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Some folks may have seen the article in the NY Times yesterday about new teen website Figment. It’s a forum for teenagers to post their own writing and be advertised to…I mean, get the chance to read chapters of works that will be published. The site is now live, and there’s already ample teen writing to browse through, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ll just say this: I do feel bad for a generation whose teenage poetry will have life on the internet long after they’ve become embarrassed by it.
That said, I think there’s a lot to love about this idea. It has the same sort of feel as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRECord. That site is about creating user generated creative content that can be worked on by a larger online community. HitRECord feels purer because there isn’t a component allowing advertising to crop up. After all, it’s doesn’t seem as profit-motivated as Figment.
However you look at it, I think efforts to create communities around writing are great things. Something about this site, though, seems to be especially artificial. “ZOMG we’ve launched!” What do we think? Nifty place for teens to find a creative outlet or shameless attempt to cash in on YA market growth?
For a conference I’m going to next year, I was asked to answer a series of questions about myself and agenting—what the most exciting part of the job is, how I landed in publishing, and what my first sale was. Those were easy. Then I hit the question about who the first client I ever signed on was. That was less easy. Not that I didn’t know the answer. It just required me to publicly admit that the first project I signed on never sold. You know what? Eight years later, it still stings.
I thought about lying, but that’s really not my style, so I answered instead that I had signed on a wonderfully fun novel in a Valley of the Dolls vein that I still think deserved to be published. It was really good! And then in a slightly defensive moment, I jotted down that I almost immediately thereafter signed on Victoria Laurie who has sold 24 books with me since then. Well, it’s TRUE.
The thing is, every time something doesn’t sell, it hurts a little. The happy fact of the matter is that the number of projects that don’t sell becomes smaller and smaller as you carry on as an agent—you learn what you’re better with, understand markets better, and come to know the perfect editors for certain projects. But sometimes things don’t work. And it suuuuucks. Especially when you’re head over heels for a project.
I was at a release party for Lee Houck’s Yield a few weeks back, and in his incredibly kind remarks, he mentioned the moment I called him to offer him representation. Apparently I told him something like, “I don’t know if I can sell this. But I can try.” Apparently I remembered to put on my honesty shoes that day! I didn’t remember that I had said it, but I remember that I had thought it! It was a literary novel about gay characters and themes that was at best going to be challenging to place. It was also amazingly heartfelt and beautifully written, so I gave it a shot knowing it would pain me if I didn’t place it. Happily, that one worked out.
The novel about a juvenile prostitute in Newark that was written in dialect? That one didn’t sell. It was just as brilliant as Lee’s novel but even more challenging. I still hate that it didn’t work. I also hate that an editor called me to ask if the author had been a hooker in Newark, adding that the novel would be more marketable if so. That led to the single most awkward phone calls of my entire career. “I was just wondering if maybe you ever happened to, ummm…”
In the end, no agent can guarantee a sale. The most they can ever promise you is their best efforts. But if it’s any consolation, they’ll still be kicking themselves years down the road if they aren’t able to usher you to success.
I crossed my first picket line yesterday! I had tickets to see the new musical The Scottsboro Boys by the same folks who wrote Cabaret and Chicago. It’s a musical retelling of the story of nine black men who were wrongfully imprisoned for the rape of two white women in Alabama in the 1930s. The framing device is a minstrel show. Blackface is employed. The writers and director are all white. Yikes! Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to enter past dozens of protesters chanting that the show was racist, that turning this tragic story into a minstrel show was akin to using Borscht Belt humor to talk about the Holocaust. For a show that deals with liberal white guilt, getting shouted at for being racist was actually kind of an affective prelude (more on this in a minute).
I’m appreciative of both the protestors and the show’s writers for this: together, they raised a really interesting question about what stories need to be told and who has the right to do the telling. I remember a former coworker (not here) ranting about Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Twenty-Seventh City and his lead character being Indian. She took great offense at his decision to “talk about something he knows nothing about.” At the Romantic Times convention this year in Columbus, I met a group of really wonderful women who wrote gay male erotica, and I won’t lie: that totally confused me. And I think everyone here has read at least one first person narrative where the author writes from the perspective of someone of a different gender and the whole thing feels inauthentic.
