Category Archives: opinion

2

One-on-ones

Readers, I would love to get your feedback on this one: What do you think is the most productive format for one-on-one meetings at a writer’s conference? I ask, of course, because I attended a conference this past weekend, where I spent most of my time in one-on-one meetings with authors.

Over the years, I’ve done all sorts of configurations: one-on-ones and roundtables; 5-minute slots, 10, 15, and so on; MSS in advance, no prep, 10 pages, and so on again. This time out, the meetings were half an hour, and we were sent 40 pages in advance. And as much as I hate to say it, on the whole I don’t think they were particularly productive.

40 pages is a funny length–much longer than what an author would probably send on submission, yet not really enough to give a full snapshot of a MS–while half an hour is a ton of time to talk. And with that, it seemed like the chattier authors got bogged down in a lot of details and small points, with not enough time to discuss the big picture, while at the same time, the sessions for those who sat back and listened tended to run way short, even with some question time at the end.

So, unfortunately, it was a bit of a frustrating day, and I worry that I didn’t give the authors the help they were looking for. However, the organizers are asking for feedback for next year, so I’d love to hear what works best for you and try to change things up–any thoughts?

1

Write where you know

“Write what you know” is probably the most contested piece of writerly advice out there. Yes, writing what you know gives you authority and a personal approach; no, writing should be about discovery and taking readers to a new place.

So I was intrigued by a profile of the novelist Chris Pavone from yesterday’s Times , which highlights how his new thriller is set in the publishing world, a world that, according to the article, is a rare setting for a novel, especially a thriller, because it’s “too cerebral, too dominated by meetings, too absorbed by reading manuscripts and filling out profit-and-loss reports to make riveting fiction.”

Now, Pavone’s justification for such an ostensibly boring setting is that, “Any setting can be a good setting for a novel.” But in reality, it’s a classic case of write what you know, since Pavone served as a longtime nonfiction editor at Clarkson Potter. And not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that–clearly Pavone’s book focuses on the classic thriller tropes of action and suspense, rather than the drudgery of acquisition paperwork!

But it did get me wondering about setting in general, and whether it’s more constructive to place a story in a world with which you’re deeply familiar, or whether an exotic locale or industry is more helpful, especially for thrillers, as the article suggests. Personally, I’m not really sure–I’m usually drawn to thrillers that avoid NYC or DC as a home base, but then again, so many thrillers set abroad follow the same old trajectory of a former agent in exile forced back into action.

Where do you fall on the divide? Set the book in a world you know, or a world you don’t? And how does familiarity with the setting (or lack thereof) inform your plot?

3

Amazon bucket list

Okay, it’s not exactly Amazon’s bucket list– that would probably involve gathering every shred of your personal info while putting every indie bookstore out to pasture… But seriously, folks, Amazon just put out a list of 100 books to read in a lifetime, or as they put it, “a bucket list of books to create a well-read life.” I know we see lists like this all the time, but given that this one comes from a retailer, and the dominant one at that, I thought it was worth taking a closer look.

Right off the bat, it’s really striking how contemporary the majority of the titles are–like, now contemporary, not just the last 50 years. Usually, lists like this are super-heavy on the classics and completely ignore current non-fiction, of which there are commendably a healthy number of entries here. On the other hand, a “well-read life” used to mean a whole lot of philosophy, particularly the Greeks. I know Plato isn’t as fun as Me Talk Pretty One Day, but I’d like to think the Republic is a bit more instructive…

Similarly,  as much as I enjoyed them, are Henrietta Lacks and Unbroken essential for a well-read life? Or, to be cynical, is the Amazon algorithm at work, in that contemporary titles sell more than classics? In that vein, I’d love to give them kudos for presenting a good number of picture books, MG and YA on equal footing with the grown-up books… but again, is that a statement of purpose or a sales ploy?

 Anyway, I’d love to hear what you think of Amazon’s list–is it a legitimate syllabus or a clever gimmick? Maybe both? Which omissions particularly get your goat? Discuss, discuss…

19

Tweet, tweet

I joined Twitter a few years back, because I realized that despite my aversion to it, it’s a really useful tool for keeping up on publishing.  From being more in tune with what the industry is talking about and where it’s headed to the stronger relationships with colleagues and clients, it’s proven to be the right choice, however much time I might waste trying to condense my overly verbose thoughts into 140 characters.  I don’t think it’s for everyone, but it’s for far more people than I realized, including me.

