Category Archives: Miriam

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Pretentious much?

The thing is, writers can be inordinately pretentious and blissfully unaware of the fact.  Part of the whole living in your head while trying to describe the most banal processes using language that elevates them to art will do that to you, I guess.

I’m reading The Girls now and had just finished Sweetbitter before it.  I loved the latter and struggled with the former at first, before giving myself over to the strangely familiar creepiness of the story.  Both are debut novels by pretty young blonde women.   Both are firmly evocative of a particular time and place—California in the late ‘60s and New York City in the early oughts.  And, both showcase prose that is sometimes pretentious to the point of hilarity.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great writing in these books.  The authors are nothing if not exquisitely attentive to their craft.  It’s just that as I read, my eyes occasionally rolled back into the universal expression for “Girl, get over yourself!”

Anyway, this parody in The Millions of Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer’s e-mail exchange for T The New York Times Style Magazine in which the hyper-educated actress and Cormac McCarthy trade brilliant observations, cracked me up, precisely because it’s really not that farfetched.  Writers who are allowed to indulge their bombast without check (i.e., a strong editor with a finely sharpened red pencil) can very quickly veer into self-parody.

Personally, I don’t mind a little purple mixed in with the black ink, but it is one of the things that authors need to be vigilant about.  A momentary lapse is forgivable and even endearing, too many and you’re headed for the rejection pile.

Can you think of any fun examples of affected, self-important writing you’ve seen recently?

Cat Godard

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True romance

It’s the Wednesday before July 4th weekend and I was sitting at my desk thinking about what I should write about that’s not too heavy—you know you’re all just thinking burgers, beers, and lounging by a pool right now—when I came across this delightfully obvious article in the HuffPost.  Well, I mean, obvious to me….

I’ve been married for roughly 100 years and was more of a serial monogamist than dater back in the day so I’m not an authority on the subject, but I never had a romantic connection with anyone who didn’t read, didn’t love discussing books and plays, and wasn’t able to tell me in loving detail about the titles that had had the most impact on him.  That, of course, applies to most (all?) of my good friends as well, when I think about it.

Personally, I think the way to anyone’s heart is not through their stomach but through their book collection.  Do you have any stories of meeting cute through books you’d like to share?

Sense and Sensibility

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Meh…

So, our next office book club book is a bestselling first novel that a publisher paid a lot of money for and that has gotten the kind of publicity most authors can only dream about (and wake up weeping once reality sets in).  I’m not going to mention what it is because (a) we haven’t discussed it yet, and (b) I don’t want to prejudice you if you’re currently reading or about to read it  (I know, I know, that’s never stopped me before, but I’m trying to turn over a new leaf).

Anyway, the issue I have with this book is that it’s…fine.  It’s okay.  It’s readable.  It’s pleasant.  It’s 20 pages of interesting and I can stop and not pick it up again for days.   What it isn’t is unforgettable and unputdownable.  There’s nothing objectionable about this novel—the writing is nice, descriptive, clean, the characters are fleshed out, believable, the premise is a good one….Zzzzzz.  I just don’t find myself thinking about any of it five minutes after I’ve put it down.  And, honestly, I routinely forget to pick it back up.

When this kind of thing happens with a book as massively hyped as this one, 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.  And therein lies the biggest issue we have as agents—we’re first and foremost readers.  And, as anyone who considers him/herself a reader knows, you can objectively see the good in a published work, but you can’t make yourself love it or even care about it if you just don’t.Sherlock

Which accounts for how a DGLM agent (whose identity I will not reveal so as not to expose him to public shaming—we’ve all already shamed him in-house) passed on a first novel that went on to sell for a cool half million dollars with movie rights following for seven figures.  Turns out, he didn’t think it was all that.  And we’ve all been there.

All of this is by way of saying, yet again, that when you get a rejection letter from an agent or publisher with the cliched “I didn’t fall in love,” trust that they’re actually telling you the truth.  You should not take that as a sign that you must give up your dreams of literary success.  It just means that you need to find that one person who does fall in love or at least in enough like to get you a big honking advance and a Netflix series deal.

What are you reading and feeling “meh” about?

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Does writing make you crazy, or are you crazy, therefore, you write?

In our line of work, we are privileged  to have up-close, intimate access to the writer’s process.  Often, that means being privy to the heights and depths of literary creativity: insecurity, delusional behavior, neuroticism that would make Freud rub his hands with glee, grandiosity, envy, and procrastination (in fact, there’s not that much difference between an adult author on deadline and a 10-year-old who’d rather be outside shooting hoops than tackling his math homework).

