to write her own memoir. It’s a bit of an unusual hybrid to have a ghostwriter penning a memoir, but it worked for her, and she learned some things about her own work from working with others. The lessons she offers are worth reading because she shares what she learned about her own life from writing about other people’s lives, and how she applied it to her own work.

I think there is takeaway here for writers in general. Especially her last idea that you are responsible for your own story, not other people’s reaction to it. That is such a widely applicable concept as a writer because so much uncertainty and fear exists in putting your work out there for others to see. Even seasoned authors sometimes complain that they can’t handle a bad review, or they feel terrible when they see a negative comment about their book on Amazon. We’re all just human, after all. And it takes real guts to write, and share your work with others. Bravo to Sarah Tomlinson and to all authors for overcoming their insecurities and sharing their work with the rest of us.

Take a look and see what you think. Any other tips you can share for improving your own writing from working with others?

The art of storytelling

The story matters. But so does the way you tell it. Just learn from this 23-year-old who has been writing a memoir on Instagram.

There are so many great things to love about this story. Sure, I appreciate the beautiful photos and well-written captions, but I admire the sheer ingenuity most of all. Fact: a new memoir is published every 38 minutes. Don’t fact-check me on that, just trust me. There are a lot of memoirs out there. Another fact: not many of them are written using the medium of a photograph social media platform, with carefully curated shots posted a year later, a completely different practice than the usual immediacy and spontaneity of picture posting.

Short stories and even entire novels have been written on Twitter too, but what technology gives, technology also takes away. Algorithms generate news stories and a scary amount of written content that you would never suspect. Don’t believe me? Then take this test.

The point is this: technology has changed everything and will continue to change everything, for better or worse. There are an unimaginable number of ways to spread stories now. Get creative and find a way that is uniquely you. Otherwise computer algorithms may as well write your story for you.

Also, I just wanted to include a quick update on one of my earlier blog posts. In March 2015, I posted a blog about censorship and China being named the guest of honor at BEA 2015. Want to see what that all amounted to? This was the result.

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The classics

Last Saturday, my husband Steve and I went out to play golf and, as often happens, we were asked if we wouldn’t mind if a third player (someone we didn’t know) joined us. We agreed and played our round with a very nice and interesting man named Ed Chapman. It turned out that Ed had been in the Berkshires for the previous two weeks doing the sound design for a play that was opening that night at The Barrington Stage, a theater in Pittsfield about 45 minutes away from our home in Great Barrington. The play was THE MAN OF LA MANCHA.

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote (1955). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote (1955). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Later that day, I asked Steve if he had ever seen the play and he hadn’t and I just knew he would love it so we bought what turned out to be the last two available tickets for this past Saturday night. Indeed, the play was absolutely wonderful in every way—everyone was raving about it afterwards. But as I was leaving the theater, I heard a woman behind me say that it was “dated.” How, I wondered, could a play based on the classic story of Don Quixote be dated? The message is an evergreen one and important, I think.

And this made me wonder why time and again we return to the classics—in theater, in film, in our music and yes, of course, in literature. Authors such as Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde are constantly referenced and imitated in more recent works.

I wonder what value you see in the classics. Which of our many iconic authors do you consider classic and why? Who are your favorites?

2

Men of constant sorrow

As my colleagues at DGLM know from last week’s staff meeting, I’m somewhat obsessed with the prison break in upstate New York. I think ever since O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? entered my all-time top-five movie list, I’m naturally predisposed to prison break stories, and this one is starting to shape up like a Coen brother’s movie. Yes, I know it’s poor taste to make light, given that our perps are actually violent killers not cuddly movie stars, but then today it comes out that Richard Matt painted a family portrait for Joyce Mitchell. Awwww…

And it doesn’t help, too, that the more I look at Matt and Sweat (such great names!) I see George Clooney and Tim Blake Nelson playing them in the movie version:

 

150610103412-escaped-ny-convicts-split-richard-matt-david-sweat-super-169  george-clooney-o-brother1

But while I can’t wait to see how it all ends, I’m having trouble wrapping my agent hat around it. For one, where does a prison-break story fall in terms of genre? On first glance, I’d say True Crime, but the crime here isn’t murder—at least not yet—which still seems like a prerequisite for the genre. But if not True Crime, then what? Moreover, with the story having so much media attention and legs so far, what would be covered in a book that hasn’t already been seen on TV or the Web? It’s an issue that’s bedeviled traditional True Crime for years, and unless an author can get access to Matt, Sweat, or Mitchell, it’s hard to see what would pass the “new and newsworthy” test.

So, what’s the angle? It’s a question agents ask ourselves all the time, especially when it comes to stories in the news. If any readers have any ideas, I’d love to hear them, because I do think there’s something here, or that there will be down the line. At the very least, we can play the casting game—any thoughts on who plays Joyce?