Category Archives: Miriam

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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?

2

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?

1

A truth acknowledged

The first time I read Pride and Prejudice I was smitten by Austen’s acerbic wit, her depiction of a woman with a mind (and sense of humor) of her own, her good humored (and, okay, sometimes a little bitter) skewering of Regency mores, her prose, her storytelling, and, okay, yeah, the most swoonworthy hero ever.    Over the years, my affection for the book has not waned.  If anything I appreciate its subtleties and charms more than ever before.  And, I get why  the novel has become the prototype of the modern romance novel.  It’s a formula that never gets old: Independent minded attractive female meets disdainful but hot male  and a battle of wits ensues; sparks fly, love blossoms, marriage results.

But, is the formula overused?  Is it time to step back from the P&P retreads?  Should we leave Lizzie and Darcy alone for a while to enjoy the glories of Pemberley without fear of encroaching rodents?  Can we agree that guinea pigs and Austen is just a “No”?

Really.  Despite what Sharon Pelletier may or may not say publicly, just no.

Are you with me blog readers?

 

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Fruit flies and me

A conversation I was having with a publisher last week, went off topic (after we’d reached an agreement about the client in question, of course) when we started discussing vacations and vacation reading.  One thing leading to another as it does, we began to reminisce about the days when the publication of a big book was an EVENT and how rare a thing that is these days when Kim Kardashian’s latest naked selfie breaks the internet every 4.5 days (yawn!), Donald Trump opens his yap and the news cycle is hijacked to the exclusion of anything else, iPhones, tablets, FireTV sticks, and watches that text and send e-mail keep our attention buzzing from one landing spot to another like a drunken fruit fly.

Not to sound like a crotchety old lady but I remember when books made headlines and created the kind of anticipation blockbuster movies can still sometimes drum up (I’m there for the next James Bond film…just sayin’).   Sure, not so long ago the Harry Potter titles were doing just that but it’s been a while since a book was not only buzzed about but read by everyone immediately upon publication and then discussed ad nauseum everywhere you went.  (I don’t count the “new” Harper Lee since, personally, I consider that a cynical, somewhat soulless publishing move that has more in common with the Kardashian publicity machine than the event books I remember fondly and whose success was usually more predicated on their content than the marketing behind them.)

Is all of this due to the fact that there’s too much competition for our ever more fragmented attention spans or is it that we are slowly losing the ability to commit to a reading experience and the subsequent processing of that experience that involves discussion, debate, criticism, etc.?  Have the Buzzfeed book lists taken the place of the lively conversations about important titles that added something to the culture and our understanding of the world?

On a less cranky note, I’m reading The Martianthe martian right now and in the past two weeks have spoken to six people in vastly different contexts and in a serendipitous fashion, about the book.  This, combined with the rise in print sales and the fact that readers are looking for what the publisher I was speaking with called “the physical connection” we experience when reading hardcovers or paperbacks makes me hopeful that the big event book is not totally a thing of the past.

5

The book made me do it!

I walked out at lunch time on this scorching, humid day in New York City, and immediately felt like I was in a tropical jungle—only this was the concrete kind.  As I tried to get my errands done quickly so I could scurry back to the relative coolness of my portable air conditioner (my office windows are of a vintage that makes standard units impossible to install)Air Conditioner, I found myself thinking of literary jungle settings—Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Lily King’s Euphoria, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, etc.  In part, this had to do with the sliced mango stand I ran across on the corner of Broadway and 14th Street…but I digress.

Back in the office, while eating my chilled pea and mint soup, I happened upon this piece in Galleycat about Riverhead soliciting essays for a collection about “how Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous memoir [Eat Pray Love] served as inspiration for readers to go on life-changing adventures” and, having just been thinking about her recent novel, I had one of those moments where I felt the universe was trying to tell me something.

I decided that what it was telling me was not to pack up my bags and head for the Amazon (where Jane will be in a month or so, btw), but that I should do a blog post about what books have inspired us to do things.  For instance, reading Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak in high school made me want to learn Russian in the worst way.  And, so I took three years of this beautiful, complicated language while in college (I remember nothing, in case you’re wondering).

It’s a great exercise, in my opinion, to consider how books have influenced our actions.  For those of us who are obsessed with literary works, it’s an exercise that can turn up some fascinating (and maybe disturbing) insights into our psyches.  So, have books influenced actions for you?  If so, what books…and what actions?

