Category Archives: Jessica

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Scholars going trade

I’ve been running between conferences—there have been three this month (I’m still not sure how I managed to schedule that) and remiss in posting.   I have, however, been talking myself hoarse, so I thought I might repurpose some of the material I’ve been presenting–in my newly gravelly voice–here on the blog.

Last week I had the good fortune to head down to Emory University, where the campus was in full and spectacular bloom, and I had the opportunity to meet with faculty in various stages of the book-writing process.  Some were at work on scholarly  monographs aimed primarily at an audience of their peers–the tenure book, the promotion book, etc–but others were at a point in their careers with the ability, freedom or inclination to reach out to a broader audience of smart but non-expert readers.  And that’s where I came in–explaining the role of a literary agent, discussing the market, and dispensing some advice for scholars interested in writing for a general or “trade” readership.

I used the elements of a  nonfiction proposal as the scaffold for my talk. I feel like the proposal is a good lens for understanding what publishers are looking for, and as difficult as good proposals are to write (weird hybrids that they are: part argument for the book, part blueprint, part marketing document), each discrete piece has a purpose.   The presentation, given in conjunction with Eric Schwartz, Editorial Director  of Columbia University Press, is reported on in detail here, but I’ll mention a few points that crop up again and again, and not just with clients with many initials behind their names.

First, lead with the story.  Too often I find that authors cannot resist the opportunity to analyze their own project—to immediately let me in on the tropes they’re subverting or the universal themes they’re tackling to explain: What.The.Book.Means.  To which I say: not so fast.  Before we get to the broad brush and the big ideas,  I want to be rooted in the particulars of the tale—true or fictional–the writer is telling. Tell me the story, and start, if you can, with the exciting bits.   Also, that story must be written in lively, lucid prose, scrubbed of the passive voice, double-scrubbed for jargon (including but not limited to: “trope,”  “problematic” used as a noun, “legitimate” as a verb, etc). I let writers know that it’s really okay to use the first person, to deploy some levity in their discussion, and above all, to establish a voice that is uniquely, unapologetically their own.  I’m a firm believer that scholarly integrity and readability are not mutually exclusive.

I love working with academics, experts, scholars—it’s thrilling to be exposed to first-class thinkers, big ideas, and dizzying levels of expertise.  It can take folks a bit of practice to shrug off the conventions of their discipline, but if they can figure out how to deploy their theory lightly and channel deep reservoirs of knowledge into fluid, clear writing, then more often than not, they’ve  got the makings of an extraordinary  book.

 

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Death and Hamsters

Although Atul Gawande’s BEING MORTAL is my assigned DGLM office book-club book, I don’t think I can last until our next meeting without singing its praises in some public forum.

When I began in publishing, there was a certain truism that books on death don’t sell. When I was an editor, I looked at worthy proposals that were, according to conventional wisdom and my ed-board, simply too hard. Certainly there had been exceptions—books by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, Jessica Mitford, Sherwin Nuland—but they just proved the rule. For the most part, the book industry reflected our entirely human propensity to avoid thinking about our own inevitable ends.

That Gawande’s BEING MORTAL—a work of such signal intelligence, readability and compassion–has sold so extravagantly, hitting #1 on the NYT bestseller list, is a sign that perhaps we’ve turned a corner. When my fellow DGLM-er Eric found out that I was reading BEING MORTAL, he told me it should be required reading for everyone. And he’s right. Funny, too, because all sorts of books are billed as universally relevant. But Being Mortal really, truly is.

In addition to weeping on commuter trains over my recreational reads (belated apologies to the dismayed lady sitting beside me), I also represent authors whose works engage mortality. Medical Humanities historian Brandy Schillace’s book, Death’s Summer Coat: What Death and Dying Can Teach us About Life and Living, which was reviewed today in the New Yorker.Com, is a wide-ranging and fascinating look across cultural approaches to death, while forensic pathologist Judy Melinek, co-author of the memoir Working Stiff, chronicled her work as a speaker for the dead. Another client, archaeologist Nicholas Reeves is at work on an excavation that aims to find a particularly ancient and famous corpse, Nefertiti (the ancient Egyptian approach to death, or the royal one, anyway, being that you can take it with you.) And I’m reading a proposal from author and neurosurgeon Richard Rapport on How We Don’t Die.