Of course, limiting authors to only writing about what they know would prevent things like, say, historical fiction. It would have blocked my client Mindi Scott from beautifully capturing a teen male’s voice in her debut Freefall. It would have reduced Colum McCann’s glorious array of first person narratives across racial, gender and class lines in Let the Great World Spin (have I mentioned lately how brilliant that book is?). But do the rules change when the character’s identity is so integral to the story being told? What about if the story is about the injustice done to a particular group of people?
I’m inclined to say that it’s simply a matter of quality. The Scottsboro Boys was a brilliant show. At once devastating and hopeful, it was about how far we have (and haven’t) come as a nation and our collective history of racial intolerance. I believe that. But I also question my response since I’m, y’know…really white.
I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this. Are there stories that “belong” to one group of people? Are there perspectives that you just wouldn’t trust? Have you attempted a first person narration from a perspective radically different from your own?
I have often heard agents discuss the fact that you need to "be in love" with a book in order to represent it…let's say you take on a client because you're in love with their first book, but you only like the next, or even the next few? Even my favorite writers are about 50% hit or miss for me. Some I love, some I just like, and some I even outright dislike. I imagine it would be unusual to really love every book someone wrote.
So I guess my question is two-fold. One, as an agent, do you often find yourself liking some stories more than others, or are you so passionate about a writer's style that you tend to love them all, and two, what do you do if you aren't feeling the same passion for subsequent books?
Tricky one, Jennifer! I think it’s completely fair to say that when we work with someone on multiple books, we won’t have an equally passionate reaction to each and every project they work on. If someone writes twelve novels, we won’t be equally fond of all twelve. Of course, chances are the author also won’t be.
The reason we always say that we need to fall in love with something in order to take it on is that we’re diving headfirst into a long, involved process with someone we haven’t worked with before. If you don’t love the book wholeheartedly, it’s a lot of dedication and time to offer something (and someone) without any guaranteed results. As we continue working with clients, we still want to love every book, but the dynamic has changed—we know how we work with these particular authors, how comfortable the fit is, what happened with that first novel, what shape their career might take. We’re still responsible for making sure that the best product possible gets out there, but we also have to make sure that our clients wishes and best interests are well represented.
Sometimes the situation can get tricky. Let’s say we don’t just not love a project; let’s say we actively dislike it. If our feeling is that the audience will have the same reaction, we have to say something. No one is helped by glad-handing. So there have been times when projects need to be set aside, or we make recommendations for other ideas that might be pursued. It’s not the most comfortable thing to bring up, but it’s necessary to be able to offer that kind of feedback. Our authors depend on our honesty and feedback. And we likewise depend on them, not to do everything we say, but to take our thoughts into account. The best agent/client relations are built on an ability to share thoughts and find compromise.
So no, we don’t love every single project the same, but ideally the base of every relationship with a client is deep admiration of their work. Even if you don’t love every single thing they do, you can still support and guide them.
I remember first becoming aware of the concept that a comic book could also be a “real” book around the time that Maus hit Entertainment Weekly’s best of the year list about a million years ago. In the years since I started working at DGLM, graphic novels have gained more and more traction in sales and become increasingly respectable.
I’ve been thinking a lot about them for one incredibly obvious reason: I’ve started selling them. In the coming years, adaptations of a few of the novels I’ve sold will be hitting stores in graphic novel form. And as we move forward with these projects, I’m reading more and more books in the format and also becoming increasingly intrigued about how readers crossover from one format to the other. Take Laurell K. Hamilton: I’d guess that most of the folks buying her graphic novels were already fans looking forward to a different approach to the stories and characters they loved. But I have to imagine that there’s also a dedicated comic readership whose first exposure to Hamilton’s Anita Blake came through the adaptations.
While pondering this all, I also finally read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. If anyone else still hasn’t read it, you totally have to. It’s, well…amazing (truth in advertising!). and it relates here because it’s about two cousins who participate in the birth of the comics boom in the States in the 40s. It made me want to read more comic books and graphic novels. So I have.
