4

Does writing make you crazy, or are you crazy, therefore, you write?

In our line of work, we are privileged  to have up-close, intimate access to the writer’s process.  Often, that means being privy to the heights and depths of literary creativity: insecurity, delusional behavior, neuroticism that would make Freud rub his hands with glee, grandiosity, envy, and procrastination (in fact, there’s not that much difference between an adult author on deadline and a 10-year-old who’d rather be outside shooting hoops than tackling his math homework).

No matter how accomplished or relatively sane the writer, there’s no avoiding the mind games inherent in the act of creating a book.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve talked some of our most successful, well-established clients off the proverbial ledge; how many conversations involve me explaining that there’s no way their work is total crap or their careers a travesty.  Did I mention these are successfully published authors who’ve gained accolades, had bestsellers, and whose Wikipedia pages are as full of errors as everyone else’s?

Which is why I found this infographic Galleycat pointed me to so amusing.  Thing is, the emotional rollercoaster most authors experience as they write their books is almost a necessary part of the process. In fact, without those highs and lows, your work would probably be flat and colorless.  There are a lot of things that get in the way of good writing but smugness has to be at the top of my list.  A healthy dose of insecurity and self-doubt means you’re probably on the right track…or on a track….

The Stages of Writing a Book- How an Author Feels (1)

7

My 32 Favorite Books

Any book lover hates getting the question, “so what’s your favorite book?” Because it’s impossible to choose just one! Since it’s my BIRTHDAY today, I decided to go for the ultimate act of self-indulgence and list my 32 favorite books – one for every candle on my cake. These are the books I’ve read, re-read, and recommended, the ones I cherish most!

 

  1. Seuss’s ABCs (proud to say this is my 11-month-old-nephew’s current fave)
  2. Go Dog Go by P.D. Eastman
  3. Richard Scarry’s Busytown (probably where my big-city dreams first took root)
  4. The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper (a pen name for Arnold Platt of the publisher Platt & Munk!)
  5. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
  6. Meet Kirsten by Janet Shaw (the first book that broke my heart)
  7. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (the first book I remember reading on my own!)
  8. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary (the author’s 100th birthday was last week so my book club is reading this one this month…life comes full circle)
  9. Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace(the whole series is a fave, but this is the first I read and, as book lover’s bonus, centers on Betsy’s own writing, her Uncle Keith who is an author, and a theatrical production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin!)
  10. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett(I yearned for the glamor of being orphaned and indentured, in a freezing attic with bread crusts to eat.)
  11. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
  12. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (the second book that broke my heart. RIP Beth, it’s an injustice that you died and bratty Amy married Laurie.)
  13. Emily of New Moon (while I of course adore the Anne series, I gotta give the nod to L.M’s slightly less famous trilogy…)
  14. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  15. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  16. The Great Gatsby (I know, me and everyone else in America. But I just love it so and will gladly read any/all Fitzgerald fanfiction you throw my way. #FitzgeraldForever)
  17. Lolita (come for the scandal, stay for Nabakov’s incredible prose…in his second language, no less)
  18. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (vastly more fun than Grapes of Wrath, if you don’t mind the page count.)
  19. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  20. Paris Trout by Pete Dexter (To Kill A Mockingbird…but better!)
  21. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (I know, I know! Snobby post-college me loved it and post-30 me defiantly still does)
  22. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  23. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (I’ll pause here to let Miriam yell at me about how much she hates The Goldfinch)
  24. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (the first book I read after moving to NYC and now one of my lifetime faves)
  25. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse (a book lover’s bookstore book…need I say more?)
  26. Claire Marvel by John Burnham Schwartz
  27. The Round House by Louise Erdrich (suspense, coming-of-age, and marginalized communities all in one amazingly powerful literary novel!)
  28. My Education by Susan Choi
  29. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (warning: a brutal, beautiful, unforgettable novel)
  30. The Magicians series by Lev Grossman (a lot of fun in its own right and for its nods to other fantasy classics)
  31. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  32. …??? Leaving this one blank! What will be the next book I love and recommend and re-read?

 

This book-list-as-memoir was a lot of fun…and I think you can see the exact moment where I left the Midwest and started exploring literature outside the classics. Looking forward to a lot more exploration in the next 32 years! Share your favorites in the comments to make sure I’m not missing out! 