In any event, none of this has yet helped me with the particular challenges of explaining the certainty of death to my children. My younger son recently requested a pet hamster, one who (in contrast to his cousin’s late and much-mourned Hamchop) would not die. When I patiently explained that all living things die eventually, even people, he looked at me for a beat and retorted, “Yes, Mom. I know. All except my hamster.”

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Storytelling, Myth-making, and What I Did for the Thanksgiving Holiday

I spent the day after Thanksgiving at what is arguably the Thanksgiving capital of the country, Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, where a now-famous group of Protestant separatists set up their fateful and relatively short-lived settlement. The open air museum is a fascinating day trip, and, much to the delight of my children, the pilgrim re-enactors stay firmly in character—their accents, persona, and roles carefully maintained. Alongside the folks in doublet and hose, bonnets and iconic hats, there are modern museum personnel who can expound on objects and events from a 21st century perspective. Thus, in a small wattle-and-daub hut dubbed America’s first test kitchen, we watched a luxuriantly bearded young curator (as bewhiskered as any of his 17th century colleagues) cooking up something Pilgrim-style. When my son asked what was in the pot, he produced a brace of plucked, stringy bird-flesh he identified as quail. My sons and their cousins quailed and fled. Apparently, this glimpse of poultry freed from the usual plastic wrap and looking recognizably avian was a little too real.

Fun as it is, there’s a strange and sometimes unsettling combination of the real, the recreated, and the mythologized. Even though Plimoth Plantation does not shy away from the abundant horrors of life on and off the Mayflower (the dimensions of which are shockingly small), and does not represent the feast with which most Americans commemorate “the first Thanksgiving” as historically accurate, to visit this place is to see the power of narrative. Even the model Wampanoag encampment, which is staffed not by actors, but by members of the Wampanoag tribe, is a sharp reminder that history is written by the victors. Indeed, the long-serving Governor William Bradford’s history Of Plymouth Plantation is a literary record crafted with– if not myth-making—then certainly posterity in mind. That book turned out to play a surprisingly pivotal role in our national origin story. For more on this, there’s piece here by the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick, and an American Experience documentary airing on PBS.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/pilgrims/player/

I came away from my visit with a renewed interest in the political and social context of the day (the 17th century was rife religious warfare), my own replica of a 17th century disease ( I’m coughing, but I’m pretty sure I don’t actually have consumption), and most of all, a renewed respect for the profound power of storytelling.

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Lost in Translation

I represent a bit of literature in translation, but the only time that I am actually called upon to translate is when a client studies his or her royalty statement and discovers it may as well be written in Greek. Few documents are as unapologetically opaque as this twice yearly statement, which is why I found the recent Author Guild post so very—and so characteristically— spot-on.

Houses have no standard form or industry-wide convention for reporting their book sales. Each house makes up its own and decides what to include; despite the cultural currency of the idea of “transparency,” few statements are clear, user-friendly or easy to interpret. So much for buzzwords. Standards in royalty reporting vary so widely that it’s tough for even the savviest of authors–economists, statisticians, and entrepreneurs among them–to look at a statement and understand where and how their books have sold. Returns are partly to blame—books that appear to be sold need not remain that way, and as a result, the “net” (the number of books the publishers actually sells) can decrease over time. Counter-intuitive as this might seem (the longer a book is out there, the more it sells, no? No.) unsold copies can usually be shipped back to the publisher for a full refund. Books being sold on consignment is a nasty holdover from the Great Depression, when booksellers might have vanished altogether if merchandise was not returnable. Returns are an entrenched vestige of the bad old days and subject for another post, but royalty statements –these can be reinvented with far less pain and far more benefit. Would making them easy to interpret really be so difficult? Would closing the gap between statement and selling period prove disastrous? Statements are a snapshot of time, static and instantly outdated, but they need not be nonsensical, too.

