Category Archives: writing


The Tempest in a tempest

Last night I attended the Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest – well, part of it at least.

In case you aren’t familiar with Shakespeare in the Park, it’s one of the most amazing things about New York City. Every summer since 1954, The Public Theater presents two productions of Shakespeare in an open-air theater in the middle of Central Park, with tickets free by lottery or by waiting in line. I was lucky enough to get a pair of tickets in yesterday’s lottery – I’m guessing the entry pool was slim thanks to all-day rain and temps in the 50s. But I was not scared off! In fact, I thought it would be a lot of fun to see The Tempest in the midst of an actual tempest, and I was not wrong. Thanks to a hasty purchase of trusty emergency ponchos and a cozy blanket, my friend and I were ready to brave the elements and hoped the actors were as well.


And they were! For at least the first act. And what a first act it was! The play opens with a fearsome shipwreck scene, and the scenery and special effects would no doubt have been impressive in any conditions; experiencing it with nature contributing her own genuine rain and blustery winds made Shakespeare’s gorgeous lines, and the fine work of the hardy actors, truly exceptional. It was a show to remember even though they decided to close the performance after the first act. (I was soaked and shivering, though intellectually elated, so it wasn’t a complete disappointment.)


And it got me thinking about the way the weather influences fiction, for readers and maybe for writers as well! This weekend I was reading Neal Stephenson’s excellent Seveneves and thunder boomed outside just as I read an account of the moon exploding into pieces – quite a startling moment! On the other hand, fiction can be escapism – read a beachy book on a frigid winter day, or vice versa, to forget the miserable weather report.

I wonder if the same goes for writers as they create the fiction we love to readDo they have to work a little harder on a blizzard scene if they’re writing on a gorgeous spring day? Or can the creative imagination do its thing regardless of what’s going on outside the window?

What do you think? Do you match your book to the weather, or the opposite? Do you find the weather creeping onto the page when you write? 


Lessons from the romance industry

A few weeks ago, the wonderful people at Long Island Romance Writers asked me to speak at their annual luncheon. What follows is the speech I gave at that event:

In the summer of 1999, I had completed my freshman year of college and realized that the money I had saved up throughout high school to spend in college was all gone. I knew that what I made working at the mall Record Town for three months wasn’t going to keep me going through another year, so I made the obvious choice: I sat down in front of my school’s career database and applied for 40 part-time jobs. I was not careful about my choices. I had two criteria: they paid at least minimum wage and they were at least relatively easy to get to from my dorm.

The next day, I received a message that I had missed a call from Stacey Glick at what was then Jane Dystel Literary Management. At this time in my life, I was so scared of speaking to strangers that I would write down scripts of possible sentences I could use on the phone. “Hello, this is Jim McCarthy,” I wrote down. In case I forgot?

Within 24 hours, I had been interviewed, offered the job, and accepted. Knowing how awkward I was at the time, I can only think that there was a dearth of viable candidates. Here’s what I knew on my first day at a literary agency: Nothing. I knew nothing. I didn’t know what an agent was or what they did. I DID know that Judge Judy was on the client list. This was enough for me to feel preeeeeeetty fancy.

I interned off and on for a few years. I quit three times because I thought I needed to go get internships that would help me in my future career. Considering I majored in Architectural History and minored in Dramatic Literature and Women’s Studies, I welcome you all to imagine what that alternate career might have been.

The day I graduated from college, someone quit the agency. Miriam Goderich sat me down and said, “Listen, we’ll give you a job, but if you quit one more time, you can never come back.”

When I started to sign on my own clients in 2003, I didn’t really know what I would be looking for. I always heard how hard fiction was to sell, but I also knew that it was what I loved to read. My favorite authors through high school had been Stephen King and Jackie Collins. I wanted to read about what would happen if Lucky Santangelo had to visit Salem’s Lot. Conveniently for me, paranormal romance was beginning to break out. I hitched my wagon to that train and was off and running.

In the 12 years since I signed my first client, a lot of things have changed, and a lot of trends have come and gone. I represented chick lit until its ignoble death. I was selling vampire novels when they were the only things people wanted. I was selling vampire novels when they were the only thing NO ONE wanted. (On a side note, I asked Miriam Goderich to edit this speech for me, and she included this comment here: “This is the place to mention my philosophy that vampires and Elvis will always sell.”)

