Category Archives: fiction

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Fall fiction, and a few debut author stories

Not that I want to rush summer, which is my favorite time of year, but I did get a little excited when I saw this roundup of big fall fiction in Publisher’s Weekly, which really is right around the corner. Fall is always the time when big books are released, in both the nonfiction and fiction categories.

The list is pretty eclectic but the one common factor is that all the books are debuts. Someone took a chance and felt that these books could stand out in a very crowded and difficult marketplace. I’m always eager to get a sense of what publishers are excited about in terms of not only plots, but also writer backgrounds and pedigrees. Has their short fiction been previously published? Do they have an MFA from a prestigious program?

In the case of this list, it’s a mixed bag. There’s a lawyer from Reno, an MFA from NYU, and a former magazine book editor. But my favorite story is about an author who had been rejected by 60 agents (and that’s after getting her MFA from Columbia, people!) before sending her novel to a few independent publishing houses. Eight months later, a fellow student from Columbia was working as an editor at Soho Press and asked her if the manuscript was still available. INTO THE VALLEY by Ruth Gahm will be published this fall.

Check out all of these stories. They are interesting and fun, and look for the books this fall. If PW is profiling them, there’s a good chance at least a couple of them will do really well. Which ones do you want to read? Any other books you’re excited about for fall?

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Stately, plump Buck Mulligan

Looking through the online catalogue of the very cool Litographs which, among other things, makes literary temporary tattoos, I came across this one, which recreates Molly Bloom’s iconic closing line of James Joyce’s Ulysses, “yes I said yes I will Yes,” purposely devoid of any punctuation save the closing full stop.

It seems appropriate with Bloomsday fast approaching that I should talk about why Ulysses is one of my favorite books. Not for any snooty, ‘looking down my superior and literary nose at the plebeians who have never read it’ reasons, but because of something nearly the opposite. Being shown how to read Ulysses actually taught me so much about how to read—close reading in between the lines—in general.

My senior year of college was spent completing my English degree and fitting in any other required courses my university required for graduation. I realized, also, that I was thisclose to adding on a minor in either French or Irish Studies (you know, those degrees that are super helpful in the real world). I chose Irish Studies, mainly because I hadn’t taken a French class in at least a year and frankly, Irish Studies just seemed more interesting.

That year, I had two classes where I was the only student. The first was a class about feminism in 20th Century Ireland and not only was I the only student to sign up for it, but the university totally forgot the cancel the class, like they’re supposed to do in a situation where there are fewer than I believe five students. The professor emailed me the day before, a letter which basically consisted of “um, well, this wasn’t supposed to happen, but I’m game if you are,” and so without any classroom assignment, we met in a pub once a week and talked about cool Irish ladies. Not terrible.

The other class was one of my own making—I’d always wanted to read Ulysses, but never trusted that I could venture in on my own. An overly confident seventeen-year-old Rachel once decided she would read it over the summer after covering Portrait of an Artist in her senior year English lit class and ostentatiously carried it around with her for about a month before quietly abandoning the book after making it through a chapter and a half with only the vaguest understanding of what was going on. After approaching my advisor with the idea, I found a professor willing to take me on an independent study course where we met once a week in her office to discuss the chapters one at a time.

I loved it. I have never, ever been someone who marks up her books, but boy is my copy of Ulysses littered with as many of my own scrawlings as Joyce’s (not entirely true). I learned how to be an active reader, how to consider in depth references and also to read in virtually any style known to man (up until 1922) since no two of Joyce’s chapters, or episodes as they are called, is written in the same manner. I read each on my own, marking to the best of my ability, genuinely laughing out loud at sentences and allusions that I would never have understood previously, and then marked them up some more in the hour-long sessions with my professor.

