Category Archives: book ideas

Some Things I’m Looking for:

While developing my list, I keep having these desires for books I’m not seeing. Although my interests aren’t limited to this list, I wanted to give a few examples of the things I’d like to see:

  • YA/MG where the character is growing up in a foreign country, whether he or she just moved or lived there all his or her life. I’m particular interested in settings where the character lives in a rural village or town. I’d love to know how difficult it is to milk cows or use an outhouse every day of your life while simultaneously trying to understand the ins and outs of a new country.
  • YA/MG fantasy with human characters set in rich worlds not anything like Earth. I’m very fascinated when an author can create an understandable world with its own physical rules and composition. Think Dune and some of the worlds described in His Dark Materials. I grew up reading these books and would love to see more of them on my bookshelf!
  • Mystery novels with atypical detectives. I want characters that by all means should not be a detective, but against all odds they’re actually really great at the job. When I was younger, I loved The Cat Who… series. I thought it was hilarious that the cats did all the work. Whether it’s adult, YA, or MG, I’m all in.
  • Women’s fiction where the conflict lies outside of marriage or kids. I’d love the family unit to be the crutch the wife/mother relies on. Perhaps this is because I’m newly married and want to believe in all the good of it!

If you have a book like any of the above, please query me. You’ll have my full attention.

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What’s missing in fiction?

I admit that sometimes I grow frustrated with the seemingly endless homogeneity of submissions. Then I ask myself what it is that I want to see. The easy answer is that I want to see something that hasn’t been done a million and one times before. But are there any underrepresented subjects in fiction?

Well, this was actually the topic of a recent NYTBR “Bookends” piece, and it’s one I’ve been considering for a while because, honestly, not that many come to mind. Sure, it would be nice if fiction had a smidge more joy, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s underrepresented. Novels need conflict after all. Deb’s desire to see fiction about finding a place to live gave me some interesting ideas though.

Where are the novels about the exorbitant cost of high education in America, and the average college student’s struggle to pay off student loan debts while working a low-paying job for which they’re overqualified? Or the ones about aging baby boomers sequestered in nursing homes, forced to adapt to a new way of living? Those novels likely exist already, but not in the same abundance as those about dysfunctional families.

Can our readers come up with some more underrepresented subjects? What would you like to see more of in contemporary fiction?

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The book made me do it!

I walked out at lunch time on this scorching, humid day in New York City, and immediately felt like I was in a tropical jungle—only this was the concrete kind.  As I tried to get my errands done quickly so I could scurry back to the relative coolness of my portable air conditioner (my office windows are of a vintage that makes standard units impossible to install)Air Conditioner, I found myself thinking of literary jungle settings—Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Lily King’s Euphoria, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, etc.  In part, this had to do with the sliced mango stand I ran across on the corner of Broadway and 14th Street…but I digress.

Back in the office, while eating my chilled pea and mint soup, I happened upon this piece in Galleycat about Riverhead soliciting essays for a collection about “how Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous memoir [Eat Pray Love] served as inspiration for readers to go on life-changing adventures” and, having just been thinking about her recent novel, I had one of those moments where I felt the universe was trying to tell me something.

I decided that what it was telling me was not to pack up my bags and head for the Amazon (where Jane will be in a month or so, btw), but that I should do a blog post about what books have inspired us to do things.  For instance, reading Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak in high school made me want to learn Russian in the worst way.  And, so I took three years of this beautiful, complicated language while in college (I remember nothing, in case you’re wondering).

It’s a great exercise, in my opinion, to consider how books have influenced our actions.  For those of us who are obsessed with literary works, it’s an exercise that can turn up some fascinating (and maybe disturbing) insights into our psyches.  So, have books influenced actions for you?  If so, what books…and what actions?

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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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Stranger than life, larger than fiction

So, having spent close to a month as a sitting juror on a federal trial, I’m slowly recovering from the Stockholm Syndrome my fellow jurors and I experienced while cooped up in a courtroom every day, listening to lawyers drone on interminably, seemingly engaged in a contest to see who could make the most repetitive and tedious presentation of their case.

