Category Archives: fiction

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?

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

What’s in a name?

Yesterday, I tweeted this piece about how reading literary fiction (vs. popular fiction) develops our ability to understand and decipher social cues that power our relationships with other people.   My initial reaction to the article was, “Hmmm, interesting.  Makes sense.”  I think all self-respecting bookworms would agree that books teach us much more than facts and big words, they teach us human behavior.   So, of course literary fiction would sharpen our abilities to identify emotional and intellectual motivations and apply them to ourselves and our real-world dilemmas.  After all, wasn’t that the point of all those tedious essays we wrote in high school and college about why Emma Bovary was so delusional or why Ahab couldn’t just leave that dumb whale alone?

 

But something about the piece troubled me, and my “Aha!” moment came when I read this slightly different take on the New School study.  In the first article the examples of popular fiction were Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.  Literary fiction, on the other hand was represented by Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Don DeLillo and Anton Chekhov.  Okaaay, who decided that Gillian Flynn is more popular than literary or that she should be featured in the same sentence as Danielle Steel?  Before you Steel fans get all worked up, I am not casting aspersions on that author’s prodigious body of work.  I am merely saying that just because a book sells a lot of copies and hangs out on the bestseller lists for a while does not make it “popular fiction” as the literary snobs among us think of it any more than tiny print runs and fewer sales make something “literary.”  And so claiming that Flynn’s brilliantly crafted, psychological thriller is for the purposes of this study less literary than Obreht’s book* seems to point to a major fault in the findings if, in fact, that is the criteria for judgment.

All of this, of course, takes us to the old publishing pastime of arguing over whether something is literary or commercial.  If sales are the basis for categorization, then Cormac McCarthy, Phillip Roth, and, yes, Mr. Dickens would all be labeled popular fiction authors.  Of course, the study makes the point that a “literary” work is one that is more concerned with its characters’ internal processes and less with plot and action, thus forcing us to work harder at deciphering motivation.   But haven’t we all read many plot driven novels that have been raised to the literary canon?  Ahem, Mr. Dickens, again.

Personally, I think that most fiction flexes our mental muscles.  Even formula romance (or mystery, or science fiction) forces us to look for motivation and emotional cause and effect.  Maybe some books make us work harder and, therefore, give us the brain equivalent of a six-pack, but my sense is that I’ve learned a thing or two even from wildly popular fiction that I may not have by reading only highbrow stuff.

What do you think?  Is it possible that the bias in this study is “literary”?  Can you think of samples of popular fiction that forced you to bring out  your empathy/social decoding tools?

 

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*In the interest of full disclosure, I hated that book.

What I’m looking for now

With this October marking my third anniversary here at DGLM, I’ve been in a reflective mood. I’ve been thinking about how my client list has developed, how it’s changed over the years, and what kinds of projects I’d like to represent going forward. In that spirit, I took a gander at my old blogposts, and I realized it’s been almost two years since I published a wish list—yikes! I really didn’t mean to let it go that long, especially because last one I published drew plenty of interesting submissions, not to mention a few clients…

So, without further ado, here’s what I’m looking for now, by category:

PICTURE BOOK AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATORS: Picture books have always had a special place in my heart. In fact, they’re one of the main reasons I stuck it out in children’s publishing for so long. And to my great joy, it seems like picture books are cycling back into favor–we’ve had a couple of major picture book deals here at DGLM recently. So if there are any author/illustrators out there with a fun, character-based story to tell, I’d LOVE to see your work!

MIDDLE GRADE FICTION: More than any other category, it seems like children’s book editors are hungry for middle-grade these days in any form—realistic, fantasy, sci-fi, boy- or girl-focused, you name it—and I couldn’t be happier. Ever since HARRY POTTER ended, I think publishers have been searching for the next classic, and with YA in flux (more on that below), the search has become a top priority. Personally, I’m most interested in realistic, contemporary MG a la WONDER. (Can’t argue with those numbers!) However, I’m more than happy to look at anything fantastic that fits the category, so if anyone’s got a great 8-12 character (or a great YA character that can be aged down), bring it on!

YOUNG ADULT FICTION: YA has been a puzzle for the last year or so. On the one hand, we’ve got John Green waving the banner of realistic, issue-driven YA; on the other, there’s DIVERGENT and now STEELHEART fanning the flames of sci-fi/dystopia/fantasy. My feeling is the fantasy side will keep lumbering on, but the bar for originality has never been set higher. So while I’m certainly open to fantasy/sci-fi, it really needs to be something special to have a chance. At the same time, contemporary YA seems to be in demand, though again, originality is the key. But on both sides, strong characterization trumps all–without that, we won’t get anywhere.

ADULT NARRATIVE NON-FICTION:   As I said last time: “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—whatever the subject, if you’ve got the credentials to write about it, send it my way.” To this list, I’ll add military history and politics, as well as a request—whatever the subject, try to make it as expansive as possible without losing the main narrative. A favorite rejection line from editors is that a subject is too narrow… so go wide!

ADULT MEN’S FICTION: When I first started at DGLM, I signed a number of adult fiction clients without much understanding of the categories or market, and after a number of misses, I decided to steer clear of adult fiction for a while. Three years on, I think I’ve got a better handle of how things work, plus our independent publishing program provides a viable alternative for projects that can’t find a traditional home. So, once again, I’m on the look-out for high-concept, character-driven narratives, be they thrillers, suspense, literary, commercial, horror, what have you—happy to take a look.

