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The 2016 Democratic National Convention

Karla Ortiz and her mother, Francisca Ortiz

Karla Ortiz and her mother, Francisca Ortiz

Last week I found myself riveted to the TV during the Democratic National Convention—for a number of reasons.  One of them, though, was the number of potential book projects.  For example:

Karla Ortiz: Karla is an eleven-year-old American citizen living in Las Vegas, but her parents are undocumented and, as a result, live in fear of deportation.

Lauren Manning, a former partner at Cantor Fitzgerald, is one of the most catastrophically wounded survivors of 9/11.  She battled enormous odds of survival, spending more than six months in the hospital, and fought through the next decade to recover from burns over 82.5% of her body.

Anastasia Somoza

Anastasia Somoza

Anastasia Somoza from New York City was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia when she was born and is an advocate for Americans with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Kate Burdick: a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

Jelani Freeman, who grew up in foster care in Washington D.C. Since receiving his law degree, he has worked to bring opportunity to kids at risk.

Mothers of the Movement (L-R: Maria Hamilton, Annette Nance-Holt, Gwen Carr, Geneva Reed-Veal, Lucia McBath, Sybrina Fulton, Cleopatra Pendleton-Cowley, Wanda Johnson, Lezley McSpadden)

Mothers of the Movement (L-R: Maria Hamilton, Annette Nance-Holt, Gwen Carr, Geneva Reed-Veal, Lucia McBath, Sybrina Fulton, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, Wanda Johnson, Lezley McSpadden)

Mothers of the Movement: Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland; Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner; Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin; Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre Hamilton; Lucia McBath, mother of Jordan Davis; Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown; Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, mother of Hadiya Pendleton; Annette Nance-Holt, mother of Blair Holt; and Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant. Each of these women could have a meaningful book (one of them has already published) but I think a book by or about all of them could be very compelling.

Khizr & Ghazala Khan

Khizr & Ghazala Khan

Erica Smegielski, whose mother Dawn was the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary and was killed while trying to protect her students.  Erica is an advocate for common sense gun violence prevention.

And finally Khizr Khan whose son Humayun S. M. Khan was a University of Virginia graduate and who enlisted in the army.  Khan was one of 14 American Muslims who died serving the US in the ten years after 9/11.

Did you see any others who might be great subjects, or authors of potential books?  Let me know.

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Speechifying

This week is the Democratic National Convention, and last week was the Republican National Convention. Don’t worry, this isn’t turning into a politics blog! There’s actually a lot you can learn about effective writing from paying attention to the conventions, regardless of which party you gravitate towards. Because conventions are all about speeches, and speeches are all about writing persuasively. Sure, it’s partly in the delivery, but a well-written speech can elevate a decent speaker to a great one, while a poorly written one can waste the most charming candidate’s time with the mic. So pay attention to which speeches keep your interest—and which speeches people are talking about, sharing links to, quoting from the next day—and then spend some time reading and thinking about how the writers put the speech together.

DGLM client Roy Peter Clark did this with Michelle Obama’s speech at the opening night of the DNC. Clark identifies eight lessons from the First Lady’s speech that writers of any kind can benefit from. Strategies like “Use first person, second person and third person to create specific effects” and “Express your best thought in a short sentence.” These are especially useful if you’re working on a piece of writing meant to prove a point or win someone’s allegiance…for example, a query letter!

So next time you tune into a political speech, pay attention to not just what the speaker says, but how they say it! Find some inspiration for your own work (just be careful you take inspiration only, no fair hacking the actual words of the poor hard-working caffeine-addicted speechwriters!). And don’t forget to VOTE!

 

What tip in Roy Peter Clark’s list do you find most useful? Let us know in the comments if you’ve seen anything else in the presidential conventions that you want to apply to your query letter!

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Pretentious much?

The thing is, writers can be inordinately pretentious and blissfully unaware of the fact.  Part of the whole living in your head while trying to describe the most banal processes using language that elevates them to art will do that to you, I guess.

I’m reading The Girls now and had just finished Sweetbitter before it.  I loved the latter and struggled with the former at first, before giving myself over to the strangely familiar creepiness of the story.  Both are debut novels by pretty young blonde women.   Both are firmly evocative of a particular time and place—California in the late ‘60s and New York City in the early oughts.  And, both showcase prose that is sometimes pretentious to the point of hilarity.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great writing in these books.  The authors are nothing if not exquisitely attentive to their craft.  It’s just that as I read, my eyes occasionally rolled back into the universal expression for “Girl, get over yourself!”