I’ve been told that the market for contemporary romance is dead. I’ve been told that the market for contemporary romance is super vibrant and then watched it become all that anyone seemed to buy for six months until lists were declared over-saturated with…contemporary romance.

I’ve witnessed the rise and fall and rise of self-publishing. I saw authors who struggled for years become millionaires. I saw bestselling authors whose sales slowed to a trickle.

I’ve had phone calls where I was told that novels with black protagonists are too hard to sell into the market. I’ve seen the WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign start to make a wonderful difference.

I’ve heard the romance industry derided for being the silly, frilly, fluffy stepsister of publishing. I’ve…okay, actually that still happens, and you know what? Screw ‘em. Romance is a $1.4 BILLION dollar a year industry that makes up a larger market share than any other genre by a large margin.

The romance market has the savviest readers and the most well-connected author community. All of the greatest innovations in the ebook market began with romance authors and readers. And in no other category have I seen authors band together to demand improvements in contracts, control over their careers, or more transparency throughout the industry. And in no other section of the publishing arena have I found writers more willing to support their colleagues’ efforts. I’ve seen friendships build out of initial meetings at RT or RWA that have lasted for years, brought about collaboration, and led to mutual marketing assistance or sometimes just to lending a supportive ear when the business gets tough.

Because this business does get TOUGH. As much as things have changed in my decade and a half in publishing, that has been consistent. I recently saw a well-published author compare writing to trying to build a castle on quicksand. And I understood where she was coming from—there are so many unknowables out there, and one of the most defining characteristics I’ve seen in authors over the past 15 years is that no one ever feels secure. Bestsellers worry that their next book will be the one to tank. Midlist authors convince themselves that if they haven’t broken out yet, their time will never come. And debut authors worry that they will never be good enough to have people want to spend money to read their books.

I’m sure there are SOME authors who feel secure, but I mean…even J.K. Rowling published under a pseudonym so that she didn’t have to deal with the weight of expectations that would be placed on her next book.

That may all sound very negative. But here’s the thing about the author who tweeted about the quicksand: she’s still writing. Passionately. She hasn’t given up. And while I haven’t spoken to her about this particular issue, I’ve heard from a lot of people in similar situations that there’s one reason they never stop: they can’t. Tough as this business gets, the rewards are simply too sweet.

Whether you have to wake up at four in the morning to find some alone time to work on your writing or the responses to a submission make you feel like pounding your head against a wall, there comes a moment—when you get your first deal or receive your first fan letter, when your printed book arrives in the mail or you get that first check for earnings—there comes a time when you know that the words you passionately committed to paper are being read by strangers out there in the wild. There is someone out there who has read your work and been moved or excited, entertained or titillated. Someone out there had a unique experience because of something you alone have done.

I don’t write. I’ve never thought for a second that I have the talent or the discipline to do so. Hell, I joked about how I would stretch this speech out with sections of interpretive dance if I couldn’t come up with enough words to fill the time. (You all better hope I can fill the time because I cannot dance). But when I watch these moments of joy and of discovery, I do get jealous of my clients. I’m thrilled for my own small part of the process, but knowing that feeling of someone else lighting up over your written creation? There’s something magical there.

No one has ever taken up writing because it is easy. No one sits down at their computer and thinks, “I need some cash. Why don’t I just write a novel?” Or if they do, they are crazy people. No. I would venture to guess that all of you started writing because of a need. A need to express yourself. A need to get the stories in your head onto paper. A need to share some piece of your inner world with other people.

So whenever the business becomes tough, as we have determined that it will? Remember that. Remember you have already done something extraordinary and that whatever bad thing is happening at the moment (rejection, disappointing sales, rights reverting, rights not reverting)…it is a road block. It is one of the inevitable frustrations that comes from being brave and bold enough to be chasing your dreams.

The past few years have seen a lot of turmoil throughout the publishing industry. Two of the biggest publishers in the world merged. The percentage of books acquired electronically sky-rocketed. The number of authors finding a way to succeed outside of the traditional path went from zero to…like…a lot. (I don’t have exact figures. But seriously, it’s a lot). So when I’m asked a question like, “What has changed since you became an agent?” my answer is a forceful waffling. Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.