What has your experience been?

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Out of Time

I’m in the midst of editing a novel that needs to be cut down by a third and I confess, wiping out broad swaths of thoughtful, beautifully composed prose is not easy, even for someone who believes in a stringent edits the way some folks believe in juice cleanses, never going to sleep angry, or a morning constitutional. So I found John McPhee’s piece on Writing By Omission
especially helpful. In truth, most everything McPhee writes about writing is instructive, smart, subtle and so well built as to have no seams showing. A piece that at first seems meandering and conversational is invariably a feat of engineering (for more on this see McPhee on structure.)

How do you decide what to cut? In her recent post, Erin cited Hemingway’s counsel to “write drunk and edit sober.” Does that method work for you? When charged with transforming your shaggy dog sort of tale into a sleek greyhound, do you agonize, rail, sulk or simply get down to the business of shearing? I’m a bit of a railer—after all, I LIKE long books, I’m a devotee of the doorstop. In my own weird universe, a dense book means a longer stay in the world of the story. And who wouldn’t welcome an extra week’s vacation?

Of course, the industry in which I work rarely shares my view, and I’d be a poor sort of agent not to communicate this to my clients. Most any book above 150K words is a non-starter, especially for first time authors; why? First, there’s the high production costs of a printing, shipping and storing a brick of a book, but it’s also true that people are understandably parsimonious with their time. Publishers are afraid that long novels are off-putting. Maybe that’s true. There are certainly plenty of other contenders for our leisure–social media, online games, clever, much-talked-about TV. But that the otherwise smart site Medium.com actually estimates how much time it will take its readers to complete a piece actually offends me. The delight of reading is that it is atemporal. That the words—whether on a page or screen or read by an actor from an audiobook–vanish and with them, any sense of regular time passing.
I can read on a page or a screen with equal ease, but cutting is a task that is best done on paper, and not electronically. There is something bloodthirstily satisfying about a diagonal slash through a page that the Kindle highlight function cannot match. How do you, as F. Scott Fitz may or may not have said, kill your darlings?

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A Good Title is Hard To Find

It may be that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But outside the world of doomed adolescent lovers, the names of things matter, and finding the right title is crucial. A well-chosen title reflects and subtly positions the book, but finding les mots justes–that’s always tricky. My client, debut novelist Beth Hahn, blogged about the experience of letting go of her original title—THE SINGING BONE—in favor of DARK EYES.

“I got to keep THE SINGING BONE through editing and even saw the manuscript’s final version with title intact, but then, at some point–I think it happened during tip sheet review–there was a pause, and someone questioned my title, wondering if it were too literary, too mysterious, too–oh, but those were the very things I liked about it. Anyway, the publisher worried that readers wouldn’t know the how to interpret THE SINGING BONE, and truthfully, I had noticed this when I told people. “The Singing what?” was not an uncommon response.

I guess I could have fought for my title, but then, honestly, I sort-of knew why the title was being changed, so I began to think of the title change as a further relinquishing of my book. Yes, THE SINGING BONE was my novel’s title, but when a book is sold, it belongs to everyone–to editors and art directors and readers, too, to libraries, and to strangers who would not get to ask me, “The Singing what?”

Finally, I got an email from my editor: “What about DARK EYES?” he wrote. It was clean, relevant. It screams “Mystery/Thriller.” I’d thought of DARK EYES, but I’d been too literal with it. The darkest character in the book, Mr. Wyck, has blue eyes–light blue eyes. But the song “Dark Eyes” cuts a strange path through the novel, turning up in different scenes and carrying plenty of psychological and emotional weight.”