Anyway, this parody in The Millions of Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer’s e-mail exchange for T The New York Times Style Magazine in which the hyper-educated actress and Cormac McCarthy trade brilliant observations, cracked me up, precisely because it’s really not that farfetched.  Writers who are allowed to indulge their bombast without check (i.e., a strong editor with a finely sharpened red pencil) can very quickly veer into self-parody.

Personally, I don’t mind a little purple mixed in with the black ink, but it is one of the things that authors need to be vigilant about.  A momentary lapse is forgivable and even endearing, too many and you’re headed for the rejection pile.

Can you think of any fun examples of affected, self-important writing you’ve seen recently?

Cat Godard

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A Second Opinion

GENIUS--Firth and Law

I was beginning to feel like I was the only person out there who liked the new film GENIUS.  It opened early last month, got a lousy 49% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been playing to steadily dwindling audiences ever since. The story of the tumultuous relationship between Thomas Wolfe and his legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, it stars Jude Law as Wolfe, Colin Firth as Perkins, and a whole lot of other British and Australian actors like Dominic West, Guy Pearce, and Nicole Kidman all playing Americans like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Aline Bernstein.  It shouldn’t work, yet it does, splendidly. And somehow, in its long scenes between Firth and Law as Perkins and Wolfe wrestling Wolfe’s novels down to manageable length, it doesn’t bore; it only excites.  Well, it excited ME, at least, with its vivid depiction of the volatile, delicate relationship shared between authors and their editors.

 

Those were exactly the parts of the film most people found boring. Well, they are cerebral scenes depicting a cerebral process, but Firth and Law’s appealing performances, John Logan’s screenplay (based on A. Scott Berg’s biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius), and Michael Grandage’s direction make it all spring right off the screen. To me those scenes were anything but boring, but as a literary professional, I’d been there many times, and so I enjoyed seeing the process played out in a dramatic context.

 

I felt like a bit of a voice in the wilderness, urging friends to ignore the reviews and the word of mouth and see it. But I was heartened two weeks ago to see that veteran Doubleday executive editor Gerald Howard liked the film enough to write this beautiful, informed piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education.  It’s more than a film review; it’s a fine piece of writing by someone who has spent his life in the editing trenches and knows what he’s talking about.

 

Genius is probably long gone from most movie theaters by now. But if you want to see a film that is a lovely valentine to writers, editors, and the whole big beast that is publishing, you could do a lot worse than to check it out on Netflix.

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What Book Made You Feel Proud to be a Woman?

In response to this question on BuzzFeed, my answer would be The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pisan, for the simple reason that Christine was a feminist in a time when the term was unheard of.  Her writing, which praises women and their talents, and argues for their status as equal members of society, paved a way for female writers some six hundred years later.

Widowed by age 25 in 1390 France, Christine found herself responsible for the welfare of her mother, niece, and two young children. Pisan took it upon herself to earn a living and chose writing as the best course. It was not a very popular route for a woman at the time, obviously, but she persevered and proved to be very good at it. Her most famous work, The Book of the City of Ladies, came in response to Jean de Meun’s (another famous writer of the time) criticism of women for their lack of contribution to society. In her book, Pisan built an allegorical city, where every aspect of the foundation was reflective of a famous woman in history who had contributed to the development of society, thus proving Meun wrong.

I studied Pisan my junior year in college and I remember I wasn’t exactly fascinated with all the authors we studied in my Medieval Lit class, but Pisan remained ingrained in my mind. Her spirit and character were inspiring and for the first time, a book made me proud to be a woman. Since then, I have come to really appreciate the significance of women penning the most amazing pieces of literature in the world, from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, to the stunning story telling of J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter, and the humor and brilliance of Caitlin Moran in How to be a Woman.

What about you? What book made you feel proud to be a woman?

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What do we do when things get slow?

 

It’s summer, and things have really slowed down in the business.  Editors are away, authors are away—so it’s difficult to actually get books sold and contracts moving forward at anything but a glacial pace.  So what does an agent do at this time?

I actually think this is great opportunity to read whatever I can in order to identify new writers and new ideas.  I also go through our client list and find those I can contact and discuss what they are thinking about doing next.

“Quiet” times are when proposals can be developed well rather than rushed to get to market.

I also spend more time with editors at this time of year to discover what they are looking for, whether they have holes in their lists, what they have read recently that they loved.

This is a great opportunity to plan for the very busy fall selling season so I will develop the list of titles that we will be presenting beginning right after Labor Day.  I contact those clients whose books should be ready to submit at that time and make sure they are on track—this is me in the role of cheerleader J.

