Category Archives: Miriam

3

Bad sex

I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before how much I relish certain kinds of bad writing.  Whether it’s found in queries so incoherent they make you want to request the manuscript they reference to see if the actual pages can possibly be as gawdawful (I do not recommend this as a tactic for getting your foot in the door), a passage so ripe in an otherwise well written novel that you question everything you ever believed about the author’s talent, or a subject so tricky that even otherwise skillful writers royally muck it up time and again when attempting to capture it in simple, lucid prose.

Sex is one of those subjects that turn good and even great authors into flailing amateurs.  It’s so hard to depict well that there should be dedicated writing courses teaching young MFA candidates how not to  screw it up (no pun intended).

That said, bad sex writing is a particularly fun subset of bad writing, and the 22nd Bad Sex in Fiction Awards once again celebrate that badness.  So, wander on over to the Literary Review for a peek at the nominees for “Britain’s Most Dreaded Literary Prize.”

Can you come up with anything similarly cringeworthy?

7

Books and lyrics

Driving in to work today, I was listening to Spotify and thinking about books.  I’m currently obsessed with the song “Ugly Heart” by G.R.L. and I was thinking it could be the basis for an angstsy teen novel.  One thing leads to another in my often labyrinthine thought process and I soon found myself trying to list in my head songs I love that are based on books, poems, or other literary works.

Some obvious ones came to mind—“Calypso” by Suzanne Vega, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits, “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush, “Moon over Bourbon Street” by Sting.  All of these have been longtime favorites because of the dimension they add to the fictional works they, well, ripped off.  (Isn’t all creation  stealing, really?  Or at least borrowing heavily?)

Kate-Bush-Wuthering-Heights-202391

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I love the marriage of music and literature and I often find myself making musical pairings in my mind: Paolo Nutini riffing on The Fault in Our Stars?  Fun. taking a crack at Atonement?  Adele reinterpreting Bel Canto?  Jay-Z channeling Tennyson?  You get my drift.

What is your favorite song based on a book?   And what book would you like to see become a hit song?

1

I’ll take mine with a twist

TwistI’m still reeling from Atonement.  Charlotte Brontë destroyed me with Villette.  And, I’m glad the Huffington Post agrees that Liane Moriarty’s bestseller ends with a, well, twist because I was bowled over.

Thing is, I hate surprises.  Really, I do.  I actually break out in hives at the thought of a surprise birthday party.  Whether the surprise is good or bad is irrelevant.  I don’t like to be there when it’s happening.  My peripatetic childhood, which involved periodically arriving in a new place whose culture (and even language) I didn’t understand made me wary of the unexpected.   That, combined with my type-A, OCD nature makes me dread anything I can’t see coming from a good distance.  (I will be taking all of this up in therapy some day, do not fear.)

As a result, I am one of those rare people who also appreciates a certain amount of predictability in my reading.  Rather than finding a book whose ending I can intuit or guess at a waste of time, I enjoy being able to focus my attention on the author’s prose, character development, and attention to detail.  I like category fiction because it generally follows a formula and it’s the skill of the author at things other than surprising us that tends to set these works apart.

So, of course, it irks me no end to admit that some of my most memorable reading experiences have involved not just a surprise ending but a shocking one.  My initial response is usually rage and confusion, followed, after a while, by admiration at the author’s ability to yank the rug so forcefully out from under me.  It’s so hard to pull off, but when it’s done right, it tends to make the narrative it closes unforgettable—especially when the finale seems organic and not gimmicky.  I hate surprises but I tend to end up loving books that surprise me.

What are your favorite surprise endings?  And why?

3

Damned if we do?

Something like 20 years ago when I was a publishing newbie I came across a fascinating piece in The New Yorker about a rare disease in Africa that was positively biblical in its devastation.  I was, of course, immediately obsessed with this gruesome hemorrhagic fever whose survival rate was statistically negligible.  Frankly, and shamefully, I thought it was a great horror story and one happening far enough away that it posed no real threat to a young woman in New York City who wasn’t planning on traveling to remote parts of Africa any time soon.   I desperately wanted someone to do a book about it.   Jane, who was bemused by my weird enthusiasms (she’s grown accustomed to them in the two decades since), and I tried to contact a couple of journalists who might have direct access to information on the ground.  But while we were casting about without the help of e-mail and Skype,  it was announced that Richard Preston was working on The Hot Zone.  We had been scooped.

Preston’s book became a huge bestseller and it spawned a successful film.  Ebola entered the public’s consciousness much in the way it had for me, as something horrific that didn’t really affect us but which titillated us with the kind of fear a zombie movie might instill.  Today, of course, the threat is far more real and, with our porous borders, far less “over there.”  The world is quickly realizing that the spread of Ebola is a global health crisis and one that must be stopped in its tracks if we are to avoid even more catastrophic losses of human life.