I’m in the midst of helping another client and his editor come up with a new title for WWII-era narrative nonfiction. Our marching orders are to find: “Something with zing. Something that sounds dangerous and romantic. Something that’s catchy and rolls off the tongue. Especially something that is not generic.” Whew! Settling on a title that both the author and the publisher love can take a while, but the effort is certainly in the book’s best interest.  Sometimes a title emerges from the text itself, a particularly resonant line or quotation.

Where and how do you find your titles? How often in the writing do you switch gears?

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Boston and Austin

As spring finally approaches (fingers crossed that the snow forecast for later today fails to materialize,) I’m looking forward to a couple of terrific writers’ conferences. The first is Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace, a Boston-based literary extravaganza that takes place first week of May, by which point, sunshine and shovels will surely have vanquished the snow. Right?

There, I’ll listen to pitches, give detailed manuscript critiques, and sit in on as many workshops as I can, especially Adam Stumacher and Qais Akbar Omar’s panel discussion on “Politics and Prose” where they’ll explore the altogether tricky business  of addressing political issues through narrative.   Next up is the Writer’s League of Texas Conference in June.  Both Boston and Austin are literary (rhyming) towns with their own vibrant cultures of letters, and I love to see how place affects writers and their works.   In any event, The WLT conference organizers asked me, as well as host of other Texas-bound agents and editors, to respond to some questions about the publishing process that I thought I might pass along.  If you don’t have plans to be in the Lone Star State or Beantown in the next few months, you might have a look.  Both Grub Street and the Writers League of Texas have robust websites that are teeming with excellent resources.

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The Successful Query: An Example

Borrowing from Mike’ s post, I thought I’d share a successful query. 

When I received the below query letter I took note; it came with a compelling premise, excellent comp titles (the author hit on three novels I loved) solid credentials, plus an attached first chapter  so that I could waste no time and plunge right in.

I requested the full manuscript, read it with an increasing sense of delight–also with the lights on, since there are some genuinely frightening bits–and offered the author, Beth Hahn, representation soon thereafter. Because she lives in the NY area, we were able to meet in person before formalizing our partnership, but more often than not, a phone call or two must suffice. Even in this internet age and in an industry based on writing, I think it’s critical to speak with possible clients, and I think it’s just as important that my potential clients get a sense of my professional philosophy/practices in general, and my vision for their book in particular.

One pleasant by-product of this business is that I usually discover that my clients are not only gifted writers, they are lovely people. Beth (who is an amazing artist and a designer as well)  is no exception, so it’s with genuine delight that I can report THE SINGING BONE  just sold. I’m not yet at liberty to disclose the details of the deal, but it’s thrilling to move from query to contract, cognizant that the fun part is just beginning.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Jessica Papin:

In 1979, seventeen year-old Alice becomes involved with Mr. Wyck, an enigmatic con man living in an old farmhouse in upstate New York. Enticed by Mr. Wyck’s quasi-mystical philosophy and his associations with alternative 1970’s figures, his girlfriend Allegra’s interest in herbs, tarot, and yoga, and the promise of a constant party, Alice and her friends move in with Mr. Wyck, but once under his sway, they cross psychological and moral boundaries that begin to unhinge Alice’s sense of reality.

When the long con that Mr. Wyck is running goes terribly wrong, Alice’s already crumbling world falls into chaos, and she is forced to choose between two sordid truths: one that will place her in prison and one that will grant her a second chance. Twenty years later, famous for her association with Mr. Wyck’s crimes, Alice has changed her name to protect her anonymity and has become a folklorist and university professor, but the Internet, with its shadowy Wyckian Society, threatens to destroy all that Alice has worked to conceal.