I dug into Watchmen and was blown away by the richness of it all. Emboldened, I kept going. From memoirs of Iranian girlhood (Persepolis) to the biography of a mathematical philosopher (Logicomix) to tales of a dorky Canadian battling his girlfriends seven evil exes (Scott Pilgrim Saves the World), I’ve been incredibly impressed by the integration of art and language. It’s incredibly encouraging that so many artists and writers are committed to growing the format as its own art form.
Of course, the fact that it took me this long to really get behind the movement in full force probably speaks to a bit of snobbishness that I held onto until now.
I’d love to hear if any of our readers are graphic novel obsessives. And I’m completely open to suggestions for what to read next!
It’s finally August which means a few things: I’m counting down to vacation (five days!), New York smells like hot garbage, and publishing is in its slowest season. I’ve set a goal of clearing my Kindle before I head out of town on Saturday. It’s an ambitious goal, but so far seems doable (check with me on Thursday).
So what does that mean? One week of entirely non-work reading. It’s the week I have in mind all year long when I hit the registers of a bookstore laden down with things I know I don’t have time to read. Book shopping is my crack. It always makes me feel good. Until I go to put the books on shelves and realize how much I have that I still haven’t read from the last time I went shopping. And the time before. And the time before that. And 2006-9.
Come Friday, I expect this to happen: I go through my bookshelves picking out my vacation reading. I end up with maybe 12 novels. As I start to whittle down, I realize that none of these are what I really want to read on vacation. I reshelve everything and start over. This time I come up with 15 novels. I narrow to five, and I’m completely sure of them. They go into my suitcase. Saturday morning: I pull all five out, throw them on the coffee table, and randomly grab the first four things I see. I get to the airport and drop $75 in the bookstore.
Does anyone else have this problem? We’re all readers here, so I feel like I can’t be alone in this. But, I mean…I work in publishing. I get free books! And I STILL can’t avoid the pull of bookstores.
So fess up: does anyone else have the Barnes and Noble and the Borders frequent shopper card…even though they prefer shopping in independent bookstores? Has anyone else bought three copies of the same book because they just kept thinking it looked awesome? Or shown up late to dinners, shows, movies because they were lost in the stacks of beautiful books waiting to be read?
And, okay, let’s say I do end up shopping again for my vacation reads. Anyone fall completely head over heels for a book lately and just HAVE to recommend it?
Happy summer, everybody! For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we'd hate to leave you guys hanging. It's no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when. So we thought we'd bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year. We've cued up enough, but if you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!
Choosing what projects to take on can be a tricky thing. Given the number of manuscripts I usually have waiting to be read and how few of those I’ll actually be able to work on, I start each one assuming that I’ll be passing on it. For about 50 pages, I keep an eye out for the specific reasons I’ll be rejecting. I’m looking for overwrought writing, character inconsistency, sloppy plotting, and/or any reason to put the pages down and move on to something else.
Let’s say I pass page 50 and haven’t found a reason to definitely say no. I hit my optimistic reading phase and for the next 100 or so pages, I’m thinking, “Hook me!” I’ve invested just enough time that I won’t be upset if I end up deciding to pass, but I’m starting to think, “Hey, this could be my next new client.”
At page 150, my mood shifts entirely to, “Don’t let me down now.” Pessimism sneaks back in a bit. Even if I like this, I start to wonder, can I sell it? This is where I bust out the super handy trick that Jane taught me when I was starting out: if you can think of five editors you know who this could be right for, then it’s probably worth a shot. I ride the manuscript out keeping that in mind and also thinking about the competition. What similar books have done well? Are there too many similar books? Does this read like what’s working now, or does it read like what might be working a year from now when it would come out?
Of course, every so often, a manuscript comes along that shuttles my reading rules right out the window. And that is what I live for.
Let’s flash back to last summer. I drag a bag of manuscripts up to my roof, yank out the first one, open to the first page, read the first paragraph…and stop. It sounds so corny and over the top to say that you were hooked on something from the first page except that when it happens, it’s transporting. I read until the sun went down, and the next morning, I handed the manuscript to a colleague.