So, as I obsessively read the headlines and listen to reports on NPR, I think, again, that a new book on the disease’s trajectory this time around is necessary and even imperative.  Except that the more mature me is  aware of the negative psychic and moral implications of capitalizing on tragedy in a way my much more clueless younger self was not.  And so once again an uncomfortable aspect of our business rears its head.  When is it too soon to write about tragedy?  What is the correct way to hype a big book touching on the suffering of thousands?  We in the publishing world, like journalists, are responsible for midwifing work that illuminates, enlightens, educates, and entertains.  But, we’re not in the trenches risking life and limb to get the story and making money off tragic events is sometimes hard to stomach.  So, do we pursue that book now or do we wait?

There are fascinating stories coming out of this current crisis and not just one book, I’m sure.  Where do you guys fall on the subject?  Should there be another Hot Zone?

5

Good bad advice

For something that’s so subjective, fluid, and intuitive, writing sure has a lot of rules.   From the time you pick up your first pencil until they pry the keyboard from your cold, dead hands, you’re exposed to a litany of do’s and don’ts that are sometimes as confusing as they are meaningless.  (I’m sure someone told Faulkner it was a bad idea to include a chapter in his first novel that is one opaque sentence long.  I’m just as sure that he ignored them on his way to creating Nobel Prize winning masterpieces.)

You’ve been told not to end sentences with prepositions, not to split infinitives, not to dangle participles (because they’re scared of heights?), and so on, ad nauseam.  If you’re even the slightest bit OCD (like me) all these rules can paralyze you when you have a thesis to write, an edit memo to compose, or a novel you want to start.

Do all those rules matter?  Well, yes, they do.  A good writer is one who knows the rules and judiciously breaks them for effect.  You can easily tell a great craftsman who uses repetition to make a point from a sloppy hack who can’t be bothered to look up a synonym, for instance.  As someone who spends a lot of time line-editing proposals, I can tell you that in most cases, rule flouting is not intentional or effective. Rules

On the other hand, there’s a lot of bad advice being doled out by “experts” that, if followed, will consign you to the Dantean circle where boring, tepid, uninspired prose blandly tortures the poor souls  whose crimes against literature landed them there in the first place.  Which is why G. Doucette’s piece in the HuffPost cracked me up.

The point?  Rules are good.  Rules should be understood and followed.  Rules must sometimes be broken.

What are your favorite rules to ignore?

0

A list is a list is a list

Recently, I was challenged by a friend on Facebook to list 10 books that had “stayed with me.”   Normally, I enjoy those types of FB challenges as much as I do folding three weeks’ worth of laundry and I often decline to participate.  But, given my line of work, it feels churlish and ungenerous to refuse any opportunity to share what I consider to be one of my life’s  great passions, so despite the ambiguity of the challenge—“Stayed with me” how?  In a good way?  In a throw-it-across-the-room-in-a-fit-of-rage way?  I mean, I hated everything about The Scarlet Letter, but it stayed with me.  And don’t even get me started on The Goldfinch—I went ahead and posted my list.  

Thing is, I find listing books for any purpose—favorites, tree killers (those that are a waste of paper), recommendations, etc.—a trying activity simply because there is so much to choose from and there is such judgment implicit in every choice.    In fact, no one is as judgmental as a book lover.  Admit it, you have mentally demoted friends and lovers based on their book preferences.  You have gloated (internally or otherwise) about how much better your taste in literature is than anyone else’s.  You have shamed people publicly after finding out they’ve never read a certain author’s work (okay, maybe that’s just me…and, the rest of the DGLMers).  So, there’s no way to pick the best of any category of books without great screeches of dissent, anger, hostility, possible projectile throwing.

And the weird thing is that I love book lists.  Other people’s that is.  I love nomination lists, seasonal lists, lists about books featuring animal protagonists, whatever.  I will happily read lists about lists of books.  In fact, you can keep your Booker and Pulitzer and National Book Awards, just hand me their shortlists.   Given the proliferation of lists on the Internet, I suspect I’m not alone.

To that end, and because it’s back to school, time to get serious about reading again, here’s The Millions’ Lists page where you can get as lost as the kid from The Phantom Tollbooth.   Go crazy and then tell me what your favorite book of the year thus far is.

 

5

The dead zone

This time of the year in publishing is affectionately known as the dead zone.  Everyone is either on vacation or too busy catching up on the piles that grew while they were beachside somewhere to return phone calls or e-mails, the normally swollen river of queries slows down to a babbling brook, and offers are all pending the rubber stamp of a boss who’s in some foreign land drinking copious amounts of wine.  A kind of lethargy sets in during the hazy month of August and it feels like the whole industry has been crop-dusted with Xanax.

For me, this lethargy translates into a kind of reading fatigue.  I find the idea of diving into a new book vaguely exhausting while simultaneously wishing for that reading experience that will act like a jolt of espresso to snap me out of my summer doldrums.  Instead of excited about starting the next book on my list, however, I’m feeling like it’s a chore.   I think that those of us who define ourselves through our crazy, passionate love affair with literature occasionally find ourselves muttering bitterly, “more words, words, words”  at the sight of a shiny  new hardcover 23 people have recommended.  This too shall pass I know from long experience.

