Category Archives: fiction

3

Criminal minds

Most avid readers are probably like me in that I go through phases where I can’t get enough of one category of book.  I’ll gobble up the narrative nonfiction/women’s fiction/historical/fantasy/romance/mystery titles until I have to take a break.  I find myself led from one book to the next because I must read everything that author has ever written, because something about the setting of Book A has me looking for a similar backdrop in Book B, because I’m currently obsessed with India or Ireland or Iceland, or because I’m wrapped up in a riveting television series and I need to find its print counterpart.    The reasoning is never linear and sometimes it’s very specifically bizarre—specific to me that is.

Right now, I’m really into thrillers/mysteries.  I’ve always loved this category and there are a number of titles and authors I think back on with great fondness (the first Patricia Cornwell Scarpetta book was perfection; James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues is a marvel; and who wasn’t smitten with Thomas Harris’ decidedly odd coupling of FBI newbie and serial killer in Silence of the Lambs), but there are a lot of books out there and a lot of genres to get through and it had been a while since I dug in and picked up one thriller after another as I’m doing now.

I blame Lauren Abramo, who turned me on to the BBC’s gripping series The Fall about an English cop in Belfast hunting a pretty boy serial killer.   That show led me to Tana French’s gorgeous In the Woods, her Edgar Award winning police procedural set in Ireland.  Next up, I’m diving into The Bones Beneath by Mark Billingham, which takes place in Wales, for the DGLM book club.   Concurrently, I finished watching the second season of The Fall and I’ve started Luther with the very easy on the eyes Idris Elba as a British detective with anger issues.  You might say I’m in a criminal state of mind.

So, the point of all of this is that I would love to have a meaty, smart, well-written thriller or mystery that within the parameters of its crime fiction formula gives us something that feels fresh and exciting cross my desk in manuscript form.  Any of you want to keep my crime streak going?

5

The Thing and the Other Thing

In college I had a workshop with the writer Tony Earley, who taught us a theory of putting together an effective short story that I have never forgotten. I’m going to spend a bit of time discussing it today, because it’s fun and it might help you if you’re stuck in your writing.

Your story needs two pieces: 1. The Thing 2. The Other Thing.

To explain how it works, I’m going to just shamelessly paraphrase what Mr. Earley explained, because the details have stuck with me for almost ten years (accurately, I hope!).

Mr. Earley read to us a short story he had recently written, and explained its background: He had been fascinated by Bigfoot believers for years, and wanted to write about them – the Thing – but the story had never quite worked when he sat down to write it. Then, he read a news article about the FBI pursuing a suspect into the woods around his home in North Carolina, and realized that could be the missing piece of his story – the Other Thing. And boom. The Cryptozoologist was ready to be a story.

While Mr. Earley was focused on short fiction, I’ve found the theory of the Thing and the Other Thing applies to full-length fiction and even memoir, as well as short stories – it helps me analyze the bones of a plot when I’m when I’m assessing queries or responding to a client’s story concept. Let’s look for this concept in a few other books so that you can really get a handle on how this works.  

Twilight by Stephanie Meyers Thing: Girl goes to a new school and falls in love (yawn) Other Thing: with a vampire in disguise.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt Thing: Boy’s mother dies in a museum bombing and he struggles to find meaning in the rest of his life (yawn) Other Thing: while keeping hidden the painting he stole from that museum.

WILD by Cheryl Strayed Thing: Woman is grieving mother’s premature death while trying to move on from a lifetime of self-destructive behavior (like a thousand other grief memoirs) Other Thing: and hikes Pacific Crest Trail with no experience and little preparation.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin Thing: Middle-aged widower running a small bookstore (ok, so what?) Other Thing adopts a baby girl abandoned in the store.

Now, I’m not claiming that no book ever could manage to organize itself without clear, identifiable Thing and Other Thing at all. (Bonus points for whoever can pull out the GONE GIRL T. and O.T. in the comments.) But the main idea holds up, and can even help you organize more complex projects.

Maybe you have multiple story lines, and they all have their own Other Thing, so sharing the same Thing unifies the book.  Or maybe your story jumps from era to era and each has the same Thing and Other Thing but in different form for each time and place (David Mitchell, I’m looking at you.)  And there might be a couple Secondary Things. For example, in the Donna Tartt example above, STs are that Theo’s father dies, that his best friend is a drug dealer, that he goes to live with an antiques seller and ends up embezzling from him…but none of those pieces can hang with each other without being pinned to both T. and O.T., right? (Not to mention that we can’t all be Donna Tartt.)

This is probably the longest post in the history of the DGLM blog, so I’ll cut to the takeaway: If you have an amazing idea that just isn’t working, put it in a Thing folder. And wait for its perfect Other Thing to come to you. (And then send it to me!)