This is also a time when I can evaluate carefully my current list of titles on submission and see where I should make changes – either continuing to pursue selling a book or advising the client to move on to something new.

So, though it’s “quiet”, or seemingly so at this time of year, it is a time to review and renew and move forward.

I’d love to hear what you do during your “quiet” times of the year?

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“Ssh, I’m reading…”

I have a fairly handy knack of being able to tune most people out if I’m reading (or trying to otherwise work), but I know many people (my own mother included) who need pretty much absolute silence in order to concentrate and read. However, there are always some people (and situations) where you absolutely cannot tune people or conversations out, so this article from Bustle about “14 Thoughts You Have When Someone Tries to Talk to You While You’re Reading”  made me chuckle.

Whether you’re a reader or a writer, it can often be very difficult to find that coveted time and space to read or write without interruption. As a general rule, our office relies pretty heavily on communicating with each other and working together to get tasks done. Any number of instant messages can pop up on my screen during the day asking for help or an opinion, emails flood in, the phone will ring, someone will wander by to ask a question, and it can often make concentration on a single project challenging. On the other hand, it would be impossible and counterproductive to shut out everyone and just focus on what I have to do—our business and our office don’t work that way; we can’t be as selfish as we might often want to be with our time. It’s a matter of figuring out how to multi-task and how to stay focused and efficient despite any interruptions.

However, as a writer, setting boundaries is often important, especially if you have other obligations and demands on your time. Some writers I know get up early or stay up late to eke out a few precious hours when no one else is awake; others set specific hours where they cannot be disturbed (and turn off phones, social media, etc.,) in order to get their writing quota done for the day. It can be challenging to verbalize the boundaries or to enforce them, but important—for example, my mom says she can’t read or do her art if she has the feeling that someone is going to come barging in and interrupt her concentration.

For me personally, I find that my best work is done early in the morning when no one else is awake or in the office and I do a lot of my reading on the subway (I’ve perfected the death glare of “talk-to-me-at-your-own-peril”). How do you eke out time for yourself at work or for personal reading and writing? Can you work or read with interruptions? What boundaries have you set?

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Coco Chanel’s Guide to Sample Pages

If you follow us on our Facebook page (and you should!) you’ve already seen this post from the Penguin Random House blog about what editors want to see in a winning first page. I gave it a read and realized a lot of these things are what agents look for, too, when we’re reading the sample materials that come with queries. We talk about queries a lot on this blog, but your sample pages (we ask for the first 25 pages) are just as important. Even if you have a killer query with a great story concept and impressive writing credits, your writing itself still has to hook me! So I thought I’d talk in a little bit more detail about how to apply the PRH editors’ tips to your writing.

The first suggestion is A Powerful Opener, which is really about the rest of the tips all coming together – the Attention-Grabbing Characters you’ve dreamed up, the Well-Realized World they inhabit, conveyed through your Authentic Voice, which stems from your Unique Perspective.  Often new writers think a powerful opening means packing their most majestic, glorious prose chunk full of with their favorite four-syllable words into the opening lines of the book. And that’s a fair instinct! But overwriting can actually take away from your Authentic Voice. One well-chosen perfectly placed word can actually do more to convey emotion, place, or personality than three or four well-chosen words; one word doing the job on its own carries more of your Voice as a writer than if you gather two or three together to get your point across. Coco Chanel said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one piece off,” and the same thing applies to adjectives in your sentences. Take one off!

Another key to a Powerful Opening is understanding where the story starts. I’ve mentioned before on Twitter my pet peeve about manuscripts that start with the character waking up in the morning, or start with the narrator telling me how they thought it was going to be just another ordinary day. Figure out where the stakes of your story appear – your Attention-Grabbing Character’s first conflict or obstacle or unexpected event – and then back up just far enough to show me who the character is and what their world is like.

Is your story about a poisoning at a cocktail party? Don’t begin with your hero making breakfast that morning, or skip to the moment when the victim clutches their throat. Open when your main character gets to the party and sees their frenemy or love interest standing by the chips and salsa. Open with your protagonist running into their love interest at the wine store on the way to the party and inviting them along. Open with your narrator getting lost in the host’s apartment complex and reacting with the rage, despair, or sense of adventure that is key to their personality. These are all ways to show what kind of place they live, what their friends are like, how much money they make or whether they know a lot about wine, all of which are more important to how the story unfolds than describing to me what they look like while they get dressed in the morning. You want me to get invested in your characters – Attention-Grabbing Characters! – as quickly as possible, and I do that more quickly by seeing their lives in action.