No matter how accomplished or relatively sane the writer, there’s no avoiding the mind games inherent in the act of creating a book.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve talked some of our most successful, well-established clients off the proverbial ledge; how many conversations involve me explaining that there’s no way their work is total crap or their careers a travesty.  Did I mention these are successfully published authors who’ve gained accolades, had bestsellers, and whose Wikipedia pages are as full of errors as everyone else’s?

Which is why I found this infographic Galleycat pointed me to so amusing.  Thing is, the emotional rollercoaster most authors experience as they write their books is almost a necessary part of the process. In fact, without those highs and lows, your work would probably be flat and colorless.  There are a lot of things that get in the way of good writing but smugness has to be at the top of my list.  A healthy dose of insecurity and self-doubt means you’re probably on the right track…or on a track….

The Stages of Writing a Book- How an Author Feels (1)

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Celebrities + celebrity imprints = perfect together?

So, Publisher’s Lunch announced today that Lena Dunham and her partner Jenni Konner are launching a new imprint at Random House named after Lenny, Dunham and Konner’s popular newsletter.  I have mixed feelings.

Everything I’ve heard and read about Lena Dunham suggests that she’s a thoughtful, intelligent young woman with a lot of opinions and a love of literature.  Her business partner, I’m sure, is equally gifted.  That said, does the publishing business need another celebrity imprint?  And, to what end?  What do celebrity imprints bring to the table other than the star power of the celebrity they are affiliated with?  And, is that star power a transitive property as far as book buyers are concerned?

Recently, in fact, a number of celebrity imprints have been announced—Gwyneth Paltrow, Chelsea Handler, Oprah Winfrey, Derek Jeter, and  Johnny Depp (which, huh?) now have deals with big five publishers and a mandate to buy books that sell.  Well, good luck with that.

I like to think that publishing books that enrich the culture, entertain a sizable audience, and have staying power in the collective imagination is a specialized craft.   Much in the same way that a lot of people who know nothing about the arduous process of writing a book think they can write a bestseller, it seems to me that many underestimate the equally arduous process of identifying, curating, developing, massaging, producing and promoting a work of literature.  Obviously, I get that it’s a dog eat dog world out there and that publishers need every little edge they can get in order to get their product the attention it deserves, but I worry that resources that are going into supporting the celebritization of book publishing would be better used in bolstering regular, centuries-old publishing models—with editors/publishers who don’t have a Hollywood pedigree but know a good idea/manuscript when they see one and know how to shepherd it through the publishing process into the hands of readers who care about the prose and ideas and not the celebrity behind the imprint.

Or, am I being an old fuddy duddy?  Do I need to accept the fact that there might be a Kardashian imprint down the road?  What do you all think about celebrities who dip their toes in publishing waters?

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Finish what you start (or not)

For most of my life as a reader, I read every book I started to the end.  Not finishing a book was sacrilege.  No matter how tedious the narrative (I’m looking at you, James Fenimore Cooper), how irritating the storytelling (Hi, Dan Brown), or how purple the writing (Ugh, take a bow, Robert James Waller), I would slog through the whole thing figuring that even if I hated the book I would have learned a valuable lesson about bad choices and the authors who make them.

Then, I became a grown-up.  With a job that requires a lot of homework, a husband I like to talk to, a kid with more activities on his calendar than Babe Paley in her heyday, and friends I’d ideally like to see in person rather than just on Facebook, reading for pleasure has become a, well, guilty pleasure.  My once holier-than-thou attitude about finishing what you start has now morphed into if I’m not intrigued by the second page and in love by the fiftieth, the book is going back on the shelf to collect dust and await discovery by a more committed reader or eventual relocation—so I don’t feel guilty every time I look at it.

There are exceptions, of course.  You all know I read every last annoying word of The Goldfinch even though I disagreed with all those who thought it was brilliant.  Occasionally, I do force myself to keep reading, because there are glimmers in those first 50 pages that the story will unfold to reveal something exceptional.  Mostly, though, my pleasure reading follows the pattern of my work reading.  If you can’t capture my attention very early on, the crush of other manuscripts waiting in the wings will make the decision for me.

A propos of all of this, today, on Galleycat, I saw a piece about how women are more apt to stay with a book they don’t like than men.   And, from my experience, I find that to be true.  The women in my book club, for instance, will routinely report that they have read an entire book they felt lukewarm about at best or hated outright at worst.  My husband and other male friends, on the other hand, will leave a trail of half-read volumes in their wake with not even a discernible glimmer of guilt or regret.

What does that say about women and men as readers?  And does it mean that my reading process has become more, er, masculine as I’ve gotten older?  Do you guys finish everything you start?  And, if not, at what point do you throw your hands up, toss the book aside, and go in search of the remote?