Still, I find myself wondering what’s really effective in using the platform for networking and promotion.  How do you maintain a balance between participating in the conversation and drowning others out?  How many tweets is too many tweets?  How few is like not being on it at all?  How much honesty do you allow yourself?  Does diplomacy rule your choices, or is Twitter a place for your unvarnished opinions?

And how do you promote yourself without turning people off?  I’d say Twitter markedly skews my perception of success toward people who are wildly good at self-promotion, even though certain strategies drive me up a wall.  Even the strategies I hate sometimes work on me.

So the question is: what works for you?  Let’s assume that as a person who is reading a literary agency blog you’re not averse to the notion of marketing in general.  Have you ever bought a book because of Twitter or learned about an author that way?  Do you follow the authors you are fans of?  Do you use Twitter primarily as a tool in your platform or primarily as a vehicle for socializing?  Do you primarily hope to reach readers or to network with authors?  And what really turns you off?  What Twitter “sins” make you unfollow?

Update:  Whoops!  I somehow managed not to tag this at all, so here I was wondering why no one had an opinion on Twitter, but actually I just wasn’t getting notifications because WordPress didn’t know I wrote it.  Thanks everyone for your feedback!

1

When it’s okay to use bad grammar

When shuffling through query letters, bad grammar is often a loud warning bell. Literary agents tend to be wary when reading material from the prospective, unpublished author. Nothing will make an agent drop a query into the reject pile faster than poor grammar.

However, incorrect grammar can often be utilized as a literary style. Nearly every accomplished author does so—to one degree or another. Sentence fragments. Abbreviated words. Missing punctuation. Misspelled words and incomplete sentences. Literature is abundant with poor grammar.

So, how then can you determine when to ignore all those rules drilled into you by your elementary school teachers?

What is your writing for? Writing is purposeful. You don’t pick up a pen and commit words to paper accidentally. Is this a blog? An academic piece? A query letter? A creative piece? Resume? Knowing your audience is a time-tested lesson in writing, so for formal prose, always go the safe route and edit your piece to perfection to ensure perfect, “proper” grammar.

On the other hand, for creative pieces, bad grammar can help the author illustrate his or her point. The form your writing takes should match its tone.

Cormac McCarthy is known for his stark, bare prose and his distaste for commas and other forms of punctuation, such as the quotation mark. His writing not only complements the often-bleak tone of his work, but also adheres to a simplistic style for the sake of clarity and rhythm. He believes that punctuation can often disrupt the flow of a sentence and is usually superfluous.

Hope this was enlightening. I encourage those interested to read more on the topic. Here are some semi-related links to check out on the topic of grammar:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/09/a-matter-of-fashion/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/effectivefrag.htm

http://andthatswhyyouresingle.com/2013/03/12/does-bad-grammar-punctuation-turn-you-off/

0

Remembering Pete (the author)

As I’m sure you’ve seen by now, the great folksinger Pete Seeger passed away Monday night at the ripe old age of 94. Like a lot of kids with liberal-minded parents, I grew up with Pete’s music,  and I still vaguely remember him dancing across the stage at Symphony Space at one of his children’s concerts. Later on in college, I got to know more about his achievements, especially his work with the Clearwater Sloop and their annual festival in the Hudson Valley.

But then, I also had the privilege and pleasure of working with Pete as his editor on several of his picture books. And while the appreciations and obituaries today have rightly focused on his music and his activism, I just wanted to point out that Pete had quite a prolific career as a writer, too–his bibliography lists over 30 titles, from picture books to autobiographies to instruction manuals. And several of them, like Abiyoyo and How to Play the Five-String Banjo are classics in their own right.

And what was so fascinating about working with Pete was that Pete the Author was often at odds with Pete the Folksinger. In other words, while Pete clearly loved books and the written word, he struggled to reconcile the idea of a book as a finite project with the ever-evolving folk process. In other words, he couldn’t stop tinkering!

