Category Archives: opinion

5

When nothing works

Often, when I tell people what my job is, they reply that it sounds really fun.  The fact is that most of the time it is. I get to read for a living.  I live in a world of ideas.  I work with people on all sides of the business who are creative and passionate about helping writers succeed in a pretty competitive marketplace.  I love that there is so much variety in what I am doing in a single day—editing a proposal, discussing a new idea with a client, talking about a potential project with a publisher, negotiating contract terms, helping to plan a publicity and marketing campaign, etc.

The other side of this, though, is what to do when nothing seems to be working.  Yes, there are times when it seems nobody is interested in the projects we are submitting.  Editors like the idea but can’t relate to the “voice”; they don’t think the concept works for their list; they can’t define a big enough market; the author isn’t qualified to be writing the book he or she is proposing or don’t have a big enough platform…I’ve heard it all.  Sometimes this gets really discouraging, especially during periods when it seems to be happening with everything we are submitting.

We ask ourselves what we are doing wrong.  Are we picking the wrong projects, presenting them in the wrong way, sending to the wrong editors and publishers?  What is it?  And then we think that maybe we should change up everything—do things differently.

While considering this the other day, I looked up “what to do when nothing works” on Google and I found 300,000,000 entries.  Astonishing! I read through some of them, but, in the end, after a long career full of these experiences, I have come to the conclusion that what I need to do is to stop second guessing myself and just keep doing what I’ve always done: Look for those new ideas and help our clients present them in fresh and original ways.  Identify new editors and new publishing opportunities.  Just keep moving forward.  To quote myself:  “NEXT!”

What do you do when nothing seems to be working in your world?

11

Making a bestseller

THE WIDOWThere are times, lots of them I think, when a publisher decides to totally get behind a book in order to make it a bestseller.  That happened with a novel, a thriller, published by NAL last February entitled THE WIDOW. Everyone at the publishing house was asked to read the book and start a real buzz about it (when I asked an editor colleague there for a suggestion on what to take with me on my February vacation, she readily recommended this book).

The publisher compared the novel to GONE GIRL and GIRL ON THE TRAIN and everything possible was done in promotion and advertising to put THE WIDOW on the bestsellers list.  And it worked. The book made The New York Times list and remained on it for several weeks.

I read THE WIDOW—though several weeks after my vacation—and I was thoroughly disappointed.  It simply did not live up to the hype it had been given.  I did a survey of those in our company who had also read it and everyone agreed with me.  The book simply didn’t deliver what had been promised—a  page turning psychological thriller. (I even asked my colleague who had recommended the book in the first place what she thought and it turned out that she too was disappointed.)

In May of this year, Berkley, the sister company of NAL published another psychological thriller titled I LET YOU GO. But this one didn’t get the same kind of support in house.  For some reason—though it too was compared to GONE GIRL and GIRL ON THE TRAIN—the powers that be decided not promote it in the same way as they had done for THE WIDOW.

I LET YOU GOI finished I LET YOU GO last week and it is one of the best books I have read in a very long time.  It delivers on all fronts—solid writing, great story telling and characters the reader really roots for.  Again I surveyed my company colleagues who had read the book to see what they thought.  Everyone agreed that this book really delivered.

So my question is why was the decision made to support one of these books and not the other? Why, in the end, did one become a bestseller and the other not?  For those of you who have read both—or who have an opinion on how these decisions are made—I would love to hear your thoughts.

What I’m looking for in fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy, more so than other genres, rely on worldbuilding. And worldbuilding is hard. Novels in this genre don’t just need the usual—good writing with complex characters and compelling plot—but they also need to introduce readers to a believable new world, whether that new world is completely foreign or nearly identical to ours with one or two minor changes. So how can authors accomplish this?

Personally, I find that descriptive imagery goes a long, long way to immersing me in a new world. For example, the opening lines of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World go like this:

“The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air. Scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals which seemed to have attempted to walk before the madness grew quiet.”

There’s a lot to unpack in the those first four sentences, but the main takeaway is this: Jordan doesn’t simply write that the palace had been destroyed, or even that holes in the walls let bars of sunlight in. Instead he paints the reader a picture with strong language and a focus on the smalls details, the little individual pieces that make up the whole. “Rents” and “holes” have two very different connotations, and based on the other word choices and contextual clues, one can reasonably guess that the palace has seen terrible violence recently. Jordan never explicitly says this, but the tone of his writing establishes a certain mood and allows the reader to draw inferences, making him or her an active reader and a willing participant of Jordan’s world.

This excerpt also does a great job demonstrating the old “show don’t tell” adage. Its vivid imagery accomplishes a small measure of worldbuilding by enabling the reader to visualize the world, which is an obvious, yet very crucial, aspect of worldbuilding. If your story takes place on a different planet, I want to be able to imagine what that planet looks like. If your story opens in a palace courtyard, I should be able to see that palace courtyard in my mind’s eye.