“Read a page and tell me if I’m crazy,” I requested. “I mean—this is really as good as I think it is, right?”
I fell so head over heels for the novel that I actually wanted confirmation I hadn’t just lost my mind. I felt stupidly luck to even have the project in hand. When the first page was read, I got the affirmation I needed: “It’s really that good.”
“Crap. Who else has this?” Luckily for me, though other agents did have and did want to represent the novel, its author, in her infinite wisdom, decided to work with me. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan is an astonishing novel for the young adult market that blends the literary and the commercial, stunning writing with rich characters and brilliant plotting. I eagerly look forward to its publication by Delacorte next spring.
The point I always come back to is that people who work in publishing do so because they’re readers. Yes, I read with an eye toward market and potential profit. This is a business, and when you work on commission, you can bet that there’s always an eye on the bottom line. The most thrilling part of the job, though, is playing some role in ushering a book you feel passionately about into another reader’s hands.
This blog post from Entertainment Weekly is just the latest in a series of articles about Amish romance novels that are breaking out all over the place. I can see why the chaste world of the Amish could be a fascinating place to set a romance novel. All that restrained passion. All those longing looks. And sure enough, there are enough “bonnet books” creeping into bestseller status to indicate the beginning of a trend. But could it actually happen?
Call me crazy, but I can’t see this becoming a full-blown trend. And EW’s comparison to vampire books is off base. Part of what made that so sustainable is that the genre naturally allows for people to bend mythology and create entirely different sorts of worlds. But with the Amish...I mean, there are only so many ways to not use electricity.
My prediction: one as yet unpublished bestseller followed by a slew of copycats flooding the marketplace and never becoming as successful again.
Two things I love: controversy and online quizzes. As we kick off annual Banned Books Week, the Guardian has a quiz on the subject. I confess, I only got 7 of 12 right.
But it’s the Independent which has far more interesting things to say about Banned Books Week. As they note, it’s pretty easy to laugh off people who think Harry Potter will make kids Satanists or that Judy Blume will destroy the moral fabric of a nation. Boyd Tonkin, though, digs a little deeper and presents a list of ten books that make the question of book banning a little trickier: Holocaust deniers, pedophiles, racists…should they ever be banned? Or, a different way to look at it: do they deserve to be published?
For me, the latter question is infinitely more difficult to answer. Because I’m solidly on the side that no books should be banned. At the same time, there are plenty of titles I would never represent. Take Richard Howard’s Did Six Million Really Die? He had every right to publish it, but I wouldn’t have touched it in a hazmat suit. I’m curious whether that would make me, in a manner of speaking, complicit in the “banning” of books. I’m not saying I wouldn’t represent an author I don’t agree with—there are just different levels of disagreement, you know?
Would love to know your thoughts on the issue. And whether folks think they’d be able to work with authors they thought were reprehensible in order to make money on their books.
P.S. Just after writing this, I learned that my very own client Richelle Mead has had her entire Vampire Academy series banned at a junior high in Texas. The most striking thing about this is that the sixth book in the series, Last Sacrifice, isn’t even out yet. So it’s been banned…in the future. Magical.
It’s a rainy, cold October afternoon in NY. With the rain streaming down the slanted windows next to my desk, I feel like I’m trapped in a bad music video for a sappy mid-90s ballad. Maybe Michael Bolton can shoot a video here about his early dismissal from Dancing with the Stars (which—did you see it? most amazingly cringeworthy performance ever, right?).
In any case, it’s a bummer of a day which had me thinking about all things terrible. And led me to wonder what the worst book I’ve ever read is.
I’ve read some terrible stuff in my day—published, unpublished, desperately wanting to be published but destined not to make it. But what would make something the WORST? So bad I couldn’t read past a page? 50 pages? Something I actually made it to the end of and THEN realized how bad it was? I admit I’m not one to finish books I loathe. So the worst book I’ve ever finished is probably still not atrocious.
What should my criteria be? Give me some ideas, and I’ll let you know next time what sticks out like a sore thumb. And what’s the worst book YOU have ever read?
And wouldn’t it be easier to choose books if their titles were pithier and more to the point? British Battle Royale…that’s not just a title—that’s a book pitch!
