Category Archives: authors

Just Breathe

 

Thrillerfest, the International Thriller Writers’ annual convention, was held earlier this month and, as I’ve done each of the past several years, I participated in its event known as PitchFest. Over the course of two and a half hours, in a kind of agent-author speed-dating setup, I spoke with nearly twenty aspiring thriller writers for an allotted span of ten minutes each.

I heard some good pitches, and asked several writers to send me their manuscripts. I’d gotten lucky at PitchFest two years ago, when I signed up the French Canadian Secret Service member Simon Gervais. He had a crackling idea for a spy thriller—and who better to write it? That manuscript, THE THIN BLACK LINE, was ultimately acquired by Lou Aronica of The Story Plant, and it is now burning up the amazon charts, particularly in its Kindle edition. Since then I am eager to get to PitchFest each July to find out what other promising debut writers I might meet, because—you never know.

But this year I heard something that left me a bit rattled. Sure, there’s a lot of tension behind  the scenes at a make-it-or-break-it event like this, where an author has everything riding on the impression he or she will make, and on whether they have developed and presented the right “elevator pitch.” Many of them have paid dearly to take time off work and to self-finance a trip to New York for the chance to pitch their big project. This was the first time, however, that I heard that some attendees were so nervous just before PitchFest that they were hyperventilating, and that some were even close to the point of passing out! Yikes. If that means we agents have a certain power, I don’t like that kind of power. I don’t want to be a figure who is capable of putting someone into a state of such distress at the prospect of facing my yea or nay.

We’re all in this together. We need each other, and we agents are only as good as the writers we represent. Without our writers, we would have no business; we would not be making a living; and I, for one, would be missing out on the deep and nourishing connection I enjoy with the authors I’m lucky enough to claim as my clients.

So if you are a writer attending a similar conference, trust in your own talent, and know that you’ll be at your best if you can try to adopt a Zen attitude and relax. We agents are there because we are eager to meet you, and because we don’t want to let The Big One slip through our fingers. Together, we can make it work.

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Stories Behind Stories

Every project has a tale–a story behind the story–and when I talk with potential clients, I always ask what brought them to the book they wish to write. The answers are often remarkable: I can only give a handful of examples (though this is a post that could go on and on) but learning the provenance of a given project is part of what I love about my job.

When his grandmother gave him a vintage typewriter that had once belonged to a distant, long-dead cousin, journalist Bill Lascher had no idea that it was a gift that would change his life. As it happened, the cousin had been Mel Jacoby, a dashing young war correspondent for Time Magazine who covered the opening days of WWII in the Pacific Theatre. Along with his new bride–a pioneering female correspondent named Annalee Whitmore—the newlyweds dodged Japanese bombs in the Chinese capital of Chongqing, narrowly escaped the fall of Manila, hunkered down in Corregidor with General MacArthur, and reported on the soldiers fighting desperately in Bataan. As Bill researched the history of this long-lost cousin, he became convinced that he had to write the story Mel Jacoby did not live to complete. A DANGER SHARED will be published by William Morrow in 2016.

In a similar vein, another of my clients, writer and scholar Diane Simmons, inherited a trove of yellowed, perfumed letters from a close family friend. When–a bit reluctantly–she dug into them, she found a story that beggared belief, an epistolary chronicle of a charming serial bigamist and his nine wives. She used that remarkable tale as the centerpiece of an examination of the changing roles of women before and after WWII. THE COURTSHIP OF EVA ELDRIDGE is narrative history and a detective story rolled into one.

When first I talked with her, psychologist and corporate coach Michelle Brody described the illustrated relationship book she wanted to write; she’d developed an effective technique in her practice in which she literally drew a picture of each of the dozen fights that all couples have. (Turns out Tolstoy was wrong, that even unhappy families are pretty similar). Her concept struck me as brilliant–12 stick figure fights!– but tricky to execute. Michelle was not an artist herself, nor had she created a proposal, but she did have a vision for the book. After expressing my enthusiasm for STOP THE FIGHT, as well as options for how we might proceed, Michelle vanished. But when she returned, more than a year later, it was with a complete manuscript. She’d hired an artist and created precisely the book she envisioned, and that’s the book I sold. Take a look at her smart, funny, spot-on website www.Stopthefightbook.com.  I challenge you NOT to recognize yourself in one of these fights.