3

National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo)

Happy National Novel Writing Month everybody! Writing a draft for a 50,000-word novel in a single month is no easy feat, so I figured I would help out those of our readers who are writers currently working on a project with some helpful tips and resources.

First things first, if you’re going to do this, don’t make excuses. Check out this advice about finding time to write. I especially like #2. As an iPhone 6 Plus user, one of the benefits a big screen provides is the ability read and edit manuscripts on the go. Smartphones do everything. They can be your pen and paper when you’re out and about.

GalleyCat also has some useful advice for writers. Their first writing tip this November can be found here.

Who better to take advice from than Ernest Hemingway? Ever heard of him?

And perhaps the most important tip of all: don’t get discouraged! You can do it! After all, it’s been done before. And if you need some inspiration, here’s a pep talk from James Patterson.

Show, don’t tell. This is a classic piece of advice. It’s also what I tell my clients on a consistent basis. Not only does showing the reader actions and emotions make your story come alive, but it’ll help you increase that word count so 50,000 words in a month seems like no big thing!

How many of our readers out there are currently partaking in National Novel Writing Month? Do you have any other tips for fellow writers? Let us know in the comments below.

Lastly, and on a completely unrelated note, we here at DGLM would like to express our sincere gratitude to all former and active members of the U.S. military. Happy Veterans Day!

1

I’ll take mine with a twist

TwistI’m still reeling from Atonement.  Charlotte Brontë destroyed me with Villette.  And, I’m glad the Huffington Post agrees that Liane Moriarty’s bestseller ends with a, well, twist because I was bowled over.

Thing is, I hate surprises.  Really, I do.  I actually break out in hives at the thought of a surprise birthday party.  Whether the surprise is good or bad is irrelevant.  I don’t like to be there when it’s happening.  My peripatetic childhood, which involved periodically arriving in a new place whose culture (and even language) I didn’t understand made me wary of the unexpected.   That, combined with my type-A, OCD nature makes me dread anything I can’t see coming from a good distance.  (I will be taking all of this up in therapy some day, do not fear.)

As a result, I am one of those rare people who also appreciates a certain amount of predictability in my reading.  Rather than finding a book whose ending I can intuit or guess at a waste of time, I enjoy being able to focus my attention on the author’s prose, character development, and attention to detail.  I like category fiction because it generally follows a formula and it’s the skill of the author at things other than surprising us that tends to set these works apart.

So, of course, it irks me no end to admit that some of my most memorable reading experiences have involved not just a surprise ending but a shocking one.  My initial response is usually rage and confusion, followed, after a while, by admiration at the author’s ability to yank the rug so forcefully out from under me.  It’s so hard to pull off, but when it’s done right, it tends to make the narrative it closes unforgettable—especially when the finale seems organic and not gimmicky.  I hate surprises but I tend to end up loving books that surprise me.

What are your favorite surprise endings?  And why?

3

Finding your writing style

Fiction is so subjective and it’s often hard to articulate what precisely isn’t working for a book that is good, but not quite good enough. There are so many lists out there about what to do and not to do to improve your novel and a lot of the advice is valid. But it’s also sometimes hard to apply general advice to your own work. So when I see something that feel it summarizes some big ideas in a unique or thoughtful way, I like to share it here.

That’s how I felt when I came upon this blog post by Dr. Stephen Carver, a British writing teacher and multi-published author who reviews manuscripts across categories to see if they are viable for publication. So here you have an authority on the craft of writing who reads extensively and across categories offering his top ten list of common mistakes in unpublished manuscripts. A lot of the advice is valid. So why can’t you just follow all the rules to write a perfect book that agents and editors will fight over? It seems simple and yet we all know it’s elusive, creating that perfect mix of elements that work throughout an entire book-length work.

I really liked this conclusion at the end: ‘Any halfway decent creative writing course or guide will tell you more about all these areas. But they cannot teach you style – that you have to find yourself. There is no big secret to good writing. All you have to do is read widely and critically, understand narrative structure, and then keep practising until your individual style emerges.”

I agree and have said here before how important it is to know your category or categories, and read everything you can to learn the market. How do you create your own voice or style that makes your work unique to you?

What I’m looking for now (2014 edition)

The mornings are getting chilly, the leaves are changing, and we just stocked up on pumpkin chai mix at Trader Joe’s—fall must be here! And with the autumn, it’s time for my somwhat annual wish list. If anyone’s writing and/or illustrating in the following categories, I’d love to see your work. And please note a few small but significant changes from the last time I put my wish list out there:

PICTURE BOOK AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATORS: Our list of author/illustrators has continued to grow by leaps and bounds here at DLGM. (please revel in our illustration samples if you haven’t seen them yet!) But I’m still very much on the hunt for artists and illustrators who can write. So if you’ve got a great story, a cool concept, or a fantastic character paired with spectacular, professional-level artwork, I’d LOVE to see it.  And if you’re submitting art, a PDF that’s 5MB or less would be ideal.