2

Clubbing for change

 

As longtime readers of our blog know, we have an office book club that meets once every couple of months.  I’ve also mentioned a time or twenty that I’m a member of a neighborhood book club in my town.  Clearly, I’m a fan of book clubs—and not just because of the wonderful marriage they broker between literature and wine.  I find that I learn a great deal from the opinions of other readers.  Even when I am convinced that they are tragically wrong in those opinions (Sharon Pelletier and Michael Bourret’s wrongheadedness about The Goldfinch comes to mind), the points of view expressed generally reveal something new and different (about the work, about the person championing it) to me.   Books are the most efficient and effective repositories of ideas mankind has ever come up with, in my opinion, and only good things can come from people discussing those ideas in a respectful* and thoughtful way.

Which is why I’m so excited about Emma Watson’s feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf.  In an era when there seems to be a great deal of ambivalence, at best, and disdain, at worst, for feminism, I think Ms. Watson’s mission is excellent.  For all the important gains the founding mothers of the feminist movement achieved (our own Phyllis Chesler among them), we still have a long way to go in attaining equality and, in many cultures, basic human rights for women.

How cool is it that Hermione Granger’s alter ego is spearheading this movement?  I’m totally fangurling!

Hermione reading

 

*Not always the case at DGLM gatherings, I confess.

4

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?

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What’s in a name?

As it turns out, a lot.  Because titles can’t be copyrighted, same or similar ones pop up with surprising regularity despite best efforts by authors, agents, publishers, filmmakers, and playwrights to come up with something original.  That, of course, is not always a bad thing, as evidenced by this report from Galleycat.  A. J. Waines’ Girl on a Train is benefiting from the confusion of readers who were looking to buy Paula Hawkins’ bestseller The Girl on the Train.  The sales of Waines’ book have spiked and some readers don’t seem to mind the mix-up as they enjoyed their reading experience.

We spend a lot of time giving feedback to our authors on titles and it’s never not tough.  A good title resonates with a book buyer.  It makes you either “get” the category/subject matter immediately or it puzzles you enough that it makes you want to find out more.  It’s either straightforward and catchy or confusingly oblique but still memorable.  Depending on the category you are working in, a strong title can go a long way in helping to market the book.  And really, anything goes—Cryptonomicon, anyone?—as long as it’s intriguing in the right way to the right group of readers.

But while everyone tries to be unique, duplicates and triplicates abound.  Even after searching Amazon for similar titles in your category, there’s no guarantee that the same one won’t pop up in another genre.  Case in point (one is a novel from DGLM client Libby Cudmore due out in 2016; one is a memoir from 2010):

Big Rewind

Hey, a good title is a good title is a good title.  As long as you’re not intentionally trying to draw readers away from another author’s work by using their title, no harm no foul (at least as far as copyright law is concerned).

What books can you think of that share same/similar titles?

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Work spaces

My son’s orchestra teacher sent him home with an assignment this past weekend: Film your practice space and tell me why it inspires you or helps you focus while you practice.  The resulting two-minute video showed my son leading a very limited tour of one corner of our den where his viola and guitar lessons and practices routinely take place.   Showing his teacher that the area was comfortable, brightly lit, teeming with musical instruments (my husband is a guitar collector), with enough room for his music stand, not to mention  easy access for our nosy standard poodle to hang out, earned him an A.  The point of the exercise, I believe, was to make kids aware that where they practice their instruments affects how much and how well they do it.

Given that I’ve spent most of my life looking for that perfect work space for my at-home reading and editing, I found this assignment charming.  My ideal situation would be a quiet, well-lit room, with little to no through-traffic, a comfortable chair—with ottoman for stretching out—a nice side table to stack papers and nearby shelves to keep supplies at easy reach.  The most important thing about this platonic ideal of a work space would be nothing that could create a distraction from the task at hand.  In my H.G. Wells moments, I envision some kind of force field that completely neutralizes iPads, Kindles, iPhones, laptops, televisions, etc., while in the room—basically the room equivalent of noise cancelling headphones.

My reality is a corner of my living room or my bedroom with multiple, every few minutes, interruptions from my husband looking for something only I know where he put, my son listening to the baseball game (or Sponge Bob) loudly nearby, the dog needing to be let out every time someone walks past our house so she can bark at them and then ask to be let back into the house again, my parents calling, texts making my iPhone buzz…. You get the idea.

And this is just me trying to edit, not write.  Which is why I really enjoyed this piece by Victoria Patterson in The Millions.  There’s nothing new about the need writers have for a space conducive to their writing—just ask Virginia Woolf—but these days, when our attentions are so under siege, it’s especially important to find that one place you can get down to the business of creativity.

What’s your writing space like?