Category Archives: fiction

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.

6

The Times it is a-changing

For the first time since 2004, the New York Times has made changes to their children’s bestseller lists. Up to this change, there were picture book, chapter book, paperback and series lists, with ten titles on each list (see here, though you’ll have to scroll down and click on the link for each list individually). There were complaints about the list (there are always complaints about the list), and publishers had been pushing for more space, especially as children’s sales increased dramatically. For comparison, the adult hardcover fiction list has fifteen slots, plus twenty on the extended list, for thirty-five slots total. In addition, many of us in the industry have complained about non-fiction titles dominating the chapter book list, particularly some licensed, toy-based books. The bestseller list is an important sales tool, not just an indicator of sales, and we know that the “New York Times Bestseller” designation for a book and author mean more attention from stores, libraries and consumers. Those of us bothered by the inclusion of those books felt that there were other titles that would benefit more from the attention that making the list brings, whereas these branded books would sell the same number of copies, with or without the designation. It’s not that they don’t deserve to be on a list; the chapter book list just seemed an odd fit.

So, when I heard from a source that the lists would be changing, I was hopeful. Sadly, this is definitely a case of “be careful what you wish for.” In their statement that proceeds the new list, the Times says they’ve made these changes in the list to reflect the changes in the book world, i.e. e-books. So now they have a picture book, middle grade, young adult, and series lists. The lists are format agnostic, so all hardcover, paperback and e-book sales on a title are included in the count. In addition, the MG and YA lists now include a short, five-slot extended list.

This all seems like it should be positive. I’ve been arguing that e-book sales should count towards the list, and there are ten new slots. But looking at the results for the first week, it’s disappointing. In splitting the books onto MG and YA (I can’t wait for when the Times puts a book on the “wrong” list), all of the children’s non-fiction, including those licensed books that drive me nuts, moved to the MG list. As such, eight of the top ten are nonfiction, and only two of those are narrative. The YA list is free of non-fiction, which is great. And it’s nice to see the quality, depth and breadth of the books on the list. But digging into the sales numbers a bit, it’s clear just how disadvantaged MG books are. Without the non-fiction to compete with, the YA list features titles on the main list that aren’t selling as well as some of the titles on the MG extended list. I’m basing this on one list, but from what I can see, it’s going to be much more difficult to have a MG bestseller than a YA one.

Though we know the times is now tracking hardcover, paperback and e-book sales for each title, it’s also unclear how the sales are weighted (and the Times guards their formula closely). The biggest question in this regard are about e-books. Are they tracking self-published books that are categorized as YA or MG? Does the price of the book effect the weighting? Could a publisher put an e-book on sale and watch their book jump onto the list? Making the list has always had an element of gamesmanship (colleagues and I like to joke about which book will magically land in the #10 spot, oftentimes despite dismal sales), but I think we’re in for an intense period of experimentation to see how e-book sales impact recognition.

And, I have one last complaint. With the start of the new MG and YA lists, the Times has reset each title’s “weeks on the list” count to 1. That means that Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF went from 272 weeks on the list back down to 1. It’s going to make it awfully tough for the next few months to easily see which books have been successful in the long run. Over time, this would cease to be an issue, but I hope the Times figures out a way to restore those “weeks on” counts.

End of rant. Any thoughts about the new lists and their impact?

5

Fall for Fiction

Trees are ablaze, apples are sweet, air is crisp, and for me, fall spells fiction.  My to-read pile is as deep and inviting as the leaf pile on my lawn, with Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, an ARC of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs  and Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety.  Reading good books makes me hungry for new projects.  Very hungry.  It’s not unlike having a tapeworm.  So e-mail me your queries, attach your first chapters, and know you have an interested audience.  My tastes are wide ranging—recently I’ve liked The Forgiven (shades of Paul Bowles and Laurence Durrell) the twice Bookered Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, Ann Patchett’s glorious State of Wonder  and  J. Courtney Sullivan’s intergenerational tale, Maine, whose  characters were as real (and prickly) as folks I know.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m always on the lookout for smart nonfiction, but today’s post is an open invitation to the novelists among you.  I do represent polemics on my nonfiction list, but I am suspicious of novels conceived to further an obvious agenda—whether political, humanitarian, or spiritual. When a query letter begins cause first, story second, I worry. In the framework of a novel, it seems to me that readers care about characters and not issues, and nothing is worse than a story inhabited by sock puppets, each rehearsing the arguments of their author.  I am a fan of historical fiction, characters that travel to far flung settings, first person narration, and rueful humor (think Lorrie Moore).

I’d love to see a well-turned spy thriller, a literary fantasy along the lines of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians or Susanna Clarke’s masterful  Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,  or a novel that plumbs the relationship between sisters (I have three) .  I have trouble with high fantasy and space opera—my knowledge of the genre is just too shallow–and I am too lily-livered to linger much with horror, serial killers or kids in peril.   So with those few caveats, drop me a line. I’d love to see my inbox ablaze with fiction!