In the Nothing Has Changed column, you can argue that just as many people as ever are writing, there haven’t been enormous gains in the numbers of readers, so one basic tenet of the entire industry has stayed exactly the same. We (the royal we: authors, agents, editors, booksellers, the corporate drones at Amazon) are all trying to figure out how to get the most product by writers into the hands of the most readers. Author writes. Someone sells. People read. Who the someone selling is has more variations now, but it’s still a pretty straight line.

In the Everything Has Changed column, you can dump every piece of technology that has come up in the years since I started: iPads, Kindles, nooks… You can dump in various tech initiatives: Oyster, Kindle Worlds, Smashwords… You can pick trends that have taken the industry by storm whether they are super fun and encourage creativity like fan fiction or they were desperate attempts people glommed onto to seem relevant in a new technological age (…).

So when I try to balance these columns and decide whether much has actually changed in a real way, I arrive at this: for all intents and purposes, the system is very much the same with one crucial difference: authors are more empowered than they ever have been before.

THAT is the gift of the self-publishing boom. Over the past few years, romance authors have led the way in taking a degree of control over their careers that many others would never have even imagined. Authors who had robust backlists and were sick of being told that no one wants a reprint? They made their books accessible and sold tens of thousands of copies. Others who were told they had product that simply wasn’t marketable to any real audience? They tossed off rejection and went on to sell hundreds of thousands of books on their own.

And so publishing divided into maybe three camps: those who believed self-publishing was a threat to the status quo and would destroy the business, those who believed self-published books were trash and not worth their time since all of those authors would burn out quickly, and those that believed that all innovation was good for not only publishing as an industry, but for the future of the written word. Obviously, I am Team Trash: self-published authors will all burn out and things will go back to the better ways of before.

I kid! I once did a panel with an unnamed agent who WAS in that category. We stood in front of a room of 40-50 published authors, some of whom had moved parts of their lists to self-publishing. To them, this agent said something like, “I represent superstars. I don’t need you. There is better to be had.” Now, I am a generally a very relaxed person. But suffice it to say, things went…somewhat poorly. And while the red hot rage I was feeling blurred a lot of my memories of what happened, I do know for sure that at the end of the panel, I was holding all four microphones that had been on stage in the hopes that no one else would speak. I think I only succeeded in making people shout to be heard. It was…delightful.

Sorry for that tangent! Meanwhile, as you might expect, I am actually very much a believer that all innovation is for the better, and the fact that authors have become able to take more control over their careers is a wonderful thing. I do believe in the future of traditional publishing. I think there will always be authors who are best supported by having an agent, an editor, a publisher, and so on. There are enough potentially wonderful things built into the system that at its best, it is irreplaceable.

I also don’t believe that independent publishing will go anywhere. There will always be authors whose work is either misunderstood or belongs in a market that publishers don’t know how to reach. It is invaluable to be able to reach audiences without having to go through the admittedly cloistered publishing community.

I’ve felt the changes most when I’ve been at writers’ conferences. Five year ago, if I was at a conference, you could feel an odd sort of deference to agents and editors. There was that sense of, “Oh my God, there are so few of them, and they determine whether I have a future at this thing that I love.” I’d get the question, “Do I really need a literary agent?” and my answer was always yes. Now I walk into conferences, and I’m not scared to wear my Agent name badge. People still want to talk to me, but I don’t get pitched at urinals. No one breaks into agents’ hotel rooms to leave manuscripts on their pillows anymore (yes, those things really happened). It’s because there is an alternative, and that is such a good thing.

Do I believe that agents are incredibly helpful to authors? Of course I do. I don’t know if I could handle going to work every day if I didn’t believe that. But there is something both challenging and delightful about knowing that whereas clients may formerly have felt like they needed to clutch on for dear life, we all are that much more aware now that we have to be great at our jobs or else people will leave us. I don’t know if it’s masochism or misplaced enthusiasm, but I find that incredibly exhilarating.

As someone whose job description is Author’s Advocate, I have to be happy that those authors are becoming more empowered, increasingly pro-active, and better informed by the day. That happens right here in rooms like this and with authors like you, and I thank the romance community for supporting each other, for keeping us honest, and for keeping us on our toes. We are all the better for it.

I want to tell two quick stories of authors I represent who to me stand out for their incredible strength.

