Category Archives: Miriam

10

Series fatigue

Jane and I had dinner with the delightful and very savvy Abbi Glines last night.  During the course of a delicious meal of tapas-like small plates at ABC Cocina (which, in case you’re wondering, we liked better than ABC Kitchen, its sister restaurant), we talked about a number of interesting topics, from trends in fiction categories—ever elusive and often fleeting—to the lasting power of series.  Abbi pointed out that series can get tired after a while and that readers get tired of the characters right along with them, so an author needs to know when to move on to new pastures.

This reminded me of my love of Patricia Cornwell’s early Scarpetta books and how tedious I found the later ones, Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries which I lost interest in at about the letter G, and that by the time my son and I were at the 24th Magic Tree House book, I was ready to chuck them all out the window.  It’s possible that I just have a short attention span, but, Richelle Mead’s wonderful Vampire Academy series, for instance, kept me hooked up to the very last page of the final installment.

Sbook serieso, is it that authors don’t know when to put a cash cow out to graze and so keep adding books to a successful series even when the characters would much rather have retired to their home in Florida?  Or is it the readership that is so enamored of the characters and their universe that they keep clamoring for more even after the passion has faded?

Do you read every book in a series or do you find your attention wandering to that fresh, bright newcomer on the next shelf?  And do your favorite series authors maintain their effectiveness over numerous titles?

Time’s winged chariot

About two weekends ago, I found myself—as I usually do on a Sunday—ensconced in my favorite chair reading manuscripts and proposals.   I was engrossed in a novel which, despite its numerous structural problems, showed a lot of promise.  As I might have mentioned on this blog once, or a hundred times, I’m not a speed reader, so if the fiction manuscript I’m reading is any good I can kiss a big chunk of my day goodbye.

After Jane and I discussed the pros and cons of this particular novel, we offered the author representation if she was willing to do some significant revising.  (We’d had the book for about a week at this point.)  The author promptly responded that she loved feedback and was not at all averse to reworking the manuscript but she had just accepted another agent’s offer.  Fair enough, of course, and yet….

It bugged me that having plowed through the review process in near record time we never had a chance.  It doubly bugged me because I could have spent a chunk of my Sunday hanging out with my husband and son, running errands, taking that nap I’ve been needing since 2005, going for a walk outside on one of the few decent weather days in what’s been an epically bad winter…you know, what normal people do on Sundays.

I love my job and I enjoy the “development” (reading, editing, brainstorming) part of it tremendously so I don’t generally feel sorry for my lack of Sundays.  But, I also don’t like to waste my time.

This is the longwinded way of responding to those of you who ask about multiple submissions and the etiquette involved therein.  Basically, I say common sense rules, folks.    You should let agents know when you query them that the manuscript is out with others.  And, if an offer comes in, you should give everyone who has your material the chance to finish their review.  If the offer of representation is just too good to hold off on, then you should immediately contact the competing agents and tell them that the project is no longer available so that they can move on to the next thing in their piles.

In these days of electronic submissions, no one will get mad because you’ve gone to multiple agents (unless you do one of those mass e-mail things where everyone is listed; then all bets are off).  But it would be doing us a kindness if you were to keep us in the loop as to the submission’s progress.

Does this sound right to you or do you guys hold the Darwinian view that it’s survival of the fittest out there and tough noogies if you aren’t fast enough?  And, is there something you wish we’d do differently during the review process (and why)?

4

The backstory

Backstory is important, you’ll agree.  It’s what gives depth and weight to a narrative, allowing us to understand motivations and giving us context.  A common error authors make is letting the backstory overwhelm the narrative.  Then, it’s pages and pages of genealogy or irrelevant details about, for instance, the hero’s years spent kayaking in the Pacific Northwest, even if the novel is a legal thriller set in DC and having nothing to do with water craft.  Well thought out and incorporated backstory, however, is a joy.

Always having been intrigued by the part of the iceberg that hides beneath the water (to mangle part of a Hemingway quote), I also like to know the interesting arcana about the books themselves.  I like to know what the author was thinking, why s/he made the choices s/he did, what weird circumstances were taking place in the author’s life during the writing of the book, etc.   Being on our side of the publishing biz, we know a lot of books’ backstories—some funny, some sad, some sexy, some…surprising—and I always feel that they add a dimension to the reading experience.

If you’re like me in this respect, check out this clever and informative Buzzfeed compilation of weird book factoids, creation tales, and trivia.  My favorite?  Nabokov, notecards and butterfly nets in hand while creating Lolita.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve learned about a book you love?

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?

7

Trains, planes, reading and writing

I love long train trips almost as much as I hate flying.   To me, there is something both soothing and exciting about zipping across a changing landscape in a powerful machine that hasn’t lost contact with the ground.  Whereas planes are claustrophobic, uncomfortable (unless you don’t need to put your kid through college and  you fly first class), and occasionally panic inducing, trains are throwbacks to a slower, more genteel age when no one expected you to get to where you needed to be so fast that you had to fight jet lag for days once you got there.

