Category Archives: authors

1

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?

9

“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?

 

Time’s winged chariot

About two weekends ago, I found myself—as I usually do on a Sunday—ensconced in my favorite chair reading manuscripts and proposals.   I was engrossed in a novel which, despite its numerous structural problems, showed a lot of promise.  As I might have mentioned on this blog once, or a hundred times, I’m not a speed reader, so if the fiction manuscript I’m reading is any good I can kiss a big chunk of my day goodbye.

After Jane and I discussed the pros and cons of this particular novel, we offered the author representation if she was willing to do some significant revising.  (We’d had the book for about a week at this point.)  The author promptly responded that she loved feedback and was not at all averse to reworking the manuscript but she had just accepted another agent’s offer.  Fair enough, of course, and yet….

It bugged me that having plowed through the review process in near record time we never had a chance.  It doubly bugged me because I could have spent a chunk of my Sunday hanging out with my husband and son, running errands, taking that nap I’ve been needing since 2005, going for a walk outside on one of the few decent weather days in what’s been an epically bad winter…you know, what normal people do on Sundays.

I love my job and I enjoy the “development” (reading, editing, brainstorming) part of it tremendously so I don’t generally feel sorry for my lack of Sundays.  But, I also don’t like to waste my time.

This is the longwinded way of responding to those of you who ask about multiple submissions and the etiquette involved therein.  Basically, I say common sense rules, folks.    You should let agents know when you query them that the manuscript is out with others.  And, if an offer comes in, you should give everyone who has your material the chance to finish their review.  If the offer of representation is just too good to hold off on, then you should immediately contact the competing agents and tell them that the project is no longer available so that they can move on to the next thing in their piles.

In these days of electronic submissions, no one will get mad because you’ve gone to multiple agents (unless you do one of those mass e-mail things where everyone is listed; then all bets are off).  But it would be doing us a kindness if you were to keep us in the loop as to the submission’s progress.

Does this sound right to you or do you guys hold the Darwinian view that it’s survival of the fittest out there and tough noogies if you aren’t fast enough?  And, is there something you wish we’d do differently during the review process (and why)?

11

Mad, bad and dangerous to know

It took me a while to read George Packer’s endless New Yorker piece about the evil empire.  No, not the Yankees, Amazon!  Most of what he writes about may be news for people outside our business, but all of us much maligned gatekeepers have long known that anyone who doesn’t spout Amazonian corporate-speak like it’s English will feel dazed and confused when dealing with Bezos’ army, and that the company’s strong-man tactics and culture of silence vis a vis the rest of the publishing world seem positively Orwellian.

But what’s interesting about the article is the fact that despite the behemoth’s disdain for publishing as an industry and book readers as a class, Amazon has managed to make books more accessible to a greater number of readers than any entity before it.  It has also, although publishers might deny it vehemently, injected a competitive edge (okay, desperation and rage)  into the book making process that has lifted traditional publishing out of its complacent, vaguely condescending status quo, and challenged it to think about itself and its role in the marketplace in a new way.

Progress?  Who knows?  But, the piece is a must-read for all of us who buy books, often with one click.   After doing so, I hope you’ll share your thoughts about the role Amazon plays for you as a consumer and as an author.

2

The old man and the lists

Because of a client’s Facebook post, last week I ordered a copy of The Hemingway Cookbook by Craig Boreth.  Now, most everyone who’s known me for a week or twenty years knows that my devotion to Papa Hemingway started early and has never really wavered.  It has survived the bad publicity, the parodies, the mediocre later works, the disdain of my feminist friends who think of him as a sexist blowhard who could write a little….

Thing is, I still find that despite the reams written by and about him, this author continues to surprise and delight.  Every once in a while I’ll read a book (The Paris Wife) or an article about Hemingway and his intimates and cronies that makes me think, “Man, those people lived large!”  And despite the tragic ending and the many missteps I’ve always felt that he possessed great generosity of spirit.