MIDDLE GRADE FICTION: Last year, I noted that editors seem hungry for MG in all forms, and a year later that hunger has only grown. I hear more requests now for MG, even from longtime YA editors, than I ever have before. That said, I think editors still aren’t quite sure what they want out of MG, but whether it’s realistic or genre, loud or quiet, funny or serious—whatever it is, I’d love to see what you’ve got.

YOUNG ADULT FICTION: Similar to MG, the call for realistic YA, which started to be heard last year, has only grown louder in 2014. And that’s always been my sweet-spot for YA, too, though I’m always a fan of an original genre piece (“original” being the key word), be it historical, fantasy, or sci-fi. But mostly, I’d love to see realistic stories, and I’d love to see stories with both male and female protagonists. I know I’m the self-declared “boy book” guy here, but in looking at my list, about half my YA authors write female main characters, so please think of me for “girl” books, too!

CHILDREN’S NONFICTION: Here’s a new one for me. About a year ago, I started hearing from children’s editors that they were looking for nonfiction, and not just at the picture book level.  Partly, that’s due to Common Core reading standards, but I also think that ALA has been more interested in nonfiction recently, and as we know, awards stickers sell books. So if you’ve got a good nonfiction idea for any children’s category, please send it my way—and that includes picture book MSS, which I typically don’t take unless they’re from artists.

ADULT NARRATIVE NON-FICTION:   I’ve used this line for a few years now, but it’s a good one, so I’m sticking to it: “If there’s an amazing book-length true story out there, I want to hear it. History, memoir, sports, music, immersion journalism, popular science, health, animals, military history, politics—whatever the subject, if you’ve got the credentials to write about it, send it my way.” In particular, though, I’d love to do some more sports and music—I think there are holes in both marketplaces here.

ADULT FICTION: I’ve been thinking about this one a lot over the past year. As with YA, while I’ve often declared myself the “boy book” guy, I’ve realized that my tastes aren’t really exclusive to boy books. And in fact, some of the books I’ve loved most this year were clearly targeted to a female readership. So I’d like to take a step back from the manly side of things and just say that I’m looking for fiction that tells a good story. More than anything, I’ve realized that regardless of the audience, good plotting and momentum are what really get me going—to take an obvious example, I’ve finally gotten around to GONE GIRL, and I am totally sleep-deprived this week from staying up to see what happens next. So with that, I’ll repeat a little of what I said last year: I’m looking for “high-concept, character-driven narratives, be they literary, commercial, thrillers, suspense, horror, what have you.” And to that I’ll add strong plotting with male or female characters as well.

Thanks so much for taking a look, and I can’t wait to see what you’ve got!

Have book, will travel

For me the hardest part of packing for a trip is making sure I have all the books I’ll need to get me through airport delays, long flights, pool lounging, and, of course, for bedtime reading when I’m too tired from a day of strenuous vacationing to fall asleep.  Then, there’s the tricky part:  leaving enough room in my bulging carry-on for the books I will be buying while abroad.  We all have these problems, right? Right?

Well, when I set off for France two weeks ago, I had the equivalent of my bedside table pile on my Kindle, the galleys I got at BEA five years ago of Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, and a couple of back issues of the Oprah magazine. I congratulated myself on my light packing.

While in the beautiful Aquitaine region, I finished the Tropper and Jo Jo Moyes’ One Plus One (for my neighborhood book club) and I had queued up the Lily King novel that’s been getting so many raves for the flight back home.  Then, it was time to head back to the States.  We had five hours to kill in London and a large W.H. Smith store to browse in.  And they were having a “buy one get one ½ price”  sale on books that had made the British bestseller lists.  So…

Books

Having already logged quite a few miles that day and anticipating an exhausting journey home (frankly, the worst part of international travel is getting on the Van Wyck Expressway to and from JFK airport—it calls itself a road, but it’s really a parking lot), I opted for the lighter seeming of the two books to start.  And so, I dug into Letters from Skye, which feels like a cross between The Notebook and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and was not disappointed.  It’s a lovely, easy read with just the right mix of romance and sadness to keep you turning pages.  And, I’m really looking forward to diving into the Wyld book, which appears to be much darker and literary (a bit Gaiman-ish).

The best thing, though, is finding new voices as a result of my travels that I might not have ever stumbled on while on this side of the Atlantic.   Turns out both of the books I picked up in London are available in the U.S., but they were not on my radar.  The fact that they were prominently displayed and discounted at a busy airport store made it easy for me to part with the last of my Euros and take home what is to me the perfect souvenir of my European vacation.