I also love reading on trains.  One of my fondest travel memories is of racing through Look Homeward, Angel in a mostly empty compartment on a trip from Zurich to Bruges.  Not that I’m such a seasoned world traveler, but I really enjoy the vaguely surreal dislocation of reading about America while traveling abroad.  And this feeling, I find, is heightened by the foreign and sometimes oddly familiar scenery you glimpse when you’ve snagged a good window seat.

I’m not a writer, but I can only imagine that the sensations and emotional states I’ve experienced while riding railroads in the U.S. and around the world are fairly common and that they might serve to rev up the creative process.  That’s why I dig the idea of Amtrak offering a writing residency for writers.   If I were writing a novel, I’d book my ticket to California, pack up my laptop, a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, and hit the rails.

What about you guys?  Do you think you could write on a train?  Would you want to?

11

Mad, bad and dangerous to know

It took me a while to read George Packer’s endless New Yorker piece about the evil empire.  No, not the Yankees, Amazon!  Most of what he writes about may be news for people outside our business, but all of us much maligned gatekeepers have long known that anyone who doesn’t spout Amazonian corporate-speak like it’s English will feel dazed and confused when dealing with Bezos’ army, and that the company’s strong-man tactics and culture of silence vis a vis the rest of the publishing world seem positively Orwellian.

But what’s interesting about the article is the fact that despite the behemoth’s disdain for publishing as an industry and book readers as a class, Amazon has managed to make books more accessible to a greater number of readers than any entity before it.  It has also, although publishers might deny it vehemently, injected a competitive edge (okay, desperation and rage)  into the book making process that has lifted traditional publishing out of its complacent, vaguely condescending status quo, and challenged it to think about itself and its role in the marketplace in a new way.

Progress?  Who knows?  But, the piece is a must-read for all of us who buy books, often with one click.   After doing so, I hope you’ll share your thoughts about the role Amazon plays for you as a consumer and as an author.

5

Query quandary

We write a lot about queries on this blog.  A lot.  A query letter is the Moby Dick of the writer looking for an agent—crafting the perfect one can become an obsessive and bloody quest.  For those of us on the receiving end, query letters are both bane and blessing.  For every well-proofed, well-crafted, lucid missive that makes you want to request a manuscript or proposal and which puts you on the road to representing a work you love, there are hundreds riddled with typos, grandiose or patently false statements, endless plot summaries,  and tiny, tiny margins.

And, of course, not all queries we receive can be answered personally.  We rely on the dreaded form response to thank authors for their submission and let them know that their work is not what we are looking for right now.  Some authors take this to mean that no one read their query letter or that the evil gatekeepers don’t think enough of them, in particular, and all writers, in general, to send a personal response.  Not true.  We do read everything we receive (some things more quickly than others) and the reason most people  get a form letter back is that we simply don’t have the time or manpower to send individual responses to the thousands of queries we receive every week.

Most authors who have educated themselves about the business understand that a form letter or even a personal one simply means that you need to try someone else.  Or, if you’re getting them from everyone in town, that you should re-evaluate your query and see if you can make it better, more eye-catching.  In some cases, it may mean that you need to re-evaluate the work you’re pitching because clearly the description you are giving doesn’t appeal to anyone.  The ideal response is to try to learn from this as from all other steps in the arduous publishing process, which is why I liked this upbeat piece in  the HuffPost.

Here’s a short tip list:

  • Follow the agent’s submission guidelines and only query them in areas you know they are interested in.
  • Proofread, for goodness sake.  (Don’t send it to an agent at a different agency than the one your envelope is addressed to, and make sure there are no embarrassing typos.)
  • If you have a connection to the agent you’re querying, use it.  Don’t be shy about mentioning that so-and-so asked you to submit your work, or that your aunt Mary is the agent’s husband’s former babysitter.
  • Don’t summarize the entire plot of the novel in the query letter; try to come up with a good “high concept” pitch.
  • Do tell us anything important, exciting, unusual about you or the work.
  • Don’t compare your work (or yourself, for that matter) to that of people so iconic and brilliant that you will only suffer by comparison.
  • Do know your category and what kinds of books yours might be a shelf mate to.
  • Don’t cram 500 words into one page.
  • Make sure all of your contact information is included.  (We’ve actually had instances where we have not been able to contact people who have submitted work to us because they did not provide contact information. I know, right?)

Does this help?  Do you guys feel your querying process has been satisfactory if not necessarily successful?  What bugs you most about sending out queries?

2

The old man and the lists

Because of a client’s Facebook post, last week I ordered a copy of The Hemingway Cookbook by Craig Boreth.  Now, most everyone who’s known me for a week or twenty years knows that my devotion to Papa Hemingway started early and has never really wavered.  It has survived the bad publicity, the parodies, the mediocre later works, the disdain of my feminist friends who think of him as a sexist blowhard who could write a little….