None of this should come as groundbreaking, but it has been some time since I’ve been transported to a different world like Jordan’s. And I hope to visit another someday soon. I’d love to hear from our readers. Which worldbuilding techniques do you prefer? Anyone have a favorite author particularly adept at this skill?

0

Taken for granted

Last week, The Wall Street Journal did a story about a publisher taking an award-winning author it had published for years for granted – and what that author did in response.

Several days later, one of my best-selling authors received a marketing plan from her publisher which was a boilerplate document—with nothing in it pointing to a strategy for marketing and selling this author’s newest book in a creative and unique way.  I immediately contacted them and asked that they come back to us with a plan tailor made for this particular book.

Two months ago this same thing happened with another publisher and another one of their best-selling authors.  They presented a publicity plan to us that was filled with things that we had already learned weren’t working as well as rubber stamped ideas.  In that case, my client demanded (and received) a much more creative plan for her latest book, which is now being implemented.

And then there is the publisher who is putting together a small focus group to find out how they, as a publisher can be more effective.  This is one of the best ideas I have heard in a long time and I truly wish everyone would introduce such research into their publishing agendas.  I am willing to bet that they would learn a great deal about how they are perceived and how to improve their publishing practices.

I wonder how you—especially those of you who have been with the same publisher through a number of books—perceive the way your books have been treated over the years. Is each title dealt with uniquely?  Or, have you found yourself being taken for granted?

Pitch, pitch, pitch!

I’ve had pitching on the brain recently in all Its forms. On the baseball side, my son Henry has been obsessed with the fact that the Yankees’ closer Aroldis Chapman can throw over 100 MPH. And I’m dreading the fact that I have to pitch Saturday morning for my son’s little league team, having been a terrible pitcher all my life. Overhand, underhand, I just can’t seem to get the ball consistently over the plate…

But MUCH more relevantly, I ran a workshop at the SCBWI Northern California conference a couple of weeks ago on querying and pitching, and I found the results fascinating. After walking the attendees through the elements of a basic query letter, I asked them to take five minutes to put together an elevator pitch for their work. Immediately, hands went up to remind me that SCBWI does NOT allow unsolicited pitching at their conferences. To which I countered that writing a pitch is an important exercise for writers, because it helps to summarize one’s work and identify the key selling point of a story—plus, if anyone ever asks you what your book is about (which never happens, right?), you’ll have a clear answer ready to go.

So, once I convinced them it was a worthwhile exercise, I shared with them Thrillerfest’s “What if… so what?” method, which I highly recommend as a starting point. Basically, you want a pitch that’s 25 words or less that describes your book as a “what if” question so that it makes the listener respond with a “so what” question, i.e., so what happens next? And I shared a few kid-specific “What if” pitches that I thought would get most listeners to ask “so what?”:

  • What if a cat with a silly hat causes mayhem trying to entertain two kids on a rainy day?—Dr. Seuss, 19 words
  • What if an orphan discovers he’s a wizard and is sent to a secret school for witchcraft?—JK Rowling, 17 words
  • What if a naughty boy sails away to where the wild things are?—Maurice Sendak, 13 words
  • What if a teenager risks her soul to love a vampire boyfriend?—Stephanie Meyer, 12 words

After their five minutes were up, we went around the room sharing what they came up with, and I have to say, I was absolutely blown away—virtually every pitch made the books sound intriguing and well-developed. And for those that didn’t quite get it, they were able to revise on the spot and come up with something more effective.

Now, whether their manuscripts live up to their pitches is another question. But I will say that the queries I’ve received since the conference that lead with their pitches have certainly gotten my attention. So if I may, I highly recommend checking out the Thrillerfest formula and working out a pitch that sings—even if you never use it in public!

And if I can make a final pitch to you, wish me luck pitching on Saturday. Regrettably, I’m going to need it…

3

What’s missing in fiction?

I admit that sometimes I grow frustrated with the seemingly endless homogeneity of submissions. Then I ask myself what it is that I want to see. The easy answer is that I want to see something that hasn’t been done a million and one times before. But are there any underrepresented subjects in fiction?

Well, this was actually the topic of a recent NYTBR “Bookends” piece, and it’s one I’ve been considering for a while because, honestly, not that many come to mind. Sure, it would be nice if fiction had a smidge more joy, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s underrepresented. Novels need conflict after all. Deb’s desire to see fiction about finding a place to live gave me some interesting ideas though.

Where are the novels about the exorbitant cost of high education in America, and the average college student’s struggle to pay off student loan debts while working a low-paying job for which they’re overqualified? Or the ones about aging baby boomers sequestered in nursing homes, forced to adapt to a new way of living? Those novels likely exist already, but not in the same abundance as those about dysfunctional families.

