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How what we do is like golf

As many of you know, I am constantly trying to improve my golf game.  Each summer I spend hours on Saturdays and Sundays on the driving range, in lessons, and on the golf course practicing and playing.  This summer I started working with a new golf pro to completely change and improve my swing; it was a radical step that involved studying videos of my swing (something I’d never done before) and learning how to make adjustments based on the replays, but, in the end, after many hours of working on it  and lots of frustration, I am happy to report that I’m seeing some significant improvement.Golfing

Like golf, our agenting takes continual practice, both in choosing the projects we will represent and establishing a strategy to sell those projects.  As in golf, we find that we learn from our failures as much or more than from our successes and we are constantly tweaking our game—finding different publishers and editors to whom to submit and different approaches to developing the books we are representing.

This can be a very frustrating process, but as with golf, with enough “practice” we often succeed.

In fact, this summer I have done deals with at least three publishers who are entirely new to me.  After agenting for so many years, I still get a kick out of establishing relationships with new publishers and editors—it’s a very inspiring and exciting part of our business.

Changing things up every once in a while is something I love to do, both in golf and in life.  Do you have a hobby or sport you pursue that gives you perspective on your writing?

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Returning to the Scene of the Crime

Lauren Abramo and I both have books coming out today, and that’s not all we have in common – Lauren and I also both used to work at Barnes and Noble! So we thought it would be fun to spend a little time visiting the big flagship B&N here in Union Square and see how many DGLM books we could spot. Including, of course, our own!

Lauren put together this fabulous collage of our field trip, which you’ve already seen if you follow her on Twitter (and while you’re at it, follow me too!) .

 

BN collage

 

Agents are almost as proud of the books they’ve worked on as the authors themselves are! In my bookseller days, my favorite part of the job was suggesting books I loved to regular customers and hearing what they thought on their next trip to the bookstore. And being an agent is like that, only better, because you get to be an even bigger part of getting books you love into customers’ hands. It makes wandering through a bookstore all the more satisfying.

 

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The Oprah Effect

August 2 turned out to be a big day for Colson Whitehead. Not only was it the launch date of his new novel The Underground Railroad, which had already received rapturous advance reviews. It was also the day that Oprah Winfrey announced that The Underground Railroad would be the latest selection of her Book Club.  As we well know, there is no better friend to a book than Oprah. Her book club has harnessed the power of social media to form a reading community that builds exponentially. She and Whitehead are now promoting The Underground Railroad on just about every platform that exists. What more could any author dream of?  (Well, perhaps any author except Jonathan Franzen, who famously snubbed Oprah’s choice of his The Corrections in 2001 and turned himself into quite the pariah for a while. Not that this hurt his book sales any—in fact, The Corrections enjoyed a good spike after the brouhaha.)

My question is this:  Oprah, what took you so long? This was Oprah’s first new Book Club selection in eighteen months. She claimed that she hadn’t read any book during that time that she loved enough to want to choose. Fair enough, but I’ll bet most of us could have offered her a few suggestions. All the Light We Cannot See? Beautiful Ruins? Maybe even a great YA like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda?

In the past, Oprah felt free to choose books that had been out for a while, or established classics by writers like Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Tolstoy.  She kept the country reading, at a time when literacy was and remains a matter of real concern.  World leaked out late last week that she may now have another book pick lined up for September. If so, it’s a gratifying sign for readers, writers, and the entire publishing industry. Let’s hope Oprah doesn’t plan to take another eighteen-month hiatus anytime soon.

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Storytelling

As I look with something akin to terror at the icon telling me there are 24 manuscripts in my Urgent to read folder, I’m thinking, as I have been so much lately (this week, this month, this year, this last few years), about what it means to be an agent. When I moved back to New York after grad school, I only applied to two kinds of jobs: non-profits and publishing. You all know where I ended up (insert joke about profitability of publishing here), but I like to think that I’ve built a career where I can achieve the goals both those types of jobs represented: trying to do some good in the world and working with the written word. Beyond the ways in which books do, as a whole, make the world a better place, I also work hard to tailor my list to something that Alternate Universe Lauren who runs a non-profit would be proud of, whether I’m looking at serious non-fiction or commercial fiction and everything in between.