And thanks to Kemi for this perfect birthday card: 

Reaching out

For most of the time that I’ve been in publishing, I’ve found clients in one of four ways: the slush pile, referrals from clients, seeking out authors for ideas I’ve come up with, or convincing a person I’ve come across to write a book. I’ve long been reflexively skeptical of supposed innovations on the query system—everything I tried for a long time turned out to be a huge waste of time that generated no better results than just letting the slush come to my inbox.

But four or so years ago, I looked at my list and my slush pile and realized how heavily they both skewed toward a narrow range of voices. And as I looked for ways to fix this problem I listened to a lot of wise people (including the fine folks at We Need Diverse Books) on the perils of any system in which gatekeepers simply wait for things to come their way.  So now I try to actively participate in things happening outside my inbox, making sure that writers know that my door is open (and my list inclusive).

Authors looking for an agent have a lot of great opportunities now not just to seek an agent, but to reach out to the best possible fit for them and their work. Many wonderful agents participate in these new ways to find clients (and quite a lot of them were on the bandwagon before I got my head out of the sand). And for me, they’re a good way to proactively seek submissions from a diverse pool of authors so I can make sure that my client list supports a wide array of voices.

TwitterLogo_#55aceeTwitter pitch parties like Brenda Drake’s PitMad still involve authors querying agents, but it means I get to find those projects that seem like a good fit for my list and invite the authors to send their queries my way.  And resources like Manuscript Wish List, co-created by Jessica Sinsheimer and KK Hendin, allow me to highlight book concepts that I’d love to see, which gives me a chance to proactively seek a broader and more balanced list, both via the Twitter hashtag and their fantastic website (for which you can find my profile here).  And I’m really excited about the upcoming Twitter event #DVPit, which Beth Phelan created to “showcase pitches about and especially by marginalized voices.”  If you’re a writer from a marginalized community looking for an agent, I strongly encourage you to check out that link before Tuesday, because it looks like it’ll be a great event!

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the sheer volume of emails in my Weekend Reading folder, many of which come from sources like the above. I look at my To Read list right now and tremble in fear. But I love knowing that the chances that I’ll find a gem that I have a vision for among those projects is far higher, since I’ve already done some of the work in getting authors who have written the kinds of books I’m looking for to reach my way.

7

Getting It Right

Publishers are crying out for diversity in children’s books, and that’s a good thing. (It would be an even better thing if diversity were more widely represented among the rosters of acquiring editors at these publishers, though things are improving incrementally in that area.)

Writers of YA and Middle-Grade books are becoming more and more aware of the importance of diversity, and are not only including more ethnically diverse characters in their books; they are also centering books on them as leading characters. But context counts here. Lately I’ve been seeing submissions from writers who seem to assign various ethnicities arbitrarily, as if they feel they are expected to fulfill certain quotas. This paint-by-the-numbers approach to diversity can look clumsy and obvious.

To accurately reflect our contemporary Melting Pot, characters have to come alive and breathe believability. What is their social fabric like in their homes and communities? What kinds of foods do they enjoy? What are their tastes when it comes to games, toys, music? And, most important, how do they speak? What are their vocal rhythms, their slang, their verbal shorthand? If they happen to be immigrants, does their speech reveal an accent, or a struggle with the notoriously difficult English language?

Dialogue is crucial; it’s one of a writer’s tools for revealing character. And if characters reflecting multiple diversities all come out sounding alike—or, worse, sounding like bland, white-bread characters from an old TV show—credibility goes out the window. And boredom comes in.

If you read or write YA or Middle Grade, I’d love to know your thoughts on what books do a good job of representing diverse characters—and for that matter, what books might have come up short in that regard. In the Age of Trump, it’s a great time for writers to be promoting diversity in their books—but it’s not something that’s easy for all writers to pull off.

8

The book proposal

I know, I know, I have blogged before about doing a book proposal and how important it is.  But, it seems from what I am seeing recently that I am not getting through.

In the last couple of months, I find that clients are really rushing to get their proposals ready.  In doing so, they are making mistakes – both large and small – and ultimately prolonging the process of creating this very important document.

Book proposals really are the backbone of the non-fiction publishing process.  They identify an idea, discuss who the reader will be for that idea, both demographically and statistically, and discuss other titles which would be comparable, in terms of audience, to the one the author is proposing.

Proposals provide a structure for the book and demonstrate (with a sample chapter) the author’s writing ability.

Finally, with a bio and links of supporting material, the proposal highlights the author’s credentials and platform.

