Category Archives: fiction

One Book, Two Book, Red Book, Blue Book

Long weekends like the one we just had are the perfect time to take a break from queries and client manuscripts and catch up on some regular ol’ published books, so I churned through a few recent bestsellers that have been waiting on my nightstand. Naming no names, I found myself underwhelmed by a couple of them.

Now, this is a common side-effect of working in publishing – you hear so much buzz that by the time you actually read a book, your chances of coming into it without expectations are practically nil. And it’s also a side-effect of agenting – our brains are trained to look for flaws and pick apart ways to improve, and it can be really difficult to turn that engine off for pleasure reading.

But I was most intrigued to compare these books – let’s call them Red Book and Blue Book to protect the innocent – to books I read and did love. Red Book came out from the same publisher in the same season as a title in the same category – we’ll call it Green Book – that I devoured and have been recommending non-stop! To me, Red Book was tired and unoriginal, Green Book was twisty and unforgettable; yet Red Book has been tremendously outperforming Green Book in both buzz and sales! And coming from the same publisher, with similar marketing campaigns going into publication. Grrrrrrr, I say to myself, but it’s not fair! Green Book is so much better than Red Book!

I had similar feelings about Blue Book, the editor of which had passed on a manuscript I submitted, Yellow Book. I liked Blue Book fine…but Yellow Book is so much better! Yellow Book would appeal to the same readers now buying Blue Book in droves, and is strong in places that Blue Book is flawed. Ugh, wtf, editor!

So you see, agents are not immune to rejection and confusion. As Miriam recently discussed, the “I’m just not loving it” excuse is as valid as it is frustrating. Miriam described the feeling when you don’t like a bestseller: “I always wonder what’s wrong with me as a reader and then, because I’m judgy and have the power of my convictions, what’s wrong with all the other readers.” I too am judgy, with an unshakeable faith in my own taste, so a case like Red Book and Green Book where there are so many similarities makes me think on the X Factor in publishing. You never know what unseeable details of timing and taste are working for or against the story elements and marketing muscle to make one book a bestseller and banish another to obscurity.

So what’s the takeaway? Embrace the lack of control! Just kidding. I love control. And what you CAN control is being as loud as possible for the books you DO love, especially if you see them missing from Best Book of the Whatever lists! Talk about books you love on Twitter and Facebook, leave a copy in an airport, suggest them to friends in book groups and coworkers with free time.

Don’t waste your energy worrying about books you don’t like –keep yelling (or whispering, if you’re in a library) about the ones you can’t forget.

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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?

Who is your reader?

One of the critical questions I ask my clients to address in their proposals is who their reader is.  They not only need to define them demographically, but also statistically.  This is to show the editor considering the material that the author understands their audience and is aiming his or her book directly at them.

For example, last week I received a cookbook proposal on a very strong idea.  The problem with this was that though the idea was unique, the author had completely neglected who the reader should be and in so doing, the contents of the proposed book didn’t work at all.  Back to the drawing board.

In another instance, I spoke with a client at the very beginning of her proposal writing and addressed how important it would be to the eventual sale of her book that the potential reader be very clearly defined.

Both of the above have to do with non-fiction.  When you are writing fiction, you also need to keep your reader in mind.  Decide where he or she would look for your book in the bookstore and if at all possible, try not to mix in elements from other genres to such a degree that you cross categories (you might turn off a whole group of potential fans).

So often, I find that the author overlooks this, but I cannot stress how important this question is to answer—it not only helps the editor considering the material but, in the case of nonfiction, it also helps the writer as they proceed with putting together their manuscript.

Whether you are writing non-fiction or fiction, being totally clear about who your audience is is vitally important.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

The Long and Short of It

 

My turn to weigh in on the question of how long contemporary novels should be—a topic recently explored in The Booklist Reader and by my colleague Stacey Glick in her last post.

 

You can tell a lot from a query letter. When a debut writer lets you know that his novel runs 128,000 words, it’s often a sign of trouble.

 

As we know, so much of writing is rewriting, and that often involves a lot of cutting. Unless you’re getting a lot of good, solid feedback from a critique group or from mentors or other writers, you might have difficulty seeing the proverbial forest for the trees. What may seem like the right length to you could well be a word count drastically in need of pruning. It can be difficult for writers—even a successful, established ones—to get the proper perspective, and to know whether they are telling their story in the clearest, most direct way.   “I’ve read some novels lately, popular ones, that should have been a third shorter,” said Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham (“The Hours,” “A Home at the End of the World”) in a recent Boston Globe interview.  “If a book needs to be 850 pages long, that’s how long it should be. Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ is not too long. But there are some novels out there that are weighing in at 700 and 800 pages that shouldn’t.”

 

He’s right about that, I believe. In rare cases, a writer may need that broad canvas, especially if the story at hand is a historical epic, or a multi-generational saga. But more often than not, a novel these days comes in at under 100,000 words.  Several acquiring editors at major houses have let me know that they feel 50-60,000 words is where a Middle Grade novel should top out, and 80,000 should be the maximum for the average Young Adult novel. Aside from clear storytelling, there are practical budgetary concerns: The longer a novel runs, the more expensive it will be for a publisher to produce.