I hope this has been a little bit helpful in taking the tips on a great opening page and applying it to your writing. I look forward to seeing your strong queries and irresistible sample pages in my inbox soon! And let me know in the comments what your favorite tip is for starting your manuscript off strong, or if you’ve learned anything else about writing from Coco Chanel.

 

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The Creative Juices

 

A couple of posts ago I wrote about different authors’ processes; what works for some, but not for others. This intriguing interview with Patrick Ryan that recently appeared on the Electric Literature  blog  gives another perspective.

The advice writers most often hear is that they should ideally be the vessel through which their work passes. In her invaluable 1934 book BECOMING A WRITER, Dorothea Brande described the “creative coma” that we now refer to as being “in the zone”:  when the writing is flowing freely, with no self-editing angel looking over your shoulder. It’s AFTER that time that writers should go back over their work with a full editorial eye.  That makes a lot of sense, IF you have the ability to write that way. Not all authors do.

About the writing of his short story “The Way She Handles,” part of his new collection THE DREAM LIFE OF ASTRONAUTS, Patrick Ryan says:

 

The end of “The Way She Handles,” that wasn’t planned. I decided to pull back in order to look at the narrator’s life from a later vantage, and it was thrilling. It was like running on a decline — you realize that the decline is giving you a momentum, and that you’re not entirely in control anymore. I’d never had that experience before. Normally, I’m so controlling. I write so slowly. I rewrite constantly while I write. That’s not a brag — it’s a problem. I write ten words, I take five back. Nearly every writer I know says the point of a first draft is to knock it out, but I can’t. I write a paragraph, and I can’t write the second paragraph until I feel like the first one is in okay shape. It’s not a great way to work. If I have a rare, three-hour session, say, and I write three pages? That’s Olympic. So this was a rare instance where the whole last part of the story came to me in a rush. I looked back on it and thought, how did I get so lucky?

 

By the time he finished the story, he realized, in fact, that the entire emphasis of it had shifted to another character, and it had found its true heart.

 

I’ve always admired writers who are able to focus their creative forces, and to bring their inner editor back only when necessary. Often, it’s much easier said than done. If you’re a writer, please feel free to chime in and let me know if you’re one of those lucky ones who can make this system work.

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Goals

Each quarter, Jane Dystel asks all of the employees of DGLM to outline their goals for the coming months, then look back at the previous quarter and see how our projections matched with reality.  It is an exercise that I find a bit wrenching; goals are always due at some moment when I’ m deep in the trenches of an edit, dashing between meetings, or returning phone calls. Taking time to step away from the computer/Kindle/phone and study the big picture—my performance and the “portfolio” of projects I represent— is always a little jarring.

But inasmuch as I find this difficult or sobering,  it is nevertheless tremendously useful to look at my efforts holistically, to stratagize about stewarding my time more wisely, whether it’s tackling my e-mail inbox in designated periods (because I could spend all day, every day, answering e-mails and never do another thing) or the distribution of the conferences I attend (I should avoid doing three in the same quarter; to that end, I apologize to all those patient writers who pitched me in Atlanta, Boston and Austin and are still waiting to  hear back—I am working my way through. )  I’m not much of a subscriber to The Secret-style philosophy that writing something down will magically make it so, but writing down goals helps force me to clarify them, and looking backward over the previous quarter helps me note what’s working (or not) and adjust course accordingly.

I adore my clients and their projects—there’s a multitude of reasons I signed each one—but the exercise in goal-setting also calls attention to the deficits in my list, the genres and projects I don’t often do. For example, I’d like to take on more love stories.  It need not be a romance novel  (I represent a work of narrative history, Bill Lascher’s EVE OF A HUNDRED MIDNIGHTS, that captures the whirlwind romance and perilous honeymoon of two WWII correspondents.)  I’d also like to do more literary mystery in the vein of books I already represent—Beth Hahn’s THE SINGING BONE or Christopher Yates’ BLACK CHALK—but also a proper detective novel,  think Tana French.  I’d also like to see more humor/pop-culture like Therese Oneill’s UNMENTIONABLE: A VICTORIAN LADY’S GUIDE TO SEX, MARRIAGE AND MANNERS.  My appetite for science, history, women’s issues and big-think economics is constant, but I’d like to expand my palate with outdoor adventure narrative, graphic or comic novels or grounded fantasy….in short, I look forward to hearing from you!