Many years ago, I read in the local paper about a young man who wanted to be a writer and went to Hemingway for advice.  He was given two lists of books to read.  I dimly remember that both lists contained classic titles, but one featured books Ernest considered masterpieces and the other those he considered terrible.  He suggested that the young author become familiar with both, the logic being that you can learn a lot even from a bad book.   This notion has served me well professionally and so I’m always thrilled when I come across stories of Hemingway’s reading lists, like this one.

I think great writers learn to write by learning to read and I think a properly curated list is an invaluable tool.  Do you agree?  And, what books would be on the list you make up for someone looking for advice?

BTW, the cookbook is a treasure.  I’m gonna try the burger recipe this weekend.

1

Reading makes you a better person. Really. There are studies.

Neil Gaiman is my favorite author…who I’ve never read.

I know, I know.  I can’t tell you how many people whose tastes I respect and generally agree with have told me that I have to read this guy.  But, well, time (as in, who has any).  He’s in that pile of books by my bedside that will one day collapse, killing me instantly  (which will serve me right for not having gotten around to reading all the tomes that made it lethal to begin with).

But, I digress.  Even though I’ve never read Gaiman’s novels, I have read enough about him and short pieces by him that I feel like our world views are eminently simpatico.  For instance, in this wonderful rumination on reading  he elegantly explains why books are necessary for not just the individual’s mental health and success but society’s as well.  The skills acquired and developed through reading are transferable ones.  They can be used to create the next iPad, social media site, or weapon of mass destruction because they involve opening up the imagination to infinite possibilities.  He argues that reading fiction is the best workout for these particular muscles and, of course, he’s right.

I’ve always had a strong, and probably  somewhat delusional, belief that anything is possible and I think that might date back to my early penchant for fairy tales and books featuring wizards and witches (Merlin was and is a favorite character).  What book or books turned on the creativity faucet for you?  And do you think that fiction is, in fact, more effective than nonfiction in this respect?

1

Scratch

Facebook friends pointed me to this new interview with Jonathan Franzen, which is as entertaining as you might expect. But before it gets into the usual topics of Oprah and the internet, I was surprised at how much the interview focused on money—both Franzen’s pursuit of payment (or lack thereof) and how he eked out a living prior to The Corrections. It turns out the source of the interview, Scratch Magazine, is a new e-zine dedicated to the business side of publishing, and I urge any and all writers—unpublished, debut, mid-career, indie, freelancers—to check it out.

There’s a lot of useful information for writers of all stripes, and it’s refreshing how candidly the articles focus on money. In contrast, I was at a book conference this weekend where I did a roundtable talk with a bunch of writers and editors, and while we did talk some about the financial and contractual side of things, it was very much in the abstract. So it’s nice to see the Scratch team breaking down the dollars and cents—including the subscription they hope to charge—though I do hope that in future issues they’ll offer a few more examples for writers than a life of poverty in Tijuana. Or Somerville…

4

Give and take

My seven-year-old often (inadvertently, mostly) gives me insight into work dilemmas.  He’s at an age, for instance in which he’d rather not listen to advice from his parental units.  He’s a big boy now and wants to do things by himself, his way.  He does not need his dad and me telling him how he might save himself time and trouble on a task and outright doubts that our combined centuries of wisdom are a match for his lithe young brain.   (I gather this will only get worse once the teen years set in.)  Most of the time, though, all that hard-won experience does count for something and my son, being an honest, upstanding lad, gracefully agrees that perhaps we might know a bit more about a particular subject than he thought and that maybe our advice is at least worth considering.

Such is the way with authors sometimes.  They come to us because they want to benefit from our expertise and experience yet often butt heads with us when we try to offer advice that runs counter to their goals, preconceptions, instincts, whatever, about their books.  As a rule, the more talented the author the most able s/he is to take advice with good grace and at least explore whether it makes sense for his/her work and career.   And, much like parents everywhere feel, we hate to be right at the expense of someone’s bad choices.

