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Right Behind You

Yesterday I had an interesting–and rather bracing–exchange with a writer whose work I read, admired, and ultimately, after much time and consideration, decided not to represent. I’d sent her a note that was well-meaning but bland; I wrote that I’d not “fallen in love” with the material, and without the ability to be a wholehearted champion for the work, that I didn’t feel I could represent it. I got a civil but pointed note back, urging me to reconsider–not my decision–but the very pat “didn’t fall in love” phrase that has become the book world’s answer to “it’s not you, it’ s me.” This writer pointed out that it’s patronizing and more or less reviled by authors. I agreed that it is an easy shorthand, the catch-all diagnosis of the publishing business. But perhaps we who work with words have a certain responsibility to be a little less lazy when stringing them together.

Still, turning people talented people down is never easy, and we agents are often wrong. I’m at a writer’s conference now, and every editor and agent here has a tale of the book that got away—or more precisely, the book we failed to see.

Taste is apallingly subjective, and sometimes it’s hard to put a fine point on exactly what drives my reservations. More often than not, it’s a combination of factors; undeveloped storyline, characters with whom I’d rather not pass 350 pages, utter lack of editorial vision for how to place it. Sometimes I read the testaments of lives of people far braver and more extraordinary than I will ever be, but I worry that the telling does not match the tale, or the story is suited to a smaller circle of readers than most publishers would wish to reach.

I grumble and occasionally rail at the rejection letters I receive as well, but is there a way to soften the blow? Many notes I send are form rejections. We try hard to craft one that is professional and respectful, though it is by definition impersonal. It would be impossible to respond to all the mail that we receive. But know that despite all the maladroit notes and form letters, the late responses and the missed chances, most agents really do get it. We get the frustration, the disappointment, we respect your efforts and exist to support them. True, the works in question are not our own, but they are our livelihood, a reflection of our taste, our ideals, and often long collaborative efforts. It would be absurd to imagine that my emotional stake in a book is as great as that of its creator, but we agents are right behind you.

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What I’ve Learned as a Writer Working at a Literary Agency: The Essential Elements of a Pitch

On the last day of my MFA program, I attended a lecture about how to secure and work with an agent. The lecture was very informative and covered a lot of what I’ve learned since starting to work at an agency; however, as a writer, I wanted to know more about query letters. She didn’t quite get into the importance of pitching your novel. She merely said, “write a short synopsis.” This was so vague! How short is short? What details should you give? What does an agent need to know about your novel, and what can you leave out? Luckily, this got me thinking, and I made a list of the items that I want to see when reading a pitch in a query letter.

Main character(s) – You should include your protagonist(s) and antagonist(s), along with their roles in the novel.

Relative age – Whether directly stated or implied through action/conflict/setting of the story.

Genre – This can be stated before you pitch your novel. You can say it directly (e.g. “In this fantasy novel…”), or you can imply it in the pitch (e.g. “Jamie wants only to be king, but can he defeat the Lord of the Dragons?”). Just make sure it’s clear somewhere in the query letter.

Inciting event – What starts the conflict of the novel?

An idea of the direction in which the plot goes – What can I expect to read about?

Promise of emotional payout – Probably the most important to make sure you’re including. Why should I care about this novel? What can I expect to feel? Though, this should NOT be directly stated (e.g. “You’ll cry when you find out how his daughter was murdered.”). You should imply it (e.g. “When his daughter is sacrificed by his religious leader, he has to choose between loyalty to the religion that will make him king or vengeance.”).

You do not have explain the conclusion of the book—this isn’t a true synopsis, but a pitch. You want to use the query letter to draw your reader in and make them want to read more. If you spoil the ending, what’s the point?

What do you think? Are there any other essential elements that will make a pitch perfect?

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Lessons from a ghostwriter

The work of a writer can take on many forms. Whether it’s articles, nonfiction, short stories, fiction or some combination of all of the above (thinking of Stephen King, Ann Pratchett, our own David Morrell and many others). But I think it’s safe to say all writers do one thing over anything else – they write.

So I found this article in PW interesting as it is written by a ghostwriter or collaborator who had worked with several authors on their own nonfiction projects, and then she decided to write her own memoir. It’s a bit of an unusual hybrid to have a ghostwriter penning a memoir, but it worked for her, and she learned some things about her own work from working with others. The lessons she offers are worth reading because she shares what she learned about her own life from writing about other people’s lives, and how she applied it to her own work.

I think there is takeaway here for writers in general. Especially her last idea that you are responsible for your own story, not other people’s reaction to it. That is such a widely applicable concept as a writer because so much uncertainty and fear exists in putting your work out there for others to see. Even seasoned authors sometimes complain that they can’t handle a bad review, or they feel terrible when they see a negative comment about their book on Amazon. We’re all just human, after all. And it takes real guts to write, and share your work with others. Bravo to Sarah Tomlinson and to all authors for overcoming their insecurities and sharing their work with the rest of us.