And in working on that project–on trying to make sure that my client list and the books I represent do good in the world in addition to telling compelling, enriching stories–I find myself coming back repeatedly to this Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the danger of a single story. It’s from 2009 and many people have seen it, but if you haven’t, I urge you to watch. It’s an important facet not just of publishing and reading, but of existing in a world that is in so many ways, from politics to news media to social media to advertising to memory to relationships, constructed on stories. As a person who commodifies stories for a living, I try to do justice to them, and the complex people behind them, and the complex people reading them. And I’m grateful to Adichie for telling this story in such a way that it’s crystallized in my brain to guide me.

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Get Out and Read

As a huge fan of maps and finding unique things to do in my city on the weekend, I found this article detailing artist Jason Polan’s map of the best places to read in Los Angeles a wonderful treat. Even if you don’t live in LA, you have to appreciate how amazing this map is. Reading can be a very insular experience, keeping you locked indoors with your favorite blanket, or it can give you a reason to go out and just sit somewhere while becoming a part of the setting—a park, the beach, or perhaps under a tree in the amazing bookstore, Book Soup, of Los Feliz. I tend to prefer the blanket and couch scenario, but every time I do get out of my house, I find I have a far greater appreciation for reading. It could be the vitamin D, or that weird association with happiness and sun, or perhaps just that I feel more a part of society or nature. Whatever it is, there’s undeniably something special about reading outdoors.

MapBack

(The back of Jason Polan’s map.)

I plan on picking up one of those maps, but what really interests me, is the thought of making my own map of the best places to read in LA. So far I have one place that is nearly unbeatable.

The café at Griffith Observatory.

I took my dog on a walk through Griffith Park late one Saturday afternoon, planning to sit under a tree and tuck into some summer reading. As I started walking, I realized I could walk all the way up to the Griffith Observatory, which seemed like a challenge me and my pup were up to. I was currently reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which was partly the reason I tortured myself walking the two mile, six hundred feet climb to the observatory. When we got there, the café was our first stop for some water, and I was so blown away with the beautiful scenery, I ended up staying for hours. My pup slept under my feet, and I got through nearly half of Wild. I took breaks from the book to look over the city, enamored that a place so beautiful existed, AND allowed dogs, AND allowed me to sit there for hours nursing some free water. When the sun went down, I was faced with a far more beautiful sight: stars as bright as the city lights below them. It truly is a magical spot, and it made the book I was reading—particularly because the book also deals with getting out in the world—even more special and memorable for me. Plus, it’s called the Café at the End of the Universe, how could it be better?

IMG_8785

(My dog, Nyx, looking very cultured.)

Cafe at the End of the Universe at Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, CA

Cafe at the End of the Universe at Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, CA

(The café at night.)

I’m looking forward to finding more spots in LA where I can cozy up to a nice book while also enjoying the great city I have the privilege to live in. Perhaps I’ll have a few updates in the future!

Where are the best places to read in your city?

Potter mania!

I know I’m not the only one talking about Harry Potter these days. The new “book”, which is really the published version of the play currently running in London (oh, how I wish I could go!) went on sale this week and the frenzy is out of control.

Publisher’s Weekly reports here that sales have already topped 2 million copies, in North America alone. I admit I’m one of those who preordered the book as soon as I heard it was becoming available. I actually realized that I did it twice so now have 2 copies on their way! Midnight parties across the country attracted kids and adults of all ages.

I just love how a fictional character has caused such a stir in popular culture. It’s such a positive reminder of the lasting impact books can have in a time when there is so much negativity being put out into the media. It’s incredible and practically unfathomable to me that a published play could achieve this level of success. I love theater so it’s heartening to me to know that this medium can generate big numbers, as evidenced by this new Harry Potter as well as the huge success of Hamilton (my other current obsession, more exciting news to come on that in a later post).

We’ve had our own version of Potter fever around here lately. While my oldest daughter is away at sleepaway camp, her younger sister dressed up as Harry for Halloween in July at camp (photo below). I was impressed with how she put the costume together with adult glasses and the scar drawn on a piece of scotch tape, and it helped we still have our wands from our amazing visit to Potter World at Universal in Florida last November.

Have you ordered your copy of Cursed Child yet? If you have and you’ve read it, please let us know what you think. Michiko Kakutani’s review in the New York Times was very positive and she’s one tough critic. She actually refers to it as “a compelling, stay-up-all-night read.” I’m so excited to dive back into the wonderful world of Harry Potter and read it with all the girls when Sam’s back from camp. Will let you know how it goes!

ps- my first copy arrived while I was writing this post, and it’s a beautiful book:

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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.