Advice, though, is a double-edged sword.  Whose do you take?  Whose do you walk away from?  Everyone has an opinion and there are usually kernels of good sense in even bad counsel.  Unfortunately, the internet makes things harder by providing an ocean of often unsolicited input from everyone and their kid brother.

My feeling is, take advice from people you respect, who have solid experience under their belt, and who have had some success in the area you are looking for help in.  Then, try to tune out the rest of the noise and keep in mind that advice is just that and that ultimately you have to take responsibility for and ownership of your decisions.

With that in mind, here’s William Faulkner giving some pretty good tips to aspiring and practicing writers.

1

Keeping up with old favorites

I have a not-so-great confession to make: I am TERRIBLE about keeping up with my favorite authors.

Case in point: various sources are reporting that Jim Crace’s HARVEST is the favorite for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Now, I first came across Crace back in 2000 when his novel BEING DEAD came out. I guess something about the review in the Times struck a chord with my more macabre impulses, and I remember getting it out of the NYPL, devouring it, and then loudly proclaiming that he was my new favorite contemporary novelist.

So when Crace followed up with THE DEVIL’S LARDER, I actually went out and bought a copy on pub. And then… I totally lost track of him. Granted, it took a while for his next book to come out, but even so, he’s been basically off my radar until this week. And it’s not just Crace that I’ve lost track of, or other comparably literary authors. I’ve bailed on Michael Lewis for long stretches, David Sedaris, Walter Mosley, even John Green–one of these days I’ll get to THE FAULT IN OUR STARS!

The funny thing is, in other media I’m much more loyal—I’ll immediately download the latest releases from favorite bands, cheesy action movie sequels regularly appear in my Netflix queue, and I’m still watching TOP CHEF. But when it comes to books, for whatever reason—too many choices, too many submissions, too many faves, too little time—semper fi I ain’t.

So, the question: am I alone in this? Or do you often lose track of your one-time favorite authors? If it’s just me, then I’ve clearly got some reading to do.. starting with HARVEST!

 

4

When traditional publishing works!

With book publishing undergoing such major changes and so many of my colleagues and clients  discouraged by these, one wonders whether the experience of having a first book published will ever be as satisfying as it once was.  The answer is “yes!” Last week one of my projects, a first book, had an incredibly exciting and successful launch.

Five years ago, I read the obituary of Robert Giroux and I thought that there might be a wonderful story about Farrar Straus & Giroux and its authors during its heyday.  I thought about who might write this book and read a very good piece in New York Magazine written by a young writer named Boris Kachka.  Boris and I talked and, though he was initially doubtful about whether such a book would sell, he decided to tackle it.

The idea then became his and the result, five years later is HOTHOUSE: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar Straus & Giroux.  The success of the book, as is always the case, was dependent on a number of factors:

1)    The manuscript was well written and told a compelling story.

2)    The editing was brilliant.

3)    The launch of the book was thoroughly thought out and extremely well timed.

In fact, Boris produced a terrific manuscript which even in draft form was a real page turner.  Then his editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler did an incredible job of editing the narrative.

Finally, with Jofie’s  passionate mentorship, Simon & Schuster strategically sent out galleys to writers and independent booksellers for quotes.  Authors, including Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, and Larry McMurtry, and dozens of independent booksellers commented on how terrific the material was.

The title topped the August non-fiction Independent Bookseller Recommended list and then the publisher distributed a superb marketing brochure conceived by publishing icon Michael Korda and developed by Jofie, his team and Boris.  Check it out:

HOTHOUSE

In this day of digital distribution, the brochure was mailed out to hundreds of people and the reaction was instantaneous and incredibly enthusiastic.  Everyone who received it wanted an advance copy of the book.

HOTHOUSE was reprinted before it was published on August 6th and was celebrated at a publishing party in the Roundtable Room at the Algonquin.

Of course we don’t know what will ultimately happen in this story, but of one thing I am sure.  As I stood listening to Boris talk at his launch party, I thought, “This is why I love the publishing business!”