Thinking about it now, it’s a shame that the e-book revolution came just a little too late for Pete–I think he would have loved the idea that he could publish a piece of writing but continue to update it. Or better yet, to get other writers involved in a story through Wattpad or other crowd-sourcing websites. Ironic that the folk process could be furthered by this strain of technology…

Anyway, musings aside, I hope that if you’re thinking about Pete that in addition to listening to his music, you’ll look up some of his books as well–and if you don’t, Abiyoyo might come down from the hills and getcha!

0

“Why are librarians so lonely?”

“They’re always by them shelves…”

Sorry about that. I thought I’d start this blog off with a little joke to break the ice, because what I’m about to write is a little nerdy—and to be honest, I’m a little nervous.

I love libraries.

Some people can read anywhere. In the subway. Walking down the street. Even at the gym while taking a stroll on the treadmill. I can’t. Or to be more accurate, I can—I just prefer not to.

Reading can be a powerful thing. Stories have the ability to transport us to a different place, a different time, allow us to experience life through the eyes of another and make us see the world in a whole new way.

And where we read has an impact as well. The world around us influences everything we experience, and in some of the more beautiful libraries, surrounded by rich mahogany and windows that let the sunlight of the world beyond slip through, in that quiet stillness, we are at peace and can truly absorb the words on the page in front of us.

Here are some snapshots of that type of elegant serenity I’m talking about:

 

 

 

Some more of the world’s most beautiful libraries: http://www.lovethiscitytv.com/top-10-most-amazing-libraries-in-the-world/

 

Oh, and on a lighter note, some more jokes for your reading pleasure: 

“Want to hear a joke about a library?”

“Sur-”

“SHHHH!”

 

“Why did the librarian slip and fall?”

“Because she was in the non-friction section.”

 

So, I was working in a library and this guy comes up to me and asks, “Do you have a bookmark?”

I said, “Yes, we have hundreds…but my name’s Mike.”

4

Literary letdowns

I’ve recently heard from some friends who have been disappointed with critically-acclaimed, wildly popular books. In some cases, I’ve recommended the book on the wrong end of a vicious verbal barrage. Imagine this:

 

 

 

 

 

Toss in a few more obscenities for good measure and now you get what I’ve been dealing with recently. First it’s THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen. Next, it’s INFINITE JEST. Even a couple of my most memorable childhood books have been slandered during this, the merriest time of year. If one more person puts down ENDER’S GAME or HATCHET

At first I thought my friends were being a little too harsh. They couldn’t see any of the, ahem, silver linings, in the aforementioned books. Then I thought back to those times I too had experienced that hollow feeling that follows the breaking of high expectations. We’ve all been there. Every one of us has cracked open a book hoping to turn that last page, clap the back cover closed, and look up to a new world with a fresh perspective.

It rarely happens. And we’re let down. Now’s the time to share. Let’s get all of the whining out the way right now and enjoy the rest of the holiday season. What books didn’t live up to your expectations?

0

Best time of year

Keeping up the holiday cheer and general positivity that has crept into our blog lately, I figured it’s time to bring up the Best Books of 2013. It seems like almost all of the lists are in (here’s a handy little Google search for most of the notable players). Lots of crossover and consensus among them, but when it comes to comprehensiveness, I’ve got to hand it to the Times. At least on the fiction side, it seems like they cited just about every novel that got significant ink this year.

So… whatcha think? Everyone out there love THE GOLDFINCH and THE GOOD LORD BIRD as much as the list-makers? What are YOUR best books for 2013?

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Best part of the holiday season

It’s Thanksgiving already. And it’s certainly cold enough to be winter. There’s no denying it: holiday season is upon us!


Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The holidays mean different things to different people, and I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you what I love the most about the season of giving.

Yep, it’s not the Thanksgiving turkey or the piles of gifts or even the general merry cheer that permeates the air, but the opportunity to relax and read a book. In fact, reading is how I bond with my family: my nose in a book and completely shut down from everything around me. They talk, I don’t listen. Call it a family tradition. And don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but the holidays are when it’s my time to get some serious reading done. In fact, I’ve read some of my favorite books by the Christmas tree.

 

So, that’s enough about me. What do you guys enjoy the most about the holidays? Oh, and by the way, not everyone loves Thanksgiving.