When I found myself starting three different books, flipping through a few pages, and putting them down to play Candy Crush this week, I decided I needed a break.  So, I’m reading blogs, magazines, and newspaper articles, Tweets, FB posts (you didn’t think I’d stop reading altogether, did you?).  I’m watching House of Cards and the Little League World Series.  And, I’m processing the coverage of Robin William’s tragically premature passing.   (Here are a couple of sobering and interesting perspectives on the sadness at the core of Williams’ brand of creative genius:  A great essay in Cracked and Russell Brand’s eloquent print eulogy.)  In fact, as in all good relationships, a little time away from the object of one’s affections can be salubrious.

And, of course, during this book sabbatical, I’m making lists of the titles I’m going to dive into when my energy levels pick up.  I’m thinking big biographies might be in my future….

Tell me, how do you guys get over book fatigue?  Or do you never experience such a thing?

Have book, will travel

For me the hardest part of packing for a trip is making sure I have all the books I’ll need to get me through airport delays, long flights, pool lounging, and, of course, for bedtime reading when I’m too tired from a day of strenuous vacationing to fall asleep.  Then, there’s the tricky part:  leaving enough room in my bulging carry-on for the books I will be buying while abroad.  We all have these problems, right? Right?

Well, when I set off for France two weeks ago, I had the equivalent of my bedside table pile on my Kindle, the galleys I got at BEA five years ago of Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, and a couple of back issues of the Oprah magazine. I congratulated myself on my light packing.

While in the beautiful Aquitaine region, I finished the Tropper and Jo Jo Moyes’ One Plus One (for my neighborhood book club) and I had queued up the Lily King novel that’s been getting so many raves for the flight back home.  Then, it was time to head back to the States.  We had five hours to kill in London and a large W.H. Smith store to browse in.  And they were having a “buy one get one ½ price”  sale on books that had made the British bestseller lists.  So…

Books

Having already logged quite a few miles that day and anticipating an exhausting journey home (frankly, the worst part of international travel is getting on the Van Wyck Expressway to and from JFK airport—it calls itself a road, but it’s really a parking lot), I opted for the lighter seeming of the two books to start.  And so, I dug into Letters from Skye, which feels like a cross between The Notebook and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and was not disappointed.  It’s a lovely, easy read with just the right mix of romance and sadness to keep you turning pages.  And, I’m really looking forward to diving into the Wyld book, which appears to be much darker and literary (a bit Gaiman-ish).

The best thing, though, is finding new voices as a result of my travels that I might not have ever stumbled on while on this side of the Atlantic.   Turns out both of the books I picked up in London are available in the U.S., but they were not on my radar.  The fact that they were prominently displayed and discounted at a busy airport store made it easy for me to part with the last of my Euros and take home what is to me the perfect souvenir of my European vacation.

How do you handle books and reading on your trips?  Are you literary over-packers?  Do you have to go into any bookstore you pass—whether in North Carolina or Marrakesh?  Do you jointly archive experiences, scenery, and the narratives you were immersed in while on the road?  What did you read on your last vacation?

 

3

Stranger than life, larger than fiction

So, having spent close to a month as a sitting juror on a federal trial, I’m slowly recovering from the Stockholm Syndrome my fellow jurors and I experienced while cooped up in a courtroom every day, listening to lawyers drone on interminably, seemingly engaged in a contest to see who could make the most repetitive and tedious presentation of their case.

Sitting there day after day, trying to actively listen, even as my eyelids often felt like tiny weights were dangling from my lashes, gave me a new appreciation for legal dramas from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Firm to The Good Wife.  The fact that book and screen writers have been making trial proceedings as compelling and engrossing as they are (or can be in the right hands) is a testament to imagination and the ability to transform dull reality into if not art then entertainment.

A couple of days after the trial ended (with an acquittal in case you’re interested), Jane and I had dinner with David Morrell, who was shooting ideas for his new novel by us.  What struck me anew that night was that it is an alchemical process that transforms a snippet of a real story—whether historical or present-day—into the basis for a full-blooded work of fiction.  The mind of a gifted author takes that reality and spins a fantastic yarn out of it by picking and choosing elements  that are, in actuality, dramatic and entertaining, goosing action and motivation in the process.  The conclusion I draw is that real-life legal proceedings would benefit greatly from talented writers and skillful editors.  (I’m thinking that my trial would have been done in a week, tops, if it had been properly scripted.)

And, perhaps because I feel my lack of imagination would make for a sad fiction writing career, I always wonder how writers choose elements of real life and translate them into successful fiction.  Look at the current headlines in your local paper and tell me what novel you would write if you could rip one off for your fiction debut.   What are the nuggets that you would mine for a book that is more scintillating than my trial?

 

5

Duty calls

So, I got called up for jury duty about 30 minutes past the four-year mark of my last date of service.  Last time, I was in and out by lunch.  This time, I’ve been picked as a juror on a trial and as gigantic a disruption as this is in my already over-booked life, I do feel that it is a privilege to serve and to watch the legal system do its thing up close and personal.

 

objection

All this, however, means that my usually scintillating blog post is reduced to an invitation for you to tell me what your favorite books about the law (be they thrillers, literary fiction, or nonfiction) are.  And since I’m in need of suggestions for good tv series to keep me on the elliptical, feel free to throw in some suggestions for your favorite things to watch in the category.