Told through Mr. Wyck’s letters to his son and Alice’s parallel past and present narratives, THE SINGING BONE (120,000 words) examines guilt and innocence, the fallibility of memory, and the way in which one person’s madness impacts many lives. Woven together with 1970’s counter-culture, folklore, and the ever menacing and cult-like presence of Mr. Wyck, THE SINGING BONE is a dark and richly imagined literary mystery.THE SINGING BONE will appeal to readers who admire Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

I studied writing at The University of Pennsylvania and earned an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. I’ve attended The Bread Loaf Writers Conference and my work has appeared in The Hawaii Review, The South Carolina Review, and The Emrys Journal. As well as this novel, I have a collection of short stories. I am currently outlining the sequel to THE SINGING BONE. In my other work, I am an independent knitwear designer and illustrator. Thank you for your time and consideration. I have attached the first chapter of THE SINGING BONE. The full manuscript is available upon request.

Sincerely, Beth Hahn

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Technologically Ambivalent

DGLM has had some technological challenges this past week; the cable that carries the internet into our office was somehow severed. (Sabotage obviously. I blame the North Koreans, fresh from their triumph hacking into the Sony Pictures system, exposing the unguessed-at truth that Hollywood folks can be small-minded and mean.) Anyway, my inability to access email, our office network, or the majority of my saved files was disorienting. Then Sharon, tech genius that she is, showed me how to access my e-mail via my spam filter.  This seemed to me thrillingly covert–a bit like crawling into a locked building through its garbage chute–but the interface was so basic. There was no “undo” button, no save.  The result was ugly. Outlook Express and iOS have been saving me from myself. I see that now.

Our computer troubles also allowed me some time to muse on my fraught relationship with technology. I grew up in a family of late (to never) adopters. My parents were unmoved by cable, video games, computers, VCRS, or even color televisions.  I had mixed feelings about this when I was a kid. I cultivated a friendship with a kindly agoraphobic neighbor who watched TV all the day long. To her I owe any knowledge of the A-Team, daytime talk-shows and soap operas that I may possess.

Still, I’ve followed in my parents footsteps.  My sons have had comparatively little exposure to technology.  Given my line of work and benign but inchoate ideas about child-rearing, it seemed natural to favor books over tablets, paper over gaming devices, outdoors over indoors.  But this year—specifically this Christmas–that’s about to change.  We’re buying our sons their own computer.

We are: a) caving or b) emerging from the rock under which we’ve been living, because as it turns out, the standardized tests that kids in our town will take later this year require them to type.  And so it seems cruel not to allow them to build the skills that they will so obviously need.

I can still remember the day when I realized that a computer,  not a pencil, was a truer, faster connection between my thoughts and the page.  I felt a little sad, because I still love the physical act of writing. For me, a good fine line felt tip pen is a source of pleasure.  Today, however, few kids are taught cursive at all.  I’m no Luddite, but part of me finds it awfully sad that reading script will be a skill reserved to archivists. Or–who am I kidding?–an app.

Technology is a great boon—it facilitates so much—but I’m curious about your relationship with it. Or, in the words of Ali G,  “Tech-mology: Is it Good, or is it Whack?”

 

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Books and Love

The Bookends section of the NYTBR features an entertaining discussion of whether book-based disagreements have the power to end a  romantic relationship.

Since I’m a reader married to another reader, it’s hard for me to imagine what it might be like to have a partner who didn’t love books (though it occurs to me that I’d have more room for my titles, and more room in my house, period.)  But while our tastes sometimes overlap,  our courtship did not include a favorite-author litmus test. At least I don’t think it did.

But I’ll turn the question over to you.  After all, few people are more passionate about books than writers, so what role do/did books play in your love life?  In the first days of a relationship, did/do you regard the contents of the beloved’s  bookshelf as a metonym for character?  Does it matter to you if your object of desire shares your tastes? Did you exchange favorite books?  If you now co-habitate, do you shelve your books together? I know couples who combine their finances but separate their fiction. Where do you fall? There are well-rehearsed hazards in judging a book by its cover, but what about choosing a lover by his books?