How do you handle books and reading on your trips?  Are you literary over-packers?  Do you have to go into any bookstore you pass—whether in North Carolina or Marrakesh?  Do you jointly archive experiences, scenery, and the narratives you were immersed in while on the road?  What did you read on your last vacation?

 

9

Book’s too long or life’s too short?

Jim McCarthy and I spend an inordinate amount of time instant messaging each other about everything from our lunch orders to what horrible fashion choices Lena Dunham has made lately.  This morning, our exchange went like this:

 jmccarthy@dystel.com 9:09 am
have you heard about this 3,000 page norwegian autobiographical novel My Struggle?

Mcgoderich 9:10 amMY STRUGGLE by Karl Ove Knausgaard
uh…no
sounds…deadly

 jmccarthy@dystel.com 9:11 am
it’s getting an absurd amount of press. i decided to give it a shot. i’m 50 pages  into volume 1 (of 6), so i can speak on it pretty authoritatively.
it’s…really good
so far

Mcgoderich 9:12 am
what’s it about?

 jmccarthy@dystel.com 9:14 am
it’s kind of just about his incredibly ordinary life. and it feels like it should be just a whole lot of navel-gazing except for the fact that he’s incredibly thoughtful and brutally honest.

Jim and I tend to have similar responses to fiction (with the glaring, appalling exception of Atonement, which I consider brilliant and he “meh”),  so I generally trust his judgment when it comes to recommendations for new reading material.   But, while we are both voracious readers, Jim still has the will and wherewithal to tackle massive literary novels with relish whereas I often look on them with fear and trepidation.  I feel like what he’s describing above can be handled by Nicholson Baker in under 300 pages.  Three thousand pages full of “the ordinariness of life, which is sometimes visionary, sometimes banal, and sometimes momentous, but all of it perforce ordinary because it happens in the course of a life, and happens, in different forms, to everyone…,” as the New Yorker puts it, makes me just want to take a nap.

Maybe it’s old age, mommy brain, or general crankiness, but I want my fiction to be more…extraordinary.  And shorter.  Yeah, definitely shorter.

What about you guys?  Do you gravitate towards this kind of minutely observed life narrative or do you shelve it in a corner of your mind under “some day I’ll read Finnegan’s Wake”?

10

Series fatigue

Jane and I had dinner with the delightful and very savvy Abbi Glines last night.  During the course of a delicious meal of tapas-like small plates at ABC Cocina (which, in case you’re wondering, we liked better than ABC Kitchen, its sister restaurant), we talked about a number of interesting topics, from trends in fiction categories—ever elusive and often fleeting—to the lasting power of series.  Abbi pointed out that series can get tired after a while and that readers get tired of the characters right along with them, so an author needs to know when to move on to new pastures.

This reminded me of my love of Patricia Cornwell’s early Scarpetta books and how tedious I found the later ones, Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries which I lost interest in at about the letter G, and that by the time my son and I were at the 24th Magic Tree House book, I was ready to chuck them all out the window.  It’s possible that I just have a short attention span, but, Richelle Mead’s wonderful Vampire Academy series, for instance, kept me hooked up to the very last page of the final installment.

Sbook serieso, is it that authors don’t know when to put a cash cow out to graze and so keep adding books to a successful series even when the characters would much rather have retired to their home in Florida?  Or is it the readership that is so enamored of the characters and their universe that they keep clamoring for more even after the passion has faded?

Do you read every book in a series or do you find your attention wandering to that fresh, bright newcomer on the next shelf?  And do your favorite series authors maintain their effectiveness over numerous titles?

10

There are no rules…okay, maybe just one

Ask weary DGLMers  how I felt about The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and they will tell you about the whining, screeching, streams of invective, and endless tiresome commentary  I inflicted on them in the roughly two years it took me to finish that unfortunate doorstop of a book (spoiler alert: I didn’t like it). I won’t go into the details here.  Let’s just say, I had issues.

That unhappy reading experience, however, led me to think quite a bit about the things writers do that drive me absolutely batty—from the macro (indefensible plotting and character choices) to the petty (starting a sentence with a numeral)—and about all the rules we inflict on the process of fiction writing which, really, are mostly discretionary.

As nitpicky as I can be when I line edit a proposal or a manuscript to get it ready for submission, and as much as it annoys me to find typos or anachronisms that momentarily stop you cold during an otherwise pleasant reading experience, my one hard and fast, inviolable rule is “Don’t bore your reader.”

Ethan Hauser, writing in The Millions, seems to agree.  As many rules as everyone, from your first grade teacher to your fellow novelists or journalist colleagues, throws at you, the only real literary crime is boring your reader silly.  So, knock yourself out ending sentences with prepositions, sticking a digital clock in a 19th century drawing room, or opening your magnum opus with five pages of landscape descriptions.  Whatever!  Just don’t bore me, I mean, your reader.

What are your favorite rules to ignore when you’re writing?