Thanks for giving this a read. Can’t wait to see what comes in!

 

3

BEWARE

I hope you’re all checking over your shoulder today, seeing as it’s March 15th, that fated, ominous day where Caesar should have been paying a little bit more attention. “Beware the ides of March” has become synonymous with the bad omen, ignored warning and general “sleep with one eye open” sensibility. Omens and portents are everywhere in literature—the Greeks and Romans especially loved them.

In more modern literature, the omens are tougher to spot, maybe requiring a careful rereading (and a helpful English teacher to point them out at every turn), but they are a mainstay. Whether it’s Poe’s raven or the harbinger of Anne Shirley’s doomed marriage as she envisions her funeral the morning of her wedding, the little things an author inserts into their work are rarely there by accident.

The Huffington Post ran a slideshow of some pretty interesting omens in literature, from ancient texts through to Harry Potter (that darn Grim!)—some I hadn’t even considered until they were pointed out. It goes back to that rereading aspect. Picking out nuances and theretofore unrecognized significances, symbols and yes, omens, upon reading a book over again with knowledge of how it all plays out is one of the many delights of literature.

Have you discovered any signs or portents while rereading a favorite book? Anything you didn’t notice the first time around that seem so obvious upon a second or third session?

1

Book Therapy

Reading fiction is normally associated with pursuits of escapism, venturing off to far-off lands, dislocating your imagination from reality, taking a cerebral vacation, or as Marion Garretty puts it “A book is a chance to try on a different life for size”.  A book is the perfect portal to transport oneself to preferable climes, especially when it is snowing in March!

What if, though, fiction was used as the tonic rather than the escape route when we are all feeling a little troubled, blue or downcast? I came across this article in the New York Observer which speaks to this question. At the Centre of Fiction, they run a program called A Novel Approach that has a team of ‘bibliotherapists’ who will prescribe you with a year’s worth of reading after a 45-minute consultation. The dialogue between the patient and the bibliotherapist in the article goes from the comical, when they discuss the root of the patient’s unhappiness, to the surreal when the patient answers which literary figures he would have over for a dinner party.

After said consultation the patient receives a reading list as a prescription with instructions, “No more than one per month, client to be shaken and stirred.” Would you ever be tempted to see a bibliotherapist? Or do you prefer to self-medicate?

19

Love stories, in brief.

I’ve written before about my particular love for short, short, short fiction. Their poignancy is sometimes so great that a story half a paragraph long will stick with me all day or longer. I had an entirely different topic planned for today’s blog post, but just before I sat down to write, I took a minute to read some incredibly brief, yet strangely powerful love stories, perfectly appropriate for a post-Valentine’s entertainment. Especially since I just checked, and you guys it’s true, there’s no more chocolate left from the box in the kitchen and I’m feeling a little blue about it already.

Available for your reading pleasure here on the Hairpin, are just four very slight tales of love and romance, ultimately lost, rejected or simply faded away. The strength in these stories is that there is so much, so very much left out of them. There are no character names, sometimes the telling is a very straightforward “this happened and then this happened and then that happened and so there.” But somehow, as readers, we’re able to create an entire narrative arc. We can visualize the lovers, feel their hope, joy, pain, and ultimate loneliness.

It’s not just about writing a barebones plot and not saying much about anything, limiting yourself to a hundred and fifty words or so. Anyone can do that—I’ve tried. There’s a certain space that must be created. A vast emptiness between the lines where the real story lies. A good writer of short fiction can give just the right amount of information and the right type of information so that the story doesn’t feel cheap or lacking, but instead creates the feeling in the reader that they know exactly what the writer meant to be happening in the spaces left blank.

Love stories—particularly those about lost loves—are exponentially more effective when less is told. The emptiness and longing, nostalgia and regret are there simply because they are physically not there on the page. They become haunting instead of merely sad. Their brevity means they can be read over and over again, searching for any more hints of story, clues to what really happened.

I’d be interested in seeing any stories you can come up with in the comments—keeping it under 200 words.* It’s more difficult than you’d think! Otherwise, do you have a similar take on the style, or would you much prefer a long, fleshed out novel instead?

 

*The writer of my favorite story will be showered in cash and prizes! Minus the cash, but there is a DGLM mug in it for the winning, and you’re welcome to fill it wish cash of your own if you like.

 

 

***UPDATE***

This contest is now closed and I am pleased to announce the winner of a DGLM mug is Jan O’Hara! Jan, please email me with your information at rstout@dystel.com and I’ll be in touch!

0

What happens after you win a Newbery or Caldecott?

The Newbery and Caldecott award nominees are being announced on Monday, January 28th. Each year I look forward to seeing who is chosen for these prestigious awards. Children’s literature has exploded over the last decade and the quality of material being published in this category is outstanding. When I create my reading lists for pleasure, there are always at least a few middle grade or young adult novels on there. Recent additions include  the much-hyped bestselling FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green and CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth E. Wein, which I recall receiving starred reviews when it was released from all of the major trade publications.

So I loved coming across this piece in Publisher’s Weekly recently which interviews previous recipients of this award to ask about how winning has impacted their lives and careers. The answers vary considerably, but it’s always interesting and can be insightful to learn about how writers respond to this type of rare positive attention to their work. Most seem to agree the media outreach and public speaking present a new and unexpected challenge. It’s like becoming a literary celebrity overnight!

I’d love to know if you find any helpful advice for your own work in these interviews, and also if there are books you think or hope will be nominated next week. Please let us know.