I’ll close with the story behind the story of one of my memoirist clients, Qais Akbar Omar, author of A Fort of Nine Towers, who started recording his recollections of growing up in war-torn Afghanistan as a way of shaking off the nightmares that plagued him. Although English was not his mother tongue (far from it; he’d taught himself English from appliance manuals in the wake of the American invasion) he found that writing in English offered him a degree of distance from the traumatic events he recounted. For weeks, he locked himself in his room in Kabul and wrote. When he emerged, he handed off the hundreds of pages he’d produced to a friend, Steve Landrigan, an American aid worker and former journalist. Landrigan quickly realized that the book Qais produced was something far more polished and profound than the typical writing-as-therapy. The men found their way to me because I’d worked with Naguib Mahfouz, one of Qais’s all-time-favorite authors. They sent me the full manuscript and I was thunderstruck.The book has now been published to great critical acclaim, in more than a dozen languages around the world.

I’d love to hear your stories behind your stories—what brought YOU to the tale you wish to tell?

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Book Expo America — it’s here!


Every year at this time, the entire publishing industry converges at the Javits Center in NYC for the biggest annual bookseller’s convention in the U.S. It’s a massive endeavor, full of publisher booths that cost tens of thousands of dollars, author events and signings, an International Rights Center where our own Lauren Abramo will be meeting with publishers form around the world, and a whole lot of schmoozing and general conversation about books.

BEA Amy

The books that are the focus at Book Expo (BEA for short) are the ones that will be published the following fall, so Fall, 2015 this year. Galleys, or early reader copies, abound and many of us run around sharing stories about who scored what.

Last year, I had a couple of authors at BEA, and even had a client doing a cooking demo from his latest book (photo below, the waffle chocolate chip cookies were delicious!).

 

BEA Dan

The past couple of years I’ve waited to get signed books from children’s authors, and last year I scored a big one with a special BEA edition copy of B.J. Novak’s THE BOOK WITH NO PICTURES. One of my colleagues saw me and took a picture when I was getting it signed.

BEA BJ Novak

And then of course, there are the parties that precede and follow BEA. Many publishers host parties at their offices, and some rent out space at local restaurants. Last year’s Harper party was epic, and not just because they were promoting their epic reads teen website!

Last year, I even got to see my mom doing an event for her own book at BEA, a fun first.

BEA Mom

The past couple of years they’ve also included a consumer post-BEA event called Bookcon, which has generated enormous interest and huge bestselling authors come to events where the public can buy tickets, meet the authors and get books signed. This year the lineup is pretty outstanding, and I suspect it’s going to continue to be a big draw in the years to come.

Thought you might enjoy a sneak peek at what we’re all focusing on this week. If you can’t find us, now you know why!

Take a look at the website links, and let us know what events you’d be most interested in attending, and which authors you’d love to see at BEA. Maybe next year, you can join us.

 

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My love affair with Ann Patchett

I think Ann Patchett is amazing on so many levels. She’s so uniquely talented, is incredibly prolific, and writes nonfiction as well as fiction. I loved her beautiful tribute to Lucy Grealy, Truth & Beauty, as much as her wonderful novels like Bel Canto and State of Wonder.  And I’m a bit biased at the moment because she recently made a large donation to my small town library, which I talked about recently on this blog.

I was pleased to find an article on writing based on her book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, for brainpickings.org that offers such interesting and lovely advice for writers from one of the masters of her craft. In it she talks about how writing nonfiction for her has been easy, while writing fiction has always been more challenging. She talks about the importance of learning to forgive yourself in creating art, which she feels is critical. She uses metaphors that resonate, even if they initially feel a stretch of the imagination.  Why do writers so often feel they can send early work to The New Yorker when musicians would never think they could play at Carnegie Hall after just a month of practice!

Words of wisdom here from a magnificent and gifted writer who not only writes beautiful books, but is so open to sharing her knowledge and skills with other writers. She’s a true gift. Enjoy!

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Stealing Horses at Grub Street

I’m writing on the train home from Boston, where I spent three days at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference.  It was a whirlwind of activities, pitch sessions and manuscript critiques. In addition to meeting a host of promising new writers, I was happy to be able to attend a couple of panel discussions.   I sat in on a workshop taught by two of my Boston-based clients, Adam Stumacher (whose short story “Subject, Object ,Verb” was just named a finalist by Narrative Magazine)  and Qais Akbar Omar, whose memoir A Fort Of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story, was published by FSG. Together, they tackled the important but thorny marriage of “politics and prose,” looking at how writers can effectively grapple with political themes in their work.  Adam, who teaches writing at Grub Street, and Qais, who has an MFA from BU but is a storyteller of the Afghan tradition (he’s a definite outlier in the MFA versus NYC debate) came at the subject quite differently, but in complementary ways.