 

There are, of course, always exceptions; these rules are not graven in stone. The “Harry Potter” effect has resulted in some hefty Middle Grade tomes, particularly when it comes to the world-building of High Fantasy epics. But it’s worth giving your manuscript a good, hard look if you’re running way over these general guidelines. We’re not all Tolstoy. We’re not even J.K. Rowling. Far from it.

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REALLY lengthy middle grade fiction

Since I have two middle grade readers in my house, and two teetering on the brink, I was intrigued by this article from an editor at The Booklist Reader suggesting that middle grade novels have gotten longer over the last 40 years, and not just longer, but 173% longer (!), in large part because of Harry Potter. It’s pretty cool research.

I have a 5th grader who is pretty obsessed with Harry Potter, having read the entire series three times over. Not to mention we all just finished reading the beautiful illustrated edition of Book 1 that released last year. So, I get it. Sort of. Harry Potter changed the book world, for the better without question (having just seen Hamilton, I feel like that show changes the theater world the way Potter changed books, but I digress. Just go see it. It really is that good). The thing is that culturally we’ve gone in the complete opposite direction. We have shorter attention spans, want immediate gratification, and live on tidbits and snippets of news and entertainment (i.e. twitter, as one good example!). So, it seems a bit of an oxymoron that books are getting longer.

I see the challenges in my own kids. My oldest, the Potterhead, is ok with longer books although she certainly doesn’t seek them out. And honestly, while she does tons of reading for school, it’s been hard to find a book or series that has excited her the way Potter did. We’ve tried all the usual suspects and nothing has captivated her imagination in the same way.

My middle daughter who’s in third grade is more of a grazer when it comes to reading. She doesn’t like fantasy and prefers more contemporary books, often with humor. She’s very visual and likes books that have illustrations so she likes series like Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Personally I feel like there is a great deal of diversity in middle grade fiction now and from what I’m seeing on the selling side, much more to come over the next few years. The books that are selling are full of a broad range of characters, plots and, yes, lengths. The fantasies tend to be longer and run through more than one book, usually a trilogy to start. And the realistic stories tend to be shorter and can be contained in one book. I suspect the majority of books will continue to be published this way.

I’d also like to see the industry shift more to even shorter form fiction. Short stories and novellas for kids who like to read but might feel overwhelmed or intimidated by a book as long as Harry Potter. Something for everyone.

What do you think of this change in the middle grade category? Yay, nay, want to see more or less? Shorter or longer?

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A Word on Fan Fiction

It was in my early years of high school that a classmate introduced me to the world of Fan Fiction. I thought it was the most amazing thing ever, because not only did I already have the habit of rewriting the ending to every book / movie I wasn’t quite satisfied with, but I also wondered if there were others like me, people who enjoyed doing something similar. I was happy to find out that there were a million and one!

Many years later, and with the increase of its popularity, there seems to be a debate about the benefits of fan fiction. Does it indeed help writers learn and improve their craft, or is it more of a crutch, preventing them from moving on and creating their own original works?

I will say this: Fan fiction can be helpful, but I think it depends on the writer. Some take the opportunity to be truly creative, experimenting and finding ways to strengthen their skills; others fall into a certain pattern for the sake of getting the most likes/reviews, and it’s not really about the writing anymore. Then, I guess, it’s also what you read. If a person spends time reading things of little quality, then nothing can be gained from it. I think it is important for every writer to keep in mind the ultimate reason for writing fan fiction, which is writing their own original work. And honestly, for some people it’s simply to get more out of their favorite books and there is nothing wrong with that.

I ended up being more of a fan fiction reader than a writer; however, what I did get from it was the first inclination of what I wanted to do when I grew up. I found myself at various times patiently sifting through all the different stories until finally finding one that truly struck me. It was always a gratifying feeling finding that needle in a haystack and those were the moments when I knew I wouldn’t mind doing something like this for the rest of my life (this was way before I knew literary agents existed!).

What are your thoughts on fan fiction? Here’s a list of published authors who have a thing or two to say about fan fiction. 

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Career moves

Despite the fact that we publishing people love nothing more than to whine about how miserable our jobs are (the endless reading, the rants from angry authors who, after seeing your edits, just know you don’t get their particular brand of genius, the bureaucratic Everest climb that negotiating a contract and then prying the advance money from a publisher entails, the Miranda Priestly type bosses who make Steve Jobs seem like a soft touch, etc.), relatively speaking we do pretty interesting, engaged and engaging work.  In fact, the reason I’ve stuck with my first job out of grad school for a couple of decades now is because it’s always interesting, always challenging, (almost) always satisfying, and never, say what you will, boring.

And yet, who hasn’t fantasized about a whole other career?  Given my fascination with disease and gross bodily functions (ask any of my colleagues about my detailed descriptions of snot when I have a cold), I probably would’ve been a doctor if my math grades had been better (I suspect that getting the right dosage of medicine in a patient is key in effective treatment).  And being the kind of reader who immerses herself in engrossing narratives, I’ve had many opportunities over the years to fantasize about other, more exciting professions.  After reading Andy Weir’s The Martian recently, I wondered if NASA has any plans to send a literary agent into space and, if so, where would I sign up for training.