Sitting there day after day, trying to actively listen, even as my eyelids often felt like tiny weights were dangling from my lashes, gave me a new appreciation for legal dramas from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Firm to The Good Wife.  The fact that book and screen writers have been making trial proceedings as compelling and engrossing as they are (or can be in the right hands) is a testament to imagination and the ability to transform dull reality into if not art then entertainment.

A couple of days after the trial ended (with an acquittal in case you’re interested), Jane and I had dinner with David Morrell, who was shooting ideas for his new novel by us.  What struck me anew that night was that it is an alchemical process that transforms a snippet of a real story—whether historical or present-day—into the basis for a full-blooded work of fiction.  The mind of a gifted author takes that reality and spins a fantastic yarn out of it by picking and choosing elements  that are, in actuality, dramatic and entertaining, goosing action and motivation in the process.  The conclusion I draw is that real-life legal proceedings would benefit greatly from talented writers and skillful editors.  (I’m thinking that my trial would have been done in a week, tops, if it had been properly scripted.)

And, perhaps because I feel my lack of imagination would make for a sad fiction writing career, I always wonder how writers choose elements of real life and translate them into successful fiction.  Look at the current headlines in your local paper and tell me what novel you would write if you could rip one off for your fiction debut.   What are the nuggets that you would mine for a book that is more scintillating than my trial?

 

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Good sports

Baseball seasonMy life these days revolves around two things: work and baseball.  You guys know all about the work part but I bet you had no idea that when I’m not in the office baseball consumes every other aspect of my waking day.  That’s because I have an eight-year-old who’s obsessed with America’s pastime and who is currently playing for a little league and a travel team.  That’s a lot of sitting on bleachers during an unusually cold, damp spring watching little boys drop routine fly balls, have meltdowns on the pitcher’s mound, and swagger like miniature Reggie Jacksons when they finally get a hit.

So, of course, this baseball immersion has me thinking about sports books.  I can reel off a dozen great baseball titles off the top of my head, from Roger Kahn’s classic The Boys of Summer to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wistful Wait Till Next Year to Chad Harbach’s acclaimed The Art of Fielding, but I have a harder time with other sports.  Sure, every once in a while there’s a great book about football (Friday Night Lights) or soccer (Fever Pitch) or basketball (Hoop Dreams) or mountain climbing (Into Thin Air), but the conventional wisdom among publishing people is that baseball is the sport that sells books.

Is this a case of publishers not knowing how to reach other sports fans and making the backward assumption that those fans just don’t read, or is it that fans of other sports aren’t as interested in reading about their favorite sport?  Is it that baseball sparks writers’ imagination to a greater degree than, say, tennis (the pace of baseball, soporific as it can be, does allows for a lot of contemplation and rumination)?  Is it that women buy more books than men and there are more female baseball fans (given how many women friends I have who are rabid about football and basketball, I doubt this)?

We like sports books around here and we’d like to do more of them.  But, help us out.  What sports do you like to read about and why?  What are your favorite titles and what do you wish there was more of in this category?

Read this piece (aka more on Stephen King)!

I am really not obsessed with Stephen King. I do think he’s amazing and a genius, and I’d like to spend a day living inside his brain, but I really don’t follow his every move. Which is why it’s kind of funny that I’m doing another post about him.

I recently shared a link with what I thought was some great advice from Stephen King, and now I want to share with our readers an article I came upon this week while cleaning out my bathroom (I store much of my best reading material there!). It’s from an August, 2013 issue of the New York Times Magazine, and it goes into some detail about the immediate King family, all of whom have storytelling in their blood. I find it beyond fascinating that this entire clan lives and breathes books and writing, stories and ideas. Not to mention they genuinely seem to have a strong affection for one another, despite some very rough and rocky times.

One of my favorite anecdotes is about how when King’s kids were little and he needed books to listen to while driving, he’d have them record the books he was interested in hearing. It’s brilliant! I’m going to get my kids to start recording books immediately. I can’t think of a better family activity.

I also loved reading about King’s daughter in-law, Kelly Braffet’s, entrée into the family. Can you imagine being an aspiring writer (she met King’s son at the Columbia MFA writing program in 2001) and meeting your future in-laws named Stephen and Tabitha King for the first time?

