Category Archives: Miriam

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?

 

 

 

8

Random is a state of mind

One of the things I’ve always loved about publishing (and which makes saner people twitch with frustration) is how random and illogical many of its systems and processes are.    For a small industry with outsize influence relative to its size, its day-to-day operations feature a lot of crazy shenanigans.  Exhibit A:  This delightful  excerpt from Dan Menaker’s memoir which John referenced earlier this week.

Instead of on sober reasoning and well calibrated risks, a lot of decisions in our business are based on emotional reactions (“I fell in love with the gorgeous prose.”  “The story hit me like a punch in the gut.”  “I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I put it down.”) that a moody, infatuated teenager might find over-the-top, and a measure of wishful thinking that might land normal people in a mental ward (“Let’s give the author of this partial manuscript on goat herding in Tibet a $4,000,000 advance.  We’ll surely recoup most of it in foreign sales—you know how the Brits are about goat herding.”)

As much as we try to be logical and measured, however, the nature of this particular beast is that it is quixotic, mercurial, and hard to pin down using standard measuring tools and equipment.  Just when you think something can’t and shouldn’t possibly, ever, ever, work, it’s a huge bestseller and you and your team look like geniuses for having the foresight to pluck it out of the precariously high piles on your desk, floor,  whatever.  And, just when you think you’ve found the next 50 Shades of Da Vinci Codes, you end up looking at Bookscan numbers in the low four digits.

And, it is precisely that unpredictability, that randomness, that makes what we do so often exciting and rewarding.  It’s gambling, sure, but gambling dressed up in a tux and sipping a martini at a vingt-et-un table in Monte Carlo.  It’s crazy and fun and miserable and painful, but never dull and you have to want to be in the game (as a publisher, agent, author, market  and rights person, etc.) even when it doesn’t go your way.

What say you guys?  Is the randomness fun or is it more anxiety producing and maddening than it’s worth?

18

A book for all seasons

Over the last several days I have found myself thinking a lot about picking up Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch.  I’ve been debating the notion of downloading it or walking over to B&N at the top of the park and buying the hardcover.  I even tried to get our DGLM book club to choose it for our next gathering (I was shot down).

“So?” you might be thinking, “You work in publishing.  You read a lot.  It’s a bestseller with a slew of enthusiastic reviews and miles of buzz behind it.  Why wouldn’t you want to read it.”  Seven hundred and eighty-four pages is why!  The thing is a doorstop.  I’ve got a mountain of manuscripts and proposals, a backlog of magazine articles fading in relevance as I type this, a full inbox, and an eight-year-old with more homework every night than I had class work as an undergrad at Columbia.  When, for Pete’s sake, am I supposed to fit in an almost eight hundred page book?

But, still, I’m drawn to it like I’m drawn to pumpkin doughnuts and stews in the fall.  Because it’s the season for big, important books that you can curl up with in your favorite arm chair on a chilly day—wrapped in a warm cardigan, sipping some warm apple cider as you turn the pages—and lose all track of time.  Something about the dip in temperatures and the fact that it’s twilight at 3:30 PM  makes me want to read long and complicated works. 

Clearly, I’m not alone in this.  The publishing world has traditionally scheduled big, important titles in the fall/winter season and beach reads starting in late spring.  And, when I googled “seasonal reading” to see if it’s already been classified as a disorder in the DSM, I came across this piece in the Guardian which…yeah…it seems I’m not at all original (or unique) in my fall reading needs.

What about you?  Do you get all nostalgic for War and Peace or Dune once the flip flops are put away and the jackets come out?

 

1

Reading makes you a better person. Really. There are studies.

Neil Gaiman is my favorite author…who I’ve never read.

I know, I know.  I can’t tell you how many people whose tastes I respect and generally agree with have told me that I have to read this guy.  But, well, time (as in, who has any).  He’s in that pile of books by my bedside that will one day collapse, killing me instantly  (which will serve me right for not having gotten around to reading all the tomes that made it lethal to begin with).

But, I digress.  Even though I’ve never read Gaiman’s novels, I have read enough about him and short pieces by him that I feel like our world views are eminently simpatico.  For instance, in this wonderful rumination on reading  he elegantly explains why books are necessary for not just the individual’s mental health and success but society’s as well.  The skills acquired and developed through reading are transferable ones.  They can be used to create the next iPad, social media site, or weapon of mass destruction because they involve opening up the imagination to infinite possibilities.  He argues that reading fiction is the best workout for these particular muscles and, of course, he’s right.

I’ve always had a strong, and probably  somewhat delusional, belief that anything is possible and I think that might date back to my early penchant for fairy tales and books featuring wizards and witches (Merlin was and is a favorite character).  What book or books turned on the creativity faucet for you?  And do you think that fiction is, in fact, more effective than nonfiction in this respect?

1

What’s in a name?

Yesterday, I tweeted this piece about how reading literary fiction (vs. popular fiction) develops our ability to understand and decipher social cues that power our relationships with other people.   My initial reaction to the article was, “Hmmm, interesting.  Makes sense.”  I think all self-respecting bookworms would agree that books teach us much more than facts and big words, they teach us human behavior.   So, of course literary fiction would sharpen our abilities to identify emotional and intellectual motivations and apply them to ourselves and our real-world dilemmas.  After all, wasn’t that the point of all those tedious essays we wrote in high school and college about why Emma Bovary was so delusional or why Ahab couldn’t just leave that dumb whale alone?

 

But something about the piece troubled me, and my “Aha!” moment came when I read this slightly different take on the New School study.  In the first article the examples of popular fiction were Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.  Literary fiction, on the other hand was represented by Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Don DeLillo and Anton Chekhov.  Okaaay, who decided that Gillian Flynn is more popular than literary or that she should be featured in the same sentence as Danielle Steel?  Before you Steel fans get all worked up, I am not casting aspersions on that author’s prodigious body of work.  I am merely saying that just because a book sells a lot of copies and hangs out on the bestseller lists for a while does not make it “popular fiction” as the literary snobs among us think of it any more than tiny print runs and fewer sales make something “literary.”  And so claiming that Flynn’s brilliantly crafted, psychological thriller is for the purposes of this study less literary than Obreht’s book* seems to point to a major fault in the findings if, in fact, that is the criteria for judgment.

All of this, of course, takes us to the old publishing pastime of arguing over whether something is literary or commercial.  If sales are the basis for categorization, then Cormac McCarthy, Phillip Roth, and, yes, Mr. Dickens would all be labeled popular fiction authors.  Of course, the study makes the point that a “literary” work is one that is more concerned with its characters’ internal processes and less with plot and action, thus forcing us to work harder at deciphering motivation.   But haven’t we all read many plot driven novels that have been raised to the literary canon?  Ahem, Mr. Dickens, again.

Personally, I think that most fiction flexes our mental muscles.  Even formula romance (or mystery, or science fiction) forces us to look for motivation and emotional cause and effect.  Maybe some books make us work harder and, therefore, give us the brain equivalent of a six-pack, but my sense is that I’ve learned a thing or two even from wildly popular fiction that I may not have by reading only highbrow stuff.

What do you think?  Is it possible that the bias in this study is “literary”?  Can you think of samples of popular fiction that forced you to bring out  your empathy/social decoding tools?

 

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*In the interest of full disclosure, I hated that book.