It was a truly enjoyable and enlightening experience and I believe it has forever changed the way I approach a novel, no matter how straightforward or complicated it may be. I’ve since reread the book and have found myself able to follow along unencumbered, and I’ll always be forever grateful for the opportunity that I had. There are countless ways to write, countless ways to read and countless ways to interpret a text, which is part of (all of?) the reason why books and literary pursuits in general are so important. There is always a new thing to discover and no two people will be affected by a piece of writing in the same way. All we can do is gather more and more tools with which to approach ever more books, while delighting in going back to old favorites with our newfound perspectives.

I’d love to know, too, if there are any particular books or moments of clarity that stand out to you as a turning point in your reading career!

Characteristics of a great thriller

Publishing is trendy—as in, it’s an industry dominated by trends, like pretty much every other industry. It’s not hard to understand why. Demand for books in a certain genre increases. Publishers acquire more books in said genre. And right now, thriller is that genre.

Thrillers have always sold, but Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL hit the big screen last year and demand for the genre grew. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins enjoyed some serious pre-publication buzz and came out of the gates at a full sprint this January. It’s been at, or near, the top of all bestseller lists since. Renee Knight’s debut, DISCLAIMER, comes out in a week, and it has drawn comparisons to both GONE GIRL and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. And on the eve of the London Book Fair this year, a professor at Oberlin College saw his debut thriller go for 7 figures in a two-book deal!

So clearly thrillers are hot. But what makes them great? What differentiates a top tier thriller from an average one? What do you think? Sound off in the comments.

Oh, and if you think you’ve written a top tier thriller, do send it my way. I wouldn’t hate reading it…

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Weather or not…

This piece in Salon about how rain is often used in literature and film to create or punctuate a mood, advance the story, or simply provide an arresting backdrop to the goings-on, tickled me because it immediately led me to run a mental list of rain-filled books and movies.  And, sure enough, rain as metaphor and plot device is everywhere, in ways big and small.

Of course, I’ve been railing for years about weather.com writing, imploring authors not to open their work with long descriptions of weather or geographic conditions.  While I get how irresistible it is to set about capturing in words/images the awesome power of nature, very few authors can make non-catastrophic meteorological events compelling over a large span of narrative. 

That said, there’s no denying that weather is great for atmosphere (tautological pun intended).  From the foggy moors of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, to the feverish heat of Lily King’s Euphoria, skillful depictions of weather conditions help make literary works unforgettable.  Many years later, you may not remember other details of a story, but you probably recall the sense of humid discomfort in the bayous or the crispness of a spring day in southern France. 

What are your favorite weather sequences?  And, which authors do you feel use weather most effectively?

Lake

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A killing spree

I was scrolling down the feed on Facebook looking for inspiration for this blog post, when I saw a friend’s link to this piece from Bookriot.  I had  one of those moments of instant recognition that happens when someone says something you weren’t even sure you’d been thinking about but which, when articulated, seems to reveal buried fragments of ideas and convictions you’ve had bubbling beneath the surface all along. 

Like the author of “Why I Need a Break from Books about Dead Girls,” I too have been immersed in a lot of narratives that feature dead girls/women lately.  Tana French’s hypnotic In the Woods is about the murder of a young ballet dancer and the ensuing investigation.   I just finished the second season of The Fall with its charismatic serial killer who targets young brunettes.  A manuscript that kept me engaged all weekend featured an unreliable narrator and the violent deaths of several women and a 12-year-old girl. 

Now, I read plenty of fiction and nonfiction where women are not murder victims, per se.  My recent forays into pleasure reading include The Paying Guests and The Silent Wife in which male protagonists did not, shall we say, fare well.  But, it does seem that dead girls/women are a recurring trope in all kinds of storytelling.  Of course, the underlying psychological and cultural reasons for this are myriad and complex, but it makes me wonder what it is about killing off females that appeals to a writer’s imagination.  Why is it easier to kill the girls?  Does it reflect a more misogynistic societal bent?  Or is it simply a matter of storytelling convenience (is it easier, for instance, to plot the physical overpowering of a woman by a larger male assailant)?

All I know is that now that this idea has been unearthed for me, I’m going to be paying a lot more attention to the female body count in the books I read and the films/programs I watch.

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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?

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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!)

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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!

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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?

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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?