Victoria Laurie was the second or third client I ever signed on. We’ve done more than 30 books together across multiple series—adult, YA, and middle grade. She first queried with the book ABBY COOPER, PSYCHIC EYE, a novel about a psychic intuitive who accidentally gets involved in a murder investigation. I rejected that book. I sent Victoria a letter saying that I loved the main character and thought her voice was incredible. The book, though, didn’t know whether it was a mystery or a romance, so the pacing was wonky, and it didn’t hold together. I said I’d be open to considering future work. Victoria wrote back the next day and told me that it was the nicest letter she had ever received. I momentarily panicked and thought she somehow missed the part where I rejected her. But she hadn’t. Six days later, she sent me a revised novel. I rolled my eyes because I thought there was no way she could have done the necessary work in six days. Long story short? I sold the book about a month after that, and it became the first in a series that continues to this day. What I discovered after we agreed to work together? I was the 114th agent that Victoria had queried. One hundred and fourteen. I don’t think I’m strong enough to be rejected 112 times and keep going. But I’m so glad that Victoria did. I adore her. I adore her books. And she even modeled a character in one of her series after me. I’ll never tell which one.

And then there’s Michelle Rowen. I sold Michelle’s first novel BITTEN & SMITTEN very easily. It went on to very solid sales and the publisher bought more and more books by her. Then her editor left. Sales stopped being what they once were. And we had to move publishers with her. Again and again. And again. It was a tough road. I remember sitting with Michelle at a Romantic Times convention several years ago, as she said that there were times she wanted to give up because it was hard and it was frustrating, and sometimes she didn’t know if she had the strength to keep going. And I remember telling her that it would kill me if she stopped because she was too talented to give up. She kept going. Not because I asked her to, but because she was always strong enough to keep going, even if she had doubts. Michelle wrote the novel FALLING KINGDOMS under the name Morgan Rhodes. It was her 25th book. It was her first New York Times bestseller. I’ve had other bestsellers. This is the only one that I cried over. Because the road was so long and so hard, Michelle’s persistence was all the more inspiring, and her success was all the sweeter.

I share those stories because to me, they’re the best to hear at the beginning of a career. Publishing can seem so impenetrable and impossible. And it can, truly, be incredibly difficult. Everyone needs to know that. But everyone should also know that even when it isn’t working out, it still can. Your greatest asset is your writing. But almost equal to that? Your endurance, your fortitude, your belief in yourself. Ignore the overnight successes. You only hear so much about them because they’re so rare. Go into publishing with your game face on—prepared to fight for your shot and open to enjoying the good news along the way, even when the road is bumpy.

On June 10th, it will have been 13 years since I went full time at Dystel & Goderich. Since then I’ve sold over 300 books by more than 45 authors. It has been an incredible experience. Or a series of incredible experiences, depending on how you look at it. I’ve watched publishing change from the inside for long time, but this remains the same: Being an author is one of the world’s hardest dream careers. But when it works out (and it very often does), nothing could be sweeter.


My love affair with Ann Patchett

I think Ann Patchett is amazing on so many levels. She’s so uniquely talented, is incredibly prolific, and writes nonfiction as well as fiction. I loved her beautiful tribute to Lucy Grealy, Truth & Beauty, as much as her wonderful novels like Bel Canto and State of Wonder.  And I’m a bit biased at the moment because she recently made a large donation to my small town library, which I talked about recently on this blog.

I was pleased to find an article on writing based on her book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, for that offers such interesting and lovely advice for writers from one of the masters of her craft. In it she talks about how writing nonfiction for her has been easy, while writing fiction has always been more challenging. She talks about the importance of learning to forgive yourself in creating art, which she feels is critical. She uses metaphors that resonate, even if they initially feel a stretch of the imagination.  Why do writers so often feel they can send early work to The New Yorker when musicians would never think they could play at Carnegie Hall after just a month of practice!

Words of wisdom here from a magnificent and gifted writer who not only writes beautiful books, but is so open to sharing her knowledge and skills with other writers. She’s a true gift. Enjoy!



As devoted DGLM readers know, we run an in-house book club here to broaden our horizons and keep abreast of categories we might not otherwise investigate. This month, we’re doing thrillers, and while I enjoyed my book—fast-paced, good characters, lots of practical information—ultimately it bugged me because the central premise was totally unbelievable. While there’s eventually a plot-twist that tries to explain away the implausibility of the concept, it doesn’t pass the smell test.