Can our readers come up with some more underrepresented subjects? What would you like to see more of in contemporary fiction?

2

Those conventional publishing rules…are made to be broken

PicMonkey CollageLast week I had lunch with one of my favorite editors and we got to talking about the state of publishing and what was working and what wasn’t.  Somewhere along the line, we began to try to identify all of those “rules” which we were taught about the business—and discovered that in this ever changing world most of them no longer held.

Here are some examples:

Green covers don’t work—and then there was GOOD NIGHT MOON.

Books about dead or abused children won’t sell—now the true crime category is back and books like Hanya Yanagihara’s A LITTLE LIFE have become bestsellers.

Short story collections don’t do well.   And then along comes Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD.

Books about death are a “no no” but what about BEING MORTAL and WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR?

And, finally, we all know that books with unlikeable protagonists definitely don’t work, but what about those in GONE GIRL or Meg Wolitzer’s THE INTERESTINGS?

I guess rules are made to be broken and, I have to say, I am always delighted when those in our industry are.  It makes life so much more interesting.

I wonder whether you have any examples of what you have been told definitely won’t work…until it does.  Let me know.

5

When to put down a book

Some people have to finish every book they start reading. I am not one of those people. There are so many amazing books out there that I want to read that it feels wrong, even irresponsible, to spend time finishing a book that has completely lost my interest.

For instance, if a novel’s written in the first person and I can’t relate to that character, then I’m going to stop reading. If a plot is dragging or meanders without a clear end in sight, I’ll usually put the book down unless I’ve become emotionally invested in the characters. Stories and characters that feel familiar are also begging to be dropped and forgotten. Very rarely will I put a book down because of the writing or an unlikable character. I can power through subpar writing if the story is that good—the kind of good that keeps you up at night and practically forces you to turn the page to find out what happens next. Plus if it’s published, then the writing can’t be that bad…right? And I love unlikeable characters, especially a flawed protagonist, which seems to be a hallmark of good fiction.

A book needs to force me to put it down. It’s not easy, but it happens and I’ve learned to recognize when it’s time to move on. What do our readers think? Do you ever stop reading a book? What makes you stop? And if you’re also a writer, are you aware of the possibility that someone might start and stop reading your work? What impact does this have on your writing?

7

How do you read?

And by that I mean, do you read one book at a time or multiple books at once?

As for myself, I’m always reading at least 3 books at any given time, not counting those for work. It’s a tendency fed by both practicality and whim. When I’m on the go, I’m reading a book on my Kindle or iPhone. When I’m home it’s always print books—I’m curling up on the couch with a nice new hardcover or lying in bed with a paperback before going to sleep. But I also shuffle between books based on mood. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood for nonfiction and would rather read a fun, fast-paced espionage thriller instead of that critically-acclaimed National Book Award nominee.

reading-balancing-gif

Average readers might find the habit odd—I know many of my less literate friends do—but book lovers, more often than not, couldn’t imagine reading any differently. I polled a few coworkers, and all of them responded with the “multiple books at once” answer. Not a fair poll, I’ll give you that, considering we all work in publishing, but I think you’ll find that most serious readers are in the middle of a few books. Which brings me to my next question.

Is this an efficient reading habit? Is it the “right” way to read?

Although several studies have looked at multitasking and its harmful effects on the brain, I’m not sure you can consider reading multiple books as “multitasking.” At least in the sense of rapidly switching attention from one task to another. However, I could also easily see how shuffling between books might decrease reading speed. Regardless, I won’t be changing my reading habits any time soon. Not only is reading multiple books at once both practical and enjoyable, but it’s also rewarding in the sense that sometimes the books play well off one another—whether it be a juxtaposition of different writing styles or books with similar settings or the structure of nonfiction books.

I’d like to hear what our readers think. How do you read? Have you seen a dramatic difference in reading efficiency reading one way over the other? Let us know in the comments!

4

Why it’s sometimes best to work with a collaborator

People often ask me why the need for a collaborator and my answer is very simple—to make the work they are creating better and more saleable. (Here, by the way, I am mainly talking about non-fiction.)

Collaborators—especially those with experience—help the author, especially at the proposal stage, focus their idea and on exactly how they want to organize the message they want their book to deliver.

Collaborators can also bring out aspects of the book that the author hadn’t even considered including.

Collaborators, because they are paid a flat fee or have a percentage of the project, are dedicated to the work of producing both a proposal and a manuscript in an efficient and timely manner.  This is often something the author (especially first time authors) working alone is unable to do.

Finally, the author, if he or she wants to and is interested in writing subsequent books, can learn a great deal from the collaboration and then go on to write their own books down the line.

I would love to know your thoughts on the benefits of using a collaborator, so bring them on.