Take a look and see what you think. Any other tips you can share for improving your own writing from working with others?

The art of storytelling

The story matters. But so does the way you tell it. Just learn from this 23-year-old who has been writing a memoir on Instagram.

There are so many great things to love about this story. Sure, I appreciate the beautiful photos and well-written captions, but I admire the sheer ingenuity most of all. Fact: a new memoir is published every 38 minutes. Don’t fact-check me on that, just trust me. There are a lot of memoirs out there. Another fact: not many of them are written using the medium of a photograph social media platform, with carefully curated shots posted a year later, a completely different practice than the usual immediacy and spontaneity of picture posting.

Short stories and even entire novels have been written on Twitter too, but what technology gives, technology also takes away. Algorithms generate news stories and a scary amount of written content that you would never suspect. Don’t believe me? Then take this test.

The point is this: technology has changed everything and will continue to change everything, for better or worse. There are an unimaginable number of ways to spread stories now. Get creative and find a way that is uniquely you. Otherwise computer algorithms may as well write your story for you.

Also, I just wanted to include a quick update on one of my earlier blog posts. In March 2015, I posted a blog about censorship and China being named the guest of honor at BEA 2015. Want to see what that all amounted to? This was the result.

2

The classics

Last Saturday, my husband Steve and I went out to play golf and, as often happens, we were asked if we wouldn’t mind if a third player (someone we didn’t know) joined us. We agreed and played our round with a very nice and interesting man named Ed Chapman. It turned out that Ed had been in the Berkshires for the previous two weeks doing the sound design for a play that was opening that night at The Barrington Stage, a theater in Pittsfield about 45 minutes away from our home in Great Barrington. The play was THE MAN OF LA MANCHA.

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote (1955). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote (1955). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Later that day, I asked Steve if he had ever seen the play and he hadn’t and I just knew he would love it so we bought what turned out to be the last two available tickets for this past Saturday night. Indeed, the play was absolutely wonderful in every way—everyone was raving about it afterwards. But as I was leaving the theater, I heard a woman behind me say that it was “dated.” How, I wondered, could a play based on the classic story of Don Quixote be dated? The message is an evergreen one and important, I think.

And this made me wonder why time and again we return to the classics—in theater, in film, in our music and yes, of course, in literature. Authors such as Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde are constantly referenced and imitated in more recent works.

I wonder what value you see in the classics. Which of our many iconic authors do you consider classic and why? Who are your favorites?

2

Men of constant sorrow

As my colleagues at DGLM know from last week’s staff meeting, I’m somewhat obsessed with the prison break in upstate New York. I think ever since O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? entered my all-time top-five movie list, I’m naturally predisposed to prison break stories, and this one is starting to shape up like a Coen brother’s movie. Yes, I know it’s poor taste to make light, given that our perps are actually violent killers not cuddly movie stars, but then today it comes out that Richard Matt painted a family portrait for Joyce Mitchell. Awwww…

And it doesn’t help, too, that the more I look at Matt and Sweat (such great names!) I see George Clooney and Tim Blake Nelson playing them in the movie version:

 

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But while I can’t wait to see how it all ends, I’m having trouble wrapping my agent hat around it. For one, where does a prison-break story fall in terms of genre? On first glance, I’d say True Crime, but the crime here isn’t murder—at least not yet—which still seems like a prerequisite for the genre. But if not True Crime, then what? Moreover, with the story having so much media attention and legs so far, what would be covered in a book that hasn’t already been seen on TV or the Web? It’s an issue that’s bedeviled traditional True Crime for years, and unless an author can get access to Matt, Sweat, or Mitchell, it’s hard to see what would pass the “new and newsworthy” test.

So, what’s the angle? It’s a question agents ask ourselves all the time, especially when it comes to stories in the news. If any readers have any ideas, I’d love to hear them, because I do think there’s something here, or that there will be down the line. At the very least, we can play the casting game—any thoughts on who plays Joyce?

2

Taboos

A couple of weeks ago, I was at my alma mater to speak to the Columbia Fiction Foundry folks about publishing.   The session was structured as an interview and one of the questions posed to me was how we handle books about taboo subjects.  I liked that question because it’s one that’s seldom asked but which is important to anyone who works in publishing (or any media, really).  Given how charged the political environment is, not just here but globally, freedom of speech is a tricky, sometimes dangerous concept for those who work in the business of communicating ideas.   And, yet, we take on projects all the time that have the potential to offend some or many.  The rule of thumb for us is that if it’s something that doesn’t personally offend us, or it offends us but we think there’s merit in furthering the conversation on that particular topic,  we don’t shy away from representing it.

This week, along with everyone else in the country, we’ve been talking about the Rachel Dolezal story and wondering if there is a book in this very bizarre journey of hers.  The fact is that her actions have offended large numbers of Americans.  Given how volatile the subject of race is in this country, that’s not surprising.  But, regardless of where you stand on this individual’s weird appropriation of a group’s identity, it seems to me that the conversation her story has engendered is a good one.  I’ve read several interesting articles about this now, among them this one by our friend Sam Freedman, which have approached the topic in diverse, but  insightful ways…and isn’t that what free discourse is about?  I still don’t know what the book would be, but maybe it’s one about the very notion of discussing taboo subjects.