Of course, there’s the immortal My Teacher Ruined This, which here stands in for Wuthering Heights. But don’t we all have a book that a well-meaning English teacher somehow overanalyzed to the point where the reading of it became a deep, dark slog? I still need to try reading The Great Gatsby again outside of the tortured process of high school English class. How about you? Any books that were tortured beyond recognition in your past?
Less than a week to go until Halloween, the best holiday of all time. Keep your fireworks, July 4th. I don’t need your candy canes, Christmas. I just want some candy corn, a scary movie, and the chance to see people wear crazy costumes and wander around.
I love a good scare. Admittedly, I go from zero to terrified pretty quickly and have been known to sleep with the lights on for days at a time when something really gets to me. But that’s never stopped me from going back for more.
I’ve said before (and maintain) that I’m looking for great horror novels. They’re not easy to find for a few reasons. There are no cheap scares in books—you can’t have a “gotcha” moment. So the suspense needs to be built, the discomfort seeded, and the terrifying aspects need to develop fully enough to stay with you as you turn each page.
As many folks know, House of Leaves is one of my favorite books. As the narrator begins to come apart, the narrative itself does as well. The author removes the safety net, and you realize that anything could happen. I still remember the act of reading one passage—how scared I was, and how hard it was to shake the feeling of being watched that the book implanted.
I’m also a big Shirley Jackson fan. Whether it’s the horror that people do in The Lottery or how convincingly spooky We Have Always Lived in the Castle is, she’s a master of unsettling.
Stephen King was pretty much my hero growing up. Looking back, some of his books don’t hold together as well as others. Let us never speak of Gerald’s Game. But when he’s on, no one can come near him. He has such an exceptional eye for what people are afraid of, and he can zero in on the most disturbing of our feelings. Whether it’s the viral fallout of The Stand, the killer clown of It, or the psychopathic fan of Misery, his great talent is in exploring (and exploiting) just what it is about these things that we find so terrifying.
What are your favorite scary books? And what’s the scariest?
No seriously, I love the snarky. That the first comment asked me whether I chose the best or worst nine entries made me smile. Interestingly, someone else took the time to critique all nine entries. And while my first instinct was to rip them a new one, on a second read through, I saw that they actually made some thoughtful points, a few of which I didn’t disagree with. So I thought it would be fun/enlightening to go through and offer their critique along with my response to it as well as the entries themselves.
Before that, I want to take a quick moment to say thank you again to everyone who posted an entry. There were so many to choose from, and some really great ones slipped by. There are three in particular that I’m still mentally rotating with some of the entries I chose. A few commenters yesterday mentioned first lines that they admired: I’d love for you to share which you chose, and I’m sure the folks who penned them will be delighted to be discussed!
Now, on to the main event:
“The next time Hermes brought her back from the Underworld, Persephone wept tears of rage.”
Anonymous says: “Feels too close to pre-existing mythology.”
Jim says: Well…yeah. But I love this sentence. Not only am I a mythology fan, but I think there’s real room in the marketplace for more fiction based in Greek and Roman myths. Beyond that, the language feels nicely in tune with the subject matter but also feels effortless. And even if you know nothing about these gods, you’re left with a tantalizing question: why would someone feel rage for being taken out of hell?
"I saw her do it before she did.”
Anonymous wonders: “What does"it" refer to?”
Jim says: I don’t know. But I want to. This sentence hits a sweet spot between vague and specific that makes me ask a lot of questions. Not only what “it” is (which I assume will be answered in a later sentence), but whether this is about a main character with some sort of psychic ability, or if “she” may lack awareness of what she’s doing, in fact whether the speaker is seeing something that hasn’t happened or whether the subject is doing something without “seeing” it. It’s open ended without feeling clumsy, and it pushes me to want to know more.
“I'm pretty sure my sister had decided to become a pagan or a baptist or something before she offed herself so I don't know why we were having a Catholic funeral.”
Anonymous feels: “"Had decided" versus "decided" and the second "or" with "something" dilutes the power of the sentence.”