Yet without naming names, the book came from a Big Six house, edited by a top editor, and was the author’s tenth novel. It came armed with tons of blurbs from major authors, and I could find only one review that took issue with the premise. To which I say… really? But while I sit here feeling like I’m taking crazy pills with Mugatu from ZOOLANDER, the book did make me think about plausibility in general.

I’m sure plausibility is a question  for all writers, but especially ones who write in plot-heavy genres like thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, kids books, etc. It’s hard enough to come up with inventive plots, character and voice, yet do it in a way that readers will buy–even if your story is about, say, zombie kittens from Mars. So if you’re wrestling with plausibility issues, check out this essay from Steve Almond in Writer’s Digest, which ably dissects the various plausibility traps writers often fall into (I’d say the premise of my Book Club book falls under the Factual/Logistical umbrella). Or, for an elegant summation of how to think about plausibility, it’s hard to beat this letter from Ursula K. LeGuin.

How many of you have run into problems with plausibility? And how have you found your way out of the traps?


Stealing Horses at Grub Street

I’m writing on the train home from Boston, where I spent three days at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference.  It was a whirlwind of activities, pitch sessions and manuscript critiques. In addition to meeting a host of promising new writers, I was happy to be able to attend a couple of panel discussions.   I sat in on a workshop taught by two of my Boston-based clients, Adam Stumacher (whose short story “Subject, Object ,Verb” was just named a finalist by Narrative Magazine)  and Qais Akbar Omar, whose memoir A Fort Of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story, was published by FSG. Together, they tackled the important but thorny marriage of “politics and prose,” looking at how writers can effectively grapple with political themes in their work.  Adam, who teaches writing at Grub Street, and Qais, who has an MFA from BU but is a storyteller of the Afghan tradition (he’s a definite outlier in the MFA versus NYC debate) came at the subject quite differently, but in complementary ways.

Through readings of their own work, as well as selections from writers like Isaac Babel and Anton Chekhov, Stumacher and Omar reminded the audience that the job of the writer is to render accurately, to tell a story without judgement—and to resist the urge to proselytize.  Here’s Chekhov, in a celebrated and often quoted letter:  “When I depict horse thieves, you want me to say that stealing horses is wrong. But surely this has long been known without me saying so. Let the jury condemn them, but it is my job simply to show them as they are.”

Because I am interested in projects that engage global issues, I often get query letters for works of fiction that promise to draw attention to the plight of a worthy and under-represented story.  Much as I may agree with the writer’s impulse, I am invariably suspicious of the means they employ. Too often the political novel features characters that are simply mouthpieces, sock puppets rehearsing the views of their creators, or straw men waiting to be knocked down.  I’m all for the novel (and memoir)  of ideas, but only when it doesn’t  lean so heavily on a theme that the story is lost.  Like most readers, I don’t like being told what to think.  Instead, I want to see the situation clearly and formulate my own emotional and intellectual response.

What authors do you think do this particularly well?


Beware of Homophones


Faithful readers of this blog know that I am a bit of a stickler when it comes to grammar/spelling errors in a query. Some agents don’t mind but it’s a big distraction for me. And one of the mistakes I see most often is the dreaded homophone! (a delightful, enthralling website if you ask me) defines its namesake as “words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of how they are spelled.”

I think a lot of homophones sneak into queries, manuscripts, and even occasionally (gasp) printed books because spellcheck cannot catch them. So it’s up to you to be alert! Today’s blog post is devoted to raising awareness of a few of the most tricky homophone errors…because the first step in getting help is realizing you have a problem.

Discrete ≠ discreet

Is your character very good at handling a scandalous piece of info? She is discreet!
Is your character an individual unlike anyone else in all of fiction? He is discrete!

Faze ≠ phase

If your protagonist is handles an unexpected event with aplomb, it did not faze him. He is unfazed!
If your protagonist is planning each step of an espionage investigation, she is in charge of every phase. Phase Two: TOP SECRET.

Peak ≠ pique ≠ peek

Did you just reach the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro? You peaked!
Did you read a teaser from your new manuscript that left everyone on the edge of their seats? You piqued their interest!
Did you sneak into your mom’s closet where she always hides the holiday gifts? You peeked!