I tell my clients that doing the proposal is probably more difficult than writing the actual book but that once they have a proposal that a publisher wants to buy, they will have the blueprint for their book.

I also tell them “better late than lousy” and I mean that because a poorly constructed and written proposal will not sell in this challenging market.

So, take your time in creating your book proposal.  Think it through carefully and consider every element.  Taking the necessary time to do this right is important and will ultimately pay off.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.  Let me know what you think.

2

Travel Reads

Perhaps something about longer days and more sunshine—although you wouldn’t know it this week—gave me the travel bug, and I was shocked to glance at my calendar and see that I’m traveling almost every weekend in April. This means a lot of long bus/train/plane rides ahead and I’ve been stocking up on public transportation reads.

Last weekend, I was in beautiful Washington D.C., with the trees all abloom and an abundance of flowers (although sadly, I just missed cherry blossom peak). For that ride, I brought along two reads: I LET YOU GO, a stunning thriller by debut novelist Clare Mackintosh and one from our own client list, IMAGINARY GIRLS by Nova Ren Suma (repped by Michael Bourret). Both were fast bus reads, although I’m not sure I recommend reading I LET YOU GO right before you step off the bus in a city you don’t know very well.

Capture

I find that I gravitate towards YA or books that move quickly (like thrillers) for long rides. I tend to get bored/sleepy or distracted easily (people-watching! eavesdropping! all those phone games you can mindlessly play!) when I’m stuck on a bus or a train for 6+ hours.

Me on the bus.

Seeing as I have three more weeks of travel ahead of me, what do others find are good books to read on a trip? What makes a good bus/train/plane book in your opinion?

1

Celebrities + celebrity imprints = perfect together?

So, Publisher’s Lunch announced today that Lena Dunham and her partner Jenni Konner are launching a new imprint at Random House named after Lenny, Dunham and Konner’s popular newsletter.  I have mixed feelings.

Everything I’ve heard and read about Lena Dunham suggests that she’s a thoughtful, intelligent young woman with a lot of opinions and a love of literature.  Her business partner, I’m sure, is equally gifted.  That said, does the publishing business need another celebrity imprint?  And, to what end?  What do celebrity imprints bring to the table other than the star power of the celebrity they are affiliated with?  And, is that star power a transitive property as far as book buyers are concerned?

Recently, in fact, a number of celebrity imprints have been announced—Gwyneth Paltrow, Chelsea Handler, Oprah Winfrey, Derek Jeter, and  Johnny Depp (which, huh?) now have deals with big five publishers and a mandate to buy books that sell.  Well, good luck with that.

I like to think that publishing books that enrich the culture, entertain a sizable audience, and have staying power in the collective imagination is a specialized craft.   Much in the same way that a lot of people who know nothing about the arduous process of writing a book think they can write a bestseller, it seems to me that many underestimate the equally arduous process of identifying, curating, developing, massaging, producing and promoting a work of literature.  Obviously, I get that it’s a dog eat dog world out there and that publishers need every little edge they can get in order to get their product the attention it deserves, but I worry that resources that are going into supporting the celebritization of book publishing would be better used in bolstering regular, centuries-old publishing models—with editors/publishers who don’t have a Hollywood pedigree but know a good idea/manuscript when they see one and know how to shepherd it through the publishing process into the hands of readers who care about the prose and ideas and not the celebrity behind the imprint.

Or, am I being an old fuddy duddy?  Do I need to accept the fact that there might be a Kardashian imprint down the road?  What do you all think about celebrities who dip their toes in publishing waters?

3

Conference Tips

It feels like winter in NYC today so I’m dreaming of summer travel…and I’m excited to have a few writers’ conferences in my summer plans! I will be at Carnegie Books-in-Progress conference in Lexington, KY, and Killer Nashville in, well, Nashville in August! Conferences are wonderful opportunities for writers to learn more about their craft, connect with other writers for support, and meet industry professionals such as yours truly for advice and feedback. If you have a writers’ conference in your area I strongly suggest you consider attending!

But did you ever wonder what we, the agents, get out of it?

Hmmmm. Good question. 