Jim feels: I’m going to disagree completely on this one. The “or something” is completely crucial to the success of this sentence. It reinforces the narrator’s indifference to their sister making this seem that much more wrong in so many right ways. As for the “had,” I’d keep it. It feels right for the voice which is key in the first person. This line seems to be giving us a tough yet funny narrator who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. I most defini
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We have a winner from last week’s poll! At the end of the business day on Thursday, the author who had accumulated the most votes was K whose “I wondered if the girl at the front desk knew that things like me existed,” garnered a healthy 236 votes!
So K, bring it on! Send me your manuscript, and I’ll review it promptly.
Everyone else, don’t be discouraged if you weren’t chosen as a finalist or if you didn’t win. Do feel free to query me—there were lots of great entries!
Sometimes a book will become a bestseller and we suddenly see dozens of knock-off queries. There were about two years when everyone said they wrote the next Da Vinci Code. The thing is, you can’t tell if they were working on something that ultimately felt comparable to the original title or whether they’re peddling a quickie novel they pounded out to fit what they perceive as a market need. Ultimately, it doesn’t really make a difference as long as the quality is there. But, well…it usually isn’t.
There’s another rash of query-alikes happening right now, but this time, I KNOW they’re just ripping off a formula. And for some folks, it’s working.
First came Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Then Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. And since then, dozens of similar literary mash-ups have been acquired and hundreds have been written (or at least queried).
My question to you: isn’t this a gimmick that gets old after the first time? Even the author of the first book moved onto something different right away: Abraham Lincon, Vampire Hunter. Now THERE is an idea….
We’ve spent a lot of time lately talking about how important internet promotion is and how social media is changing the face of book marketing. Lots of folks are ready to embrace the shift. Others are more reticent. But in this delightful YouTube clip, author Parnell Hall shows just how flawed some of the more traditional means of publicity are and why some folks should be thankful they aren’t sent on book tours.
I was out for dinner with a friend and her sister recently, and I mentioned that I had finally read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to read that,” said friend’s sister. “I keep seeing it at WalMart.”
“I know! It’s everywhere!” I replied, at this point still enjoying the conversation.
“Well, I just don’t buy books until they’re in the WalMart,” she commented. “Once they’re there, I just know they’re good.”
After briefly choking on my tongue, I asked her to explain. Her theory, which in fairness does make some sense, was that WalMart only carries the most popular books, so once they’re there, they’ve essentially been pre-screened by the public. And okay, that makes a good degree of sense. But in a market where so much great new fiction doesn’t really have a chance to break out, it made me worried about how people choose what to read.
Have we created a system in which only books pre-ordained to bestsellerdom even have a chance? Is there such a thing as a word of mouth bestseller anymore?
It reminds me of when Jonathan Franzen turned down the Oprah book club back in 2001 and made comments alluding to his own discomfort that we trust so few people to tell us what to read and are so willing to jump on board with whatever they point us to. For me, so much of the thrill is in finding something unexpected or something no one else has talked to me about so I can go in with no expectations.
That brings me back to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which I loved more than most folks I know who have read or tried to read it and which does seem like an honest to goodness word of mouth bestseller. It did get a huge push from its publisher, but as folks have dived in and the rest of the trilogy came out, it has expanded hugely. So the chance for books to break out is there, but…I’m still concerned about the nature of big box retail and its effect on book buying habits.
What about you guys? Do you prefer books you know other people love, or would you rather uncover an unexpected gem? And how do you decide what to read?
I won’t pretend I’m uninfluenced by buzz. I just bought Justin Cronin’s doorstop The Passage this weekend because I’ve heard so many great things. But then I started something else…
We talk all the time about how important it is to use social media to connect with readers. And it IS. But sometimes it’s crazy hard to come up with something to say. I’m fully aware of this. So aware of it, in fact, that I have virtually nothing to say RIGHT NOW.
I’ve been staring at this blank screen as my inbox gets more and more full, and coming up with something to post today becomes a more and more imposing task.
Now, I could give a pretty full breakdown of last week’s episodes of So You Think You Can Dance (Team Billy!) or catch you up with what’s going on with the World Cup (haha…France), but that doesn’t really jibe with the subject matter of our blog.