Thing is, I still find that despite the reams written by and about him, this author continues to surprise and delight.  Every once in a while I’ll read a book (The Paris Wife) or an article about Hemingway and his intimates and cronies that makes me think, “Man, those people lived large!”  And despite the tragic ending and the many missteps I’ve always felt that he possessed great generosity of spirit.

Many years ago, I read in the local paper about a young man who wanted to be a writer and went to Hemingway for advice.  He was given two lists of books to read.  I dimly remember that both lists contained classic titles, but one featured books Ernest considered masterpieces and the other those he considered terrible.  He suggested that the young author become familiar with both, the logic being that you can learn a lot even from a bad book.   This notion has served me well professionally and so I’m always thrilled when I come across stories of Hemingway’s reading lists, like this one.

I think great writers learn to write by learning to read and I think a properly curated list is an invaluable tool.  Do you agree?  And, what books would be on the list you make up for someone looking for advice?

BTW, the cookbook is a treasure.  I’m gonna try the burger recipe this weekend.

14

Happy Sisyphus

We here at DGLM are big believers in helping authors develop their work.  That means that  all of us spend a significant amount of time reading, evaluating, and editing proposals and manuscripts so that we can get them in shape for submission.  Oftentimes, for myriad reasons, our input extends beyond the selling stage and we get involved in the editorial process after the book is sold.   In other words, we spend a lot of time observing the creative process in all its (painful) glory.

Revising seems to be most people’s Achilles heel.  I’ve seen even the most confident, successful, unflappable, hardworking authors melt into puddles of insecurity, denial, and rage at the thought of tackling a revision of a work they’re convinced is perfection (or as good as it gets).  For every author who loves to roll up his/her sleeves and get to work polishing, adding, restructuring, and (perish the thought) cutting, there are dozens, nay, hundreds who are thrown into existential despair at the thought of revising.

Which is why this piece in the Atlantic is so wonderful.  From Khaled Hosseini’s fatalistic “it’ll never be as good as you imagined” to Fay Weldon’s “F—k it! Just start again!” I love the advice and the insights into the writing process, so much of which involves watching the rock rolling downhill after you’ve used every ounce of strength to get it to the top, pausing a moment to feel sorry for yourself, and then taking a big breath and starting the uphill climb again. 

I agree with Hosseini that perfection can’t be attained, that all you can do is the best you possibly can and hope that your work strikes a chord and means something to someone.  But, to get the thing as good as it can be requires a lot of rewriting, reconceptualizing, reevaluating, all the re’s, including restarting after you think you’re finished.  And, in order to do that you need to be mentally and creatively tough.  Just because it’s not perfect yet doesn’t mean it’s not good or it can’t be.

What are your thoughts on revising?  Is it as horrific a process as many authors make it out to be or is there zen in the art of taking your work apart and putting it back together?

 

7

Slow reading

Now that New York State schools have adopted the Common Core curriculum, a lot of us parents are mystified by the new rules for academic success as determined by the educational powers that be.  One of the things that my husband and I keep getting stuck on is how much of an emphasis is now placed on speed.  Our third grader must answer math problems in less than four seconds per problem, for instance.    Given that most of my math is done either on my iPhone calculator or my fingers, I have no moral authority to speak about that one, but when they tell me that eight-year-olds have to read a certain number of words in one minute in order to establish reading “fluency,” well, that’s when the tic  in my left eyelid becomes pronounced.

Which, as many things do on this blog, leads to a shameful confession:  I am a slow reader.

Given the thousands of pages I read in the course of a typical month, people assume that I took that speed reading course they used to advertise on television back in the day.  I did not.  I am the kind of reader who compulsively reads every word and who pauses often to swirl a particularly juicy adjective around or take loving note of an exceptionally well turned phrase.  When it comes to work, I sometimes hate that I am so slow–my manuscript piles reproduce like Tribbles, after all.   On the flip side, I think I am a much more insightful reader and editor as a result of my tortoise-like approach to the material in front of me.

Thing is, I read books the way  I eat dessert.  I want both experiences to last as long as humanly possible so the enjoyment derived from them will be prolonged as well.  What good is a bowl of ice cream if the primary experience is brain freeze from slurping it down too quickly?  Similarly, what’s the point of speed skating through a great novel or non-fiction narrative only to be done and on to the next?  Don’t we already live our lives doing constant hamster sprints as we struggle to keep up with the masses of information being thrown at us?  Shouldn’t we take a stand and force ourselves to read deliberately, thoughtfully, patiently, discerningly…slowly?  Wouldn’t that be better for our intellectual development as well as our souls?

I think the world needs less fast tracking and more thinking it through.  And, I’m not the only one.  Hopefully, my kid will learn that writing can be savored, not just devoured, that it is not just a means to an end but an end in itself.

What say you?  Is fast reading an important skill in the internet age or is there more value in the slow(er) processing of information?  And, how long does it take you to read an average book?