After all, we’re giving up our time – our precious reading time! often our precious weekends! – to travel across the country and mingle with strangers! Well, I can only speak for myself, but I love getting out of NYC to see a different part of the country and meet editors and agents who might be based outside New York or whose paths I haven’t crossed yet. Most of all, though, I love meeting writers who are passionate about their stories and willing to spend their time and money to get better at telling them. As an agent, I’m always hungry for my next amazing project, and a conference offers me a veritable buffet of talent and hard work. Every project might not be to my taste, but I have pretty good odds of finding one or two or ten that I will be dying to sign up. The inspiration refill alone is well-worth a weekend of hotel coffee.

Candid shot of me, post-hotel coffee,
preparing to meet writers and hear pitches!

I always want to make sure, though, that I’m offering something valuable to the attendees who chose to meet me or attend my workshop or panel during their busy conference time! So I found this Tumblr post How to Panel Like a Lit Champ to be very detailed and helpful. I will for sure be bookmarking it to re-read next time I’m preparing for a talk or panel. And the final piece of advice applies to all of us, no matter what part of the industry we’re in, querying writer or autograph signer, editorial assistant or high-powered agent: “It doesn’t matter if you are the most famous or the least famous in the room / on the panel, be nice. Stay classy.”

 

Be nice. Stay classy. 

 

Now I want to hear from you. What do you consider most valuable when you’re attending a panel? Pet peeves or top tips from your conference experiences?  

9

A Happy Medium

The novella—a long-ignored literary form—has been back in the news the past couple of weeks.

First, James Patterson announced the start of his latest project, BookShots, which will specialize in both digital and print books of no more than 150 pages each. Some of these he will write himself; some will be the work of other writers. Each will sell for under $5.

Now comes news of the death of the incredibly prolific, much-admired Jim Harrison, whose most distinguished fiction was in the novella format.

Both of these events brought a lot of focus to the plight of the poor, neglected novella.

Novellas certainly boast an illustrious lineage. Great ones were written by Henry James, Herman Melville, and J.D. Salinger, among many others. It’s hard to pinpoint why the novella has fallen out of favor, especially in a world where so many people claim not to have the time to read an entire book. As Patterson points out, his BookShots will be readable in one sitting.

There are times when the novella form is exactly what a story demands. The length of an average short story may not be sufficient to properly tell a tale, but that same tale might have to be overstretched to fit the scope of a true novel. Patterson’s idea is a fine one, and it promises to bring mid-sized books out of the shadows and back into the bookshops, drugstores, convenience stores, and supermarkets. You may even start finding them right by the checkout stand.

And if people start reaching for a new novella instead of The National Enquirer, the battle will already be won.

I’d love to hear from those of you who have favorite novellas–books that you feel found their ideal length—not too long and not too short.

Coming soon to a bus near you!

Not in a while has an article made me smile the way this one did earlier this week in the New York Times. Booksellers are getting creative in finding new ways to reach readers, and it’s working! Not only is Ann Patchett’s Nashville indie bookstore doing well, it’s expanding its storefront in addition to taking books on the road for sale on a portable bus! It seems like such a simple thing, and yet it’s innovative as well. Go to where the people are rather than waiting for the people to come into the bookstore, not such an easy sell anywhere with so much available online and for delivery in 5 minutes or less.

As if I didn’t already love every single thing about Ann Patchett, just one more thing to swoon over. The store’s name, Parnassus, actually comes from Christopher Morley’s 1917 novel “Parnassus on Wheels,” about a middle-aged woman who travels around selling books out of a horse-drawn van. So it’s fitting that they are now taking the “bookstore on wheels” concept literally.

I was thinking as I was reading this charming article about bringing books to the masses that it’s really not that different than what Scholastic has done all these years for children’s books. They schlep busloads of books and set them up in schools across the country where parents, teachers and kids can shop in the comfort of their own gym, and a portion of sales gets donated back to the school. I personally buy a majority of holiday gifts each fall at the Scholastic Book Fair, and I’m so thrilled that next year I’ll have one of my books for sale there – Cecilia Galante’s THE WORLD FROM UP HERE. And this year, they’re doing a bus tour called Summer Reading Road Trip with events all over the country so they’re getting on the “buswagon” too. Who doesn’t love a good road trip?

Scholastic Summer Reading Road Trip

Scholastic’s is a brilliant and a successful sales model that I think is unique, although are there other “bring the books to the buyer” methods I’m not aware of? What are other ways you can think of to get books into readers’ hands? Books on a bus is so fun, I’m seriously thinking about renting a bus to sell books this summer! Ok, I joke, my lifestyle so does not allow for such a thing, but I love the idea of it so much. One can dream.