I’m sure anyone who reads this blog is past master of the dreaded to/two/too pitfall, or the slightly more challenging they’re/there/their trilogy. What homophone mistakes always trip you up? 



The Thing and the Other Thing

In college I had a workshop with the writer Tony Earley, who taught us a theory of putting together an effective short story that I have never forgotten. I’m going to spend a bit of time discussing it today, because it’s fun and it might help you if you’re stuck in your writing.

Your story needs two pieces: 1. The Thing 2. The Other Thing.

To explain how it works, I’m going to just shamelessly paraphrase what Mr. Earley explained, because the details have stuck with me for almost ten years (accurately, I hope!).

Mr. Earley read to us a short story he had recently written, and explained its background: He had been fascinated by Bigfoot believers for years, and wanted to write about them – the Thing – but the story had never quite worked when he sat down to write it. Then, he read a news article about the FBI pursuing a suspect into the woods around his home in North Carolina, and realized that could be the missing piece of his story – the Other Thing. And boom. The Cryptozoologist was ready to be a story.

While Mr. Earley was focused on short fiction, I’ve found the theory of the Thing and the Other Thing applies to full-length fiction and even memoir, as well as short stories – it helps me analyze the bones of a plot when I’m when I’m assessing queries or responding to a client’s story concept. Let’s look for this concept in a few other books so that you can really get a handle on how this works.  

Twilight by Stephanie Meyers Thing: Girl goes to a new school and falls in love (yawn) Other Thing: with a vampire in disguise.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt Thing: Boy’s mother dies in a museum bombing and he struggles to find meaning in the rest of his life (yawn) Other Thing: while keeping hidden the painting he stole from that museum.

WILD by Cheryl Strayed Thing: Woman is grieving mother’s premature death while trying to move on from a lifetime of self-destructive behavior (like a thousand other grief memoirs) Other Thing: and hikes Pacific Crest Trail with no experience and little preparation.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin Thing: Middle-aged widower running a small bookstore (ok, so what?) Other Thing adopts a baby girl abandoned in the store.

Now, I’m not claiming that no book ever could manage to organize itself without clear, identifiable Thing and Other Thing at all. (Bonus points for whoever can pull out the GONE GIRL T. and O.T. in the comments.) But the main idea holds up, and can even help you organize more complex projects.

Maybe you have multiple story lines, and they all have their own Other Thing, so sharing the same Thing unifies the book.  Or maybe your story jumps from era to era and each has the same Thing and Other Thing but in different form for each time and place (David Mitchell, I’m looking at you.)  And there might be a couple Secondary Things. For example, in the Donna Tartt example above, STs are that Theo’s father dies, that his best friend is a drug dealer, that he goes to live with an antiques seller and ends up embezzling from him…but none of those pieces can hang with each other without being pinned to both T. and O.T., right? (Not to mention that we can’t all be Donna Tartt.)

This is probably the longest post in the history of the DGLM blog, so I’ll cut to the takeaway: If you have an amazing idea that just isn’t working, put it in a Thing folder. And wait for its perfect Other Thing to come to you. (And then send it to me!)


Tips from writers, for writers

Stephen King’s  short story, “A Death,” was this week’s fiction in the New Yorker, so naturally I started thinking about how I still have to get around to reading 11/22/63 and ON WRITING. Then I started thinking about how a lot of writers seem to enjoy giving advice about writing. But is any of it any good? The answer is yes: Yes, writing tips from established writers can be very, very good.

Here’s some of the best advice I’ve come across:

99% of great writers will tell you that their first drafts are rambling, incoherent pieces of s!@*. The other 1% are lying. (Full disclosure: I haven’t finished crunching all the numbers yet, so I’m ballparking here.) Editing and rewriting are such vital components to crafting a story, but first you need to put your ideas down on paper. You can’t shape what’s not there. If you haven’t read Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, do so. Now. It will revolutionize your writing process.

John McPhee’s “The Writing Life” column in the New Yorker is a goldmine of wisdom. His tips on how to develop the structure of a story are particularly helpful. Few writers place such importance on structure as McPhee. Few writers have also had as prolific a career.