Given the foregoing, this infographic from Adzuna.co.uk which was picked up by GalleyCat delighted me to no end.  So many career options, so little time!

Fictional-Jobs

What’s your most coveted fictional job—wizard, international man/woman of mystery, treasure hunter, Jedi knight?

The long and winding path to great writing advice

I think Forbes.com is a wonderful resource for so many things. A couple of years ago I discovered my remarkable client, Amy Morin, who’d written an article called 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do that went viral after it was picked up by Forbes.com. It went on to become one of their most viewed articles in history and I later sold the book version of the piece which has done very well.

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Through that connection, I also met another client. A dynamic author and career success coach named Kathy Caprino who followed her passion to find a career she loves and helps others to do the same. She is also a contributor for Forbes.com and writes about women, work, female empowerment and all of those great topics we love.

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When I spoke with Kathy recently about her column, I mentioned yet another client, a very talented and prolific author named Cecilia Galante whose first adult novel, THE INVISIBLES, had just been released. I knew from speaking with Cecilia and hosting a book club at my house with her where she inspired everyone in the room that she would be someone who might be of interest to Kathy and her column so I introduced the two of them and this compelling interview on Forbes.com is the result.

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There is a lot to digest here, and much of it is advice we’ve heard before because it works. But Cecilia has such a way with words that it feels fresh and important. Some of it I’ve even talked about here on the DGLM blog before. But not quite in this way: “I’d tell other writers that if they want to write, they need to sit in the damn chair every day and write.” Same goes for the realities of making a living as a writer: “Betting on a lucrative career as an author is like waiting for lightening to strike.”

What’s your favorite bit of advice from Cecilia? Anything else to add to her pearls of wisdom? She’s definitely doing something right because while the lightning bolt might not have hit just yet, she’s under contract for another adult novel and two more middle grades!

Successful query breakdown via an author and her agent

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I was recently asked by my talented client Kristi Belcamino to join her in a guest post for Writer’s Digest in Chuck Sambuchino’s “Successful Queries” series to share her query letter and my response. I shared why I was drawn to it and ultimately went on to represent and sell the book. I love this kind of thing because it feels so simple and yet I know for prospective authors looking for advice this kind of feedback, which includes a real life example, can be really useful.

Book publishing is obviously an inherently subjective business so what appeals to me is not necessarily what appeals to others. However, when I look at a successful query letter, I find there are certain things that are generally done well.

In Kristi’s case, she introduces herself and her background in a way that is intriguing. An actual female crime reporter? Bring it on!
Then we see a first line that sucks you right in: Gabriella Giovanni has never met a man more exciting than a murder. I’m beyond interested to know more about this character.

She goes on to CLEARLY and CONCISELY pitch the book in a way that makes you want to read more. My best advice for writers looking to pitch their books in a query letter is to try to write the jacket copy of the book. You can go into greater detail about the story and characters in a synopsis or follow-up email, but for me (and again, this is subjective), I want to see the elevator pitch because if you can describe your work in a clear, concise and compelling way, then I can too when I speak with editors on your behalf.

Finally, she offers additional information about her writing background which shows me that not only has she received good feedback from industry professionals for her work, but that she also has worked hard on her book and takes her writing seriously.

Take a look at our post and let us know what you think and if there’s anything else you see in Kristi’s query or my response that’s worth targeting. Happy querying!

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To fiction or nonfiction, that is the question

I’m a big fan of Sloane Crosley. Her first collection of essays, I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE, offered a voice of a younger generation that was so distinct it set the stage for another collection of essays and now, a debut novel called THE CLASP. Good writing is good writing regardless of the category but it’s interesting to me to see authors who can go back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. There are many talented writers who try their hand at both successfully. Think Ann Patchett or Joan Didion; even J.K. Rowling had her Harvard graduation speech published in book form.

I have authors on my own list who have tried their hand at both. From my experience, they are usually better at one or the other and once they have some success with finding a publisher they stick with that. One of my most prolific fiction authors doesn’t seem interested in nonfiction, despite a few prods from me. And another who has only done nonfiction so far has teased me by talking about doing a novel at some point. I love the idea of this creative exploration.

I found this piece on Crosley’s publisher’s website interesting for aspiring or established writers because it goes into the psychological mindset of switching from one category to the other, or in her case the idea that many writers move seamlessly from fiction to nonfiction but it’s a different beast when it goes the other way. While the feelings Crosley has experienced crossing over are hers, I suspect there are some common threads that other writers would agree with. She feels fiction is a lot harder, she says that “publishing nonfiction feels like reading poetry on stage and publishing fiction feels like doing it naked while playing the piano.” I look forward to reading the novel and seeing how it compares to her nonfiction.

What do you think? Fiction or nonfiction or both? I say if you have the talent, spread it around!

The Clasp