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#notagoodidea

As you all know, we’ve been pushing the whole build-your-platform-through-social-media idea pretty much relentlessly since grumpy cat memes and the Kardashians became a thing.  We’ve also suggested that understanding how social media works and knowing how to use it properly (for good, not evil) is essential.  We’ve seen how often it can backfire and how damaging the repercussions can be.

That was brought home to me this week by two separate “#Ask___” Twitter events.  First, E.L. James had to deal with responses that ranged from mildly sarcastic to outright insulting when she agreed to participate in an online chat to promote her latest iteration of 50 Shades.  Then, in a very different arena, presidential candidate Bobby Jindal’s #AskBobby hashtag elicited some pretty rude commentary about the Louisiana governor’s policies and even personal life and left a lot of people wondering if someone so clueless about how Twitter works could actually be a good president.

What’s amazing about both of these situations is that these are folks who should know better—or at least their handlers and p.r. people should.  The social media universe is mostly a Hobbesian place—all cynicism, righteous anger, and meanspiritedness—where moderation in opinions or dialogue is in very, very short supply.  And, those who are out there promoting themselves, their work, or a cause, need to figure out how not to fall victim to the pitchfork wielding mobs (metaphorically speaking, of course).  So authors need to beware.  In order to reap the benefits of an effective social media presence, you need to understand the potential pitfalls and be thoughtful about how to avoid them.  Like any tool, this one can help build or destroy.

What useful things have you learned from your experiences on social media?

 

2

Taboos

A couple of weeks ago, I was at my alma mater to speak to the Columbia Fiction Foundry folks about publishing.   The session was structured as an interview and one of the questions posed to me was how we handle books about taboo subjects.  I liked that question because it’s one that’s seldom asked but which is important to anyone who works in publishing (or any media, really).  Given how charged the political environment is, not just here but globally, freedom of speech is a tricky, sometimes dangerous concept for those who work in the business of communicating ideas.   And, yet, we take on projects all the time that have the potential to offend some or many.  The rule of thumb for us is that if it’s something that doesn’t personally offend us, or it offends us but we think there’s merit in furthering the conversation on that particular topic,  we don’t shy away from representing it.

This week, along with everyone else in the country, we’ve been talking about the Rachel Dolezal story and wondering if there is a book in this very bizarre journey of hers.  The fact is that her actions have offended large numbers of Americans.  Given how volatile the subject of race is in this country, that’s not surprising.  But, regardless of where you stand on this individual’s weird appropriation of a group’s identity, it seems to me that the conversation her story has engendered is a good one.  I’ve read several interesting articles about this now, among them this one by our friend Sam Freedman, which have approached the topic in diverse, but  insightful ways…and isn’t that what free discourse is about?  I still don’t know what the book would be, but maybe it’s one about the very notion of discussing taboo subjects.

So, what taboos would you tackle or shy away from in your own writing?  And which would you like to see more deeply explored in print?

2

So, this happened…

These days, it seems that everyone and their pet snake has a memoir.  The category is jam packed with offerings that range from the sublime (beautifully written literary narratives) to the ridiculous (vapid celebrity p.r. releases masquerading as books), as Sharon discusses below.  So, I don’t know how to feel about the news that the great Barbra Streisand has a memoir in the works.  On the one hand, the woman’s had a fascinating life and career and if she chose to write about it candidly (and has an accomplished ghost writer helping her) it could be great.  On the other hand, this is the lady who filmed herself through a Vaseline coated lens in The Mirror Has Two Faces.  On the other, other hand, even if the book is a panegyric  to herself, won’t it still be compelling?

All of this makes me think about memoirs I’d like to read, based on the perhaps misguided idea that these authors would knock my socks off  in the way Patti Smith and Keith Richards did with their books.  Can you imagine Jack Nicholson reliving his wild days in print?  Or Toni Morrison using her prodigious gifts to tell us about her journey from poverty to international acclaim? (In 2012, Morrison scrapped plans for a memoir, claiming her life was not interesting enough…whaaat?) Basically, it’s the people who probably wouldn’t ever write this kind of narrative whose books I would most want to read.

Whose memoir is on your fantasy bedside reading pile?