You ever hear of this guy Ernest Hemingway? I hear he’s good. He was also a proponent of simple, direct prose. Cut out all ornamentation. If a word isn’t necessary, lose it. He also said that writers should never describe an emotion—they should present the situation/action in a way that evokes the emotion in readers. This is  difficult to perfect, but it’s something all writers should strive to do.

What are your favorite tips from writers? Let us know in the comments.


No more “boy books”

When I first started agenting, I naturally put out a call for submissions. Through my bio and personal essay on this site, and through interviews and postings on other sites and in print, I told anyone who would listen that I was looking for “boy books,” or that I was known as a “boy book” kind of guy. At the time, it seemed to make sense based on much of what I’d edited at Penguin, and also as a way to differentiate myself from my colleagues here at DGLM. And it worked, in that I quickly built up a client list, most of whom were male and writing about male characters in their fiction.

However, over time, I started to chafe at my self-assigned “boy book” label. For one, I realized that while I might gravitate toward what’s considered “boy book” territory, especially in nonfiction, my personal reading is chock full of books that might be called “girl books”—most YA, for example, as well as some popular fiction and even nonfiction. (I loved WILD, after all.) Moreover, one of my proudest achievements as an editor was working on Padma Venkatraman’s CLIMBING THE STAIRS, which would certainly get labeled a “girl book”—in other words, I had a track record working on “girl books,” so why give that up as an agent? Plus, I discovered that I was limiting the kinds of submissions I was getting, quite severely at times, which is certainly problematic for my bottom line.

So, last year I revamped my bio and essay and took out the “boy book” designation. But while I had practical reasons for trying to shy away from the “boy book” label, I never really thought about it in political or moral terms. So it was pretty staggering to read this recent blog post by bestelling author Shannon Hale, and how “boy/girl” labeling has affected her school visits. On first glance, it seems ludicrous that school administers would only excuse girls from class to hear her talk, yet I can understand the thinking: “Well, her books feature girl protagonists, and we know boys won’t read those kind of books, so why should they skip class for a talk where we know they’ll be bored and won’t learn anything?”

Now, while I can understand the thinking, that doesn’t mean it’s right. Hale correctly points out that the expectation that boys won’t like books featuring girl characters is so deeply rooted in the educational system that for boys a book like THE HUNGER GAMES has to be qualified: “Even though it’s about a girl, I think you’ll like it.” And by denying the encouragement of boys to read girl characters, and the shaming of them when they do, Hale makes a valid argument that this leads to the rape culture that is far too prevalent, particularly at the college level these days.

So—no more “boy books” for me. Or “girl books.” Instead, just great books, featuring interesting, original, engaging characters. Hopefully this post will supersede any “boy book” info linked to me in searches, and if it does, I’d love for writers to take a look at Hale’s post and reconsider how they might label their work. Obviously, the effort to get past boy/girl labels will involve heavy lifting on the part of educators, parents, and publishers, who are certainly culpable for perpetuating the gendered reading divide. But if authors can shift how they view their own work, that’s a major step toward helping the boy who was too embarrassed to hear Hale talk because he would have needed special permission to miss class.


Look it up!

Remember that corny cliché about every book ever written being found within the pages of a dictionary?  I’ve always gotten such a kick out of that because I love dictionaries.  I love the tiny print,  the sometimes incomprehensible pronunciation guide for each word, the prefatory material that tells you how to use the book, the illustrations that accompany some of the entries (why is Sally Ride pictured but not Richelieu?), the fact that you go in to look something up for an editorial memo you’re crafting only to get distracted by a bunch of beguiling words (xylem, yurt) that you will be desperate to use in your next heated match of Words With Friends.Dictionary

As with other books, I love old print dictionaries—at last count I  had about a dozen at home, elegantly bound ones and dog-eared paperbacks; Spanish, Russian, French and German as well as English—but I also adore the convenience of my app.  How excellent to have the ability to look up a word whenever and wherever you hear it, thereby appearing to be more   sesquipedalian than you really are (see what I did there?).

This ease of access, unfortunately, has made me more intolerant of authors who routinely use the wrong word in their work and other communications.  I mean, how hard is it to look it up if you’re not 100% sure whether you loath something  or loathe it?  (BTW, I always have to look those two up myself.)

The democratization of the dictionary in this age of supreme access is a great thing, in my opinion.  But, that means that there’s no excuse for lazy usage, at least not in your writing.  Just look it up, people!