So, what taboos would you tackle or shy away from in your own writing?  And which would you like to see more deeply explored in print?

4

A Verbal Confession

My brother is taking a course in professional writing that is required for his criminal justice degree…and I’ve been receiving panicked phone calls at random times asking for explanations of various fine points of grammar and punctuation. I hide my glee a little bit so he will send me tons of pictures of my 3-week-old nephew in payment gratitude for my help, but the truth is I am absolutely delighted. I could talk all day about how to use a semicolon properly and whether the punctuation goes inside or outside the quotation marks!

So when he got his first big assignment back, I took the professor’s corrections very personally. My brother worked really hard researching and writing his project (especially considering he has a newborn); I simply gave it a final proofread. But I am a PROFESSIONAL words person! I’ve spent my entire adult life getting really good at editing other people’s writing, from simple comma corrections to debating the nuances of vocabulary choices. So I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that his prof marked him down for a word choice error! That’s right, faithful blog readers, yours truly, who wrote this bossy post about sneaky homophones, let a vocabulary mistake get past me!

In one section my brother references a video of a police shooting in which the officer gives a “verbal instruction to the victim.”  The prof had flagged this as an incorrect use of “verbal” where it should be “oral.” “What is he talking about???” my brother asked, and I had to, shamefacedly, explain that technically, in the dictionary, “verbal” means written; “oral” means spoken. Your VCR manual contains verbal instructions. Your neighbor yelling “Turn down the TV!” is an oral instruction. Perhaps a distinction that has eroded in common usage, but just the kind of nitpicking that I usually live for! A very humbling moment.

What do you think? Are there any other vocabulary nuances that only the dictionary (and writing profs) are likely to care about? Will you take care to distinguish between “verbal” and “oral”?

1

Transfiguration

The Lambda Literary Awards were held the Monday after BEA, and, although the ceremony stretched over the course of nearly three hours, the feeling was festive. This year there was something new in the air.

For many years, LGBTQ literature has seemed the poor stepchild of the publishing industry. What had once been a boom back in the 80s and 90s had, by the new millennium, been relegated to a “niche” category that wasn’t showing profits.  LGBTQ individuals were, fortunately, becoming less marginalized, and many no longer felt the same drive to seek the solace of literature. Why did you need to pore through the Gay and Lesbian section at Barnes and Noble, or haunt A Different Light, when you could turn on a rerun of Will and Grace any night of the week?  The nation’s LGBTQ book shops shuttered one by one, and the major publishers became reluctant to acquire queer fiction.

But the sector that has always remained open to such books is just the one where it is most needed: YA and Middle Grade. Gay characters have been thriving in the pages of YA and Middle Grade novels—Seth Rudetsky’s upcoming The Rise and Fall of a Theater Geek, Stephen Chbosky’s  The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Ever are just a few of the books where sexual orientation is basically taken for granted–it is not even the major issue. Times have changed, very much for the better.

Now, transgender is a hot topic among young readers. Along with the growing acceptance of transgender people in society, we are seeing a rising tide of books about kids who are navigating their own gender issues. Alex Gino’s George, slated to be published in August by  Scholastic, was one of the most touted Middle Grade books at BEA. Memoirs like Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill and Some Assembly Required by Arin Andrews are making an impact. And my colleague Jim McCarthy just closed a deal with HarperCollins for Rory Harrison’s Looking for Group, in which a transgender teen will figure prominently. These titles are just the tip of the iceberg.

Will transgender novels reach a tipping point, just as vampires did? Perhaps, but for now, they will help a lot of kids who are going to be very grateful. Adolescence is difficult enough to navigate on its own. It must be a lot tougher when you feel you’re stuck in the wrong body.

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Friday Fun!

It’s June, it’s Friday, and if the humidity is anything to go by, summer is in full swing here in NY.  So let’s have some fun, shall we?

First of all, check out this chart from Language Log.  You know that phrase “It’s all Greek to me”?  Well, English speakers aren’t the only ones who find Greek impenetrable: so do the Norwegians, Swedes, Persians, and Spanish.  But click through to the chart to find out who the Czech, Italians, and Romanians, among many others, couldn’t understand to save their lives!

And once you’ve investigated the inscrutable, learn a little something on your Friday afternoon, like how books are made!  Okay, learn how books were made, back in 1947, in this Encyclopedia Brittanica film, sent to me by my client Wayne Gladstone.  Though please ignore that the process goes straight from the author’s typewriter to the printer because “he thinks many people will like to read it,” which seems like it’s missing some key steps, even for 1947.

And then sit back and relax, confident that you’ve learned enough to close out the week and enjoy your weekend.