Through readings of their own work, as well as selections from writers like Isaac Babel and Anton Chekhov, Stumacher and Omar reminded the audience that the job of the writer is to render accurately, to tell a story without judgement—and to resist the urge to proselytize.  Here’s Chekhov, in a celebrated and often quoted letter:  “When I depict horse thieves, you want me to say that stealing horses is wrong. But surely this has long been known without me saying so. Let the jury condemn them, but it is my job simply to show them as they are.”

Because I am interested in projects that engage global issues, I often get query letters for works of fiction that promise to draw attention to the plight of a worthy and under-represented story.  Much as I may agree with the writer’s impulse, I am invariably suspicious of the means they employ. Too often the political novel features characters that are simply mouthpieces, sock puppets rehearsing the views of their creators, or straw men waiting to be knocked down.  I’m all for the novel (and memoir)  of ideas, but only when it doesn’t  lean so heavily on a theme that the story is lost.  Like most readers, I don’t like being told what to think.  Instead, I want to see the situation clearly and formulate my own emotional and intellectual response.

What authors do you think do this particularly well?

Be careful what you wish for?

So, I came across this piece in Buzzfeed about the dark side of being a debut author and, man, did it depress me.  Not just me, either.   Sharon tells me she found it to be a total downer, too.  Courtney Maum’s message of isolation and despair is positively Hobbesian.  It makes me feel guilty about all the debut authors I’ve had a hand in throwing into this bottomless pit of misery. 

Which is not to say that Ms. Maum doesn’t make some valid points.  The comedown after years of intense yearning for the pot of gold at the end of the publishing rainbow can be vertiginous.  As with most of the things we covet, success, as represented by a first-time book deal, is not the cure-all for all our problems nor the magic carpet ride to a suddenly fabulous life. 

And, yet, I think that celebrating the validation of oftentimes years of chipping away at one’s craft should be the greater impulse than bemoaning the problems that come with a new state of authorial life.  No, having your novel published isn’t the ticket to nirvana you may have hoped and dreamed it would be as you sat in your roach infested apartment eating ramen noodles at every meal while your parents relentlessly hinted at you to get a real job…with insurance.    But, it’s a pretty great accomplishment and, hopefully, the beginning of a long publishing career.   And, even though (to quote the immortal lyrics of Taylor Swift) haters gonna hate, writers, both published and un- are a lovely community to be a part of.

What’s your take on being a debut author—both from the wishing-that-was-me to the been-there-done-that-and-survived perspective?

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They get it; They really get it! The singular delight of a good reviews.

Yesterday, Akashic editor Ibrahim Ahmad kindly forwarded along a stellar review for Salar Abdoh’s TEHRAN NOIR, part of Akashic Book’s wide-ranging Noir series. The review ran in PopMatters, an on-line magazine that I’d not been familiar with, but that I will read faithfully from this point on.  The review was of a collection of Tehran-set noir short stories that Abdoh commissioned, edited and then translated from the Persian.  He’s a talented fellow.

There is something magical that happens for authors when they see that a reader, and especially a reviewer, really “gets” a book, when the level of engagement with the text is profound, insightful and original.  Straight praise is great—who doesn’t appreciate superlatives?—but  I thrill to reviews that connect a single very good book with the wider world,  that open up its particular theme in a way that makes me shout, yes, that’s right. (My children are accustomed to hearing me talk to books, screens and magazines).  What was particularly lovely about this piece was that the reviewer, Hans Rollman, also got the point of Akashic’s whole Noir project. Akashic has been publishing collections that focus on cities throughout the world, creating narrative maps of places from Istanbul to Boston, Addis Ababa to  Brooklyn.  Each story is set in a particular neighborhood, and though the books portray their subjects in “a chipped and jaded light” I agree that ”the Akashic Noir collections give a truly alternative and grassroots voice to the cities of the world, and the power of that voice conveys something beyond the noir style that is its medium.”

Akashic launched Tehran Noir and Tel Aviv Noir simultaneously, at a panel discussion at the New York Public Library.  I’ve written here before about the effect of watching Israeli and Iranian authors share the stage to discuss both craft and country—it’s not something one usually encounters.  As Jane noted in her post, publishing can be a volatile business and sometimes a venal one, but moments like that remind me what books can do.

In any event, whatever pleasure I experience from good reviews must be a faint echo of yours.  Have you had a review that made your heart sing? What is it about the feeling that someone really “gets” your work?