And yet another great anecdote comes from King’s son, Joe, who struggled as a writer for years unwilling to use his dad’s name to sell books. He went beyond using a pseudonym, Joe Hill, refusing to even admit who he was to his literary agent for 8 years (a time during which he did not sell a book)!

The stories go on. Anyone interested in writing should read this article. To me, it illustrates how important it is that the environment we create for ourselves and our families be one that allows for thoughtful and creative thinking. If you surround yourself with smart people who have similar interests and ideas, you will naturally find yourself gravitating in that direction.

I hope you enjoy learning more about the King family, and that they inspire you to be better writers, readers, and storytellers.

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Writing your way to a better idea

One of the hardest things for writers is the process of coming up with an idea. And understandably so. Finding a topic doesn’t just happen, and so when I had to write creative papers for my college courses, each one started the same way: with a brainstorming session.

The mind is a funny thing. Our brains are capable of making some astounding—not to mention bizarre–associations, and when you let your thoughts run wild, that random stream of consciousness is likely to result in some pretty interesting ideas. There are a million and one different brainstorming techniques out there. In fact, brainstorming has evolved to become a bit of a science—seriously just type the word into Wikipedia and see—but I usually find the simplest methods to be the most effective.

Freewriting is one such method. Even if you can’t think of anything to write at first, the simple act of putting pen to paper can get those creative juices flowing. Clear your mind. Let go. Write. It may take a while to get going, and you may only end up writing “I have no idea what to write” for the first ten minutes of your freewriting session. But that’s encouraged. The ideas will come if you let them, if you keep churning out sentence after sentence.

If you’re having trouble, try doing some more in-depth research on freewriting and other brainstorming techniques. I find instructive tips such as this one to be very helpful. Not every thought you have during a brainstorming session will be gold. In fact, most will be absurd or downright nonsensical. Just remember, it only takes one good idea for the whole brainstorming session to be worth it. Be patient and have fun. It works. How do you think I came up with the idea for this post?

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Holiday gift ideas

Today it snowed in Manhattan for the first time this season. You know what that means? The holidays are here.

It may not officially be holiday season until Black Friday hits stores, transforming shoppers across the country into characters straight out of Lord of the Flies, but it’s never a bad idea to get a head start. In fact, rather than wait in an endless line for the new iPad, try giving a book as a gift. I always enjoy unwrapping a good story, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

The key is to choose the right book. That’s why I’m coming to you. I need suggestions. And don’t be afraid to get creative. In fact, it’s encouraged. Nothing says “I didn’t really try” like buying someone a bestseller they’ve already read (although I suppose that asking for ideas over the internet comes close).

What you need to know

Dad: likes legal thrillers, sports books, military history

Mom: likes any controversial nonfiction (especially something health-related), thrillers, romance

Sister: likes everything from YA to literary fiction to books on psychology, no science fiction or fantasy though

So get in the Christmas spirit! Share your suggestions!

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Let the storm(writing) begin

The idea of brainstorming is one we talk about all the time. For everything, not just in books. But certainly, if you are trying to come up with a book idea or developing a concept for an author, brainstorming is a critical part of the process. Just this morning, I had a brainstorming session with an author and his editor to try to think of ideas for the next book, which will be his fifth.

But sometimes the brainstorm isn’t enough and you’d be better served by digging deeper and finding ideas that come from your “heartbrain”. That’s what guest author on writersdigest.com Elizabeth Sims talks about in this piece adapted from her book You’ve Got a Book in You.

Sims describes your heartbrain as your whole, deepest self. When you bring this to your brainstorming, it takes on a new life. Thinking about it from a more personal and heartfelt place gives you an ability to reach deeper for your big ideas. She compares it to improv for actors: “In practically any stage of writing, when you’re brainstorming, trying to create new material, it’s like doing improv. And just like improv, it requires more than your head. It requires your heartbrain.”

By starting with a couple of key phrases that work as activators for your heartbrain – “Yes, and…” and “What if?” you are setting yourself up to have a successful stormwriting session.

Take a look and hopefully this idea will help you better develop new work that comes from your heartbrain and through the process of stormwriting rather than just relying on the rather dated and  overused notion of more general brainstorming. Good luck, and let us know if you come up with anything great!