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Amazon, Hachette and Happy Friday

First, the headline news from the industry that seldom makes them is that the long and acrimonious struggle between Amazon and Hachette is at an end. I feel certain that the piped in white noise in the new Hachette open plan offices  cannot drown out the collective sigh of relief.  The standoff has been hardest of all for Hachette authors, whose book sales were collateral damage in the negotiation.  The exact terms of the agreement have not been released, so it’s difficult to judge whether one party or the other prevailed, or if this is, as the press release declared “good news for authors” in the long run, but it’s good to be firing on all cylinders as we head into the holiday book-buying season.

On another happy note, I read this story in Publishing Perspectives   and it made me laugh aloud. That business books (and plenty of other nonfiction as well) have long-winded subtitles is a convention of the genre, one that I rarely question.  The idea is to be both specific and alluring; to define, entice and occasionally make outsize claims—this book will change your life, change the world, reorder the stars, etc.  But this article gives novels subtitles, and thus we have  Atonement: How Making up Stories Can Make Amends for Past Wrongs and Be a Force for Healing by Ian McEwan and Gone Girl: Why Your Marriage is Not What It Seems – And What You Can do About it by Gillian Flynn.

Care to subtitle your favorite novel?

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Reading then and now

Reminiscing with a friend the other day about books we loved growing up, I started to feel nostalgic for the times when I would vociferously race through a stack of books in a week—so much so that the librarian, who should have known me well enough by then, would eye my pile and ask, “you’re going to read all of these before they’re due?” YES, RHEA, I AM. (You should know that my librarian as a child was named Rhea). And I did. Week after week.

I also re-read books much more as a kid and teenager. I don’t know what it is about being young that inspires the passion to go back and dive into the same story you have so many times you’ve had to tape the cover back on more than once (I’m looking at you, The Switching Well), but it’s something that I’ve lost as an adult. And something I wish I could get back.

While furiously looking up the entire oeuvres of Judy Blume, Carolyn B. Cooney, Kit Pearson and Jerry Spinelli, to name a scant few, my friend and I crowed and delighted when we found the exact covers that were the books that we had read back then.

Also fun was actually reading the book descriptions of titles remembered, but plots long since forgotten and wondering how in the heck we ever thought these plausible. Example: a book I remember loving called Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix. In my memory, it was about a girl who grew up in a Williamsburg, Virginia-esque old timey reenactment town who had no idea she didn’t really live in the olden days and who one day figured it out and escaped to the modern world. I remembered there being a lot of things she thought were mirrors, but which were actually one-way glass. TURNS OUT, the book is actually about that, yes, but the reason she needs to leave the reenactment town is because all of the children are dying from diphtheria and no one is doing anything about it. Her mother sends her out to get real medicine.

I loved that book. To bits.

My point here is basically this: while I dearly love books that I read now, the passion I feel for them is much more subdued than the fiery fervor I had when I was younger. I remember books fondly, and might return to favorite passages, but rarely do I read them cover to cover, over and over. The amount of books, of course, has more to do with the vast spans of time I could give myself as a kid that are less accessible anymore. I miss it, sure, but that doesn’t mean my love of reading is any less today.

What were the books you read over and over? What were some of the best, but most out there plots that you loved?

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“Kill your darlings.” No, really, kill them dead.

A big part of my job involves helping writers develop ideas and then editing their work.   Good agents, Jane taught me a long time ago, send out material in its most polished, ready-for-prime-time form.  Even though an editor brings his/her own vision and expertise to the process of making a book ready for publication, it’s our job to get that editor to buy the thing in the first place.  So, a brilliant but bloated novel of ideas about the robot apocalypse (just a hypothetical, although you never know with Jim’s list), will probably get a long edit memo from us suggesting a lot of slashing and some burning.

Now, after a couple of decades of responses ranging from sobs to name calling, I’ve learned that telling authors to kill their darlings is always a loaded proposition.  Some will argue with you like defense lawyers at the O.J. trial, trying to convince you to recant and let them keep every superfluous line of dialogue, every unnecessary adjective, and every irritating dream sequence (a particular bugaboo of mine).  Some will accept your comments politely and then send back a manuscript with infinitesimal changes.  Some will send you six-page letters refuting everything you’ve suggested and insinuating that you belong in a less think-heavy profession.

Seldom (although not never) do we get a reaction similar to that of the author of this piece in the Times.  For every author who loves cutting and throwing out, there are thousands of hoarders.

Be honest, are you able to cut with gusto (or at least without facing a clinical depression) or do you have the impulse to argue with or rail against anyone who suggests it?