So instead, let’s talk about something else: writers’ block. Or…bloggers’ block, I suppose. Where do you turn when your mind is just a blank? And is it the same as when you get blocked while writing a book? Different? Better? Worse?
And also, just in case in comes up again that somewhere down the road I have NOTHING to say (which is pretty rare but does happen!), are there any specific requests our readers have for content they’d like to see from me (or us)?
Lastly, is turning it over to the readers to help identify material/content totally lame or totally acceptable?
P.S. I guest blogged in greater detail over at What Women Write today. Check it out!
At a writer’s conference a few years back, one of the organizers implored me to, “Keep it happy. No one pays to hear they won’t make it.” Which led to some questions on my part:
First, why single me out? Do I look like such a downer that you have to tell me not to be a schmuck?
More importantly: is it fair to tell publishing pros to keep it peppy so as not to scare off potential paying guests to your next writers conference?
MOST importantly: is it really right to be upbeat all the time?
Listen, I’ve told people time and again that they’re only going to make it if they keep trying. I just wrote a very positive entry for another blog about how determined you have to be to make it in this business. I do believe that wholeheartedly. But sometimes the numbers sneak into the back of my mind, and I think about how many people will never make it. At the risk of discouraging people who haven’t yet reached their fullest potential, are we encouraging people who will never succeed? Is that fair?
Or do the doubts of every writer do enough of the discouraging on their own?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Is it right to encourage everyone? Should we be more brutal than we are?
Last week I admitted to having a case of blogger’s block and asked for suggestions for future topics. Thanks to those of you who offered suggestions! Two people wanted to know what happens when we don’t sell a book. And how can I avoid jumping on a topic as upbeat and positive as that?!
So…yes, sometimes agents sign on books and then cannot sell them—usually because the editors who review those submissions are bad and wrong. It’s true! So what happens then? Well…it depends.
Option 1: We recommend to a client that they revise their manuscript according to some specific feedback that we received during the submission process. Sometimes editors offer very constructive feedback. And doors can occasionally be left open by the editor for resubmission should the author rework. There’s nothing wrong with pausing a submission and taking stock of what changes need to be made. As much as we work with clients editorially, sometimes it takes another eye to see a different kind of potential in a manuscript.
Option 2: We recommend that a client table the current project and work on something new. Some books flat out don’t sell. Maybe they’re good novels but not good first novels. Maybe they’re in a genre that’s just glutted in the marketplace. Maybe editors are blind to the genius that we agents have clearly seen in the project and just need the time to recover their sight before we take a project back out at a later date. These things happen. And there’s no shame there. We’re looking to build long term relationships with our clients, and we sign folks on because we believe not just in their project but in them. I’ve had clients who didn’t get a sale until their second or third novel. That’s far from ideal! But it happens sometimes. And in the best agent/client relationships, there is a level of trust and mutual respect—if that is there and two people continue to have faith in each other, you just keep working until you get it right.
Option 3: The least happy of all options. Here’s the thing: the agent/client relationship is a really close one . It depends on a deep level of confidence being felt on both sides. If that confidence is shaken, it can be best to part ways. And that can happen on either side. A client might want to find a new agent to offer a different perspective. Or an agent might be concerned that their vision for how to break the author out has become too murky. You don’t always get it right on the first go, and that’s really unfortunate, but sometimes it just is.
In short, if a book doesn’t sell, you just keep evaluating and asking questions. Why didn’t it sell? Is it the content? Is it the market? Is it the timing? The important thing is that you learn from the experience and you go forward, still chasing publication, still fighting to be heard. This business can require nerves of steel, but the potential reward is great.
Happy summer, everybody! For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we'd hate to leave you guys hanging. It's no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when. So we thought we'd bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year. If you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!
It didn’t surprise me when someone asked me recently what the differences are in how I handle the projects I love and the projects I work on for money. It did, however, irritate me. The question came loaded with the insinuation that there are two kinds of books—the ones people should read and the ones they actually do. Often, I find that literary and commercial fiction are pitted against each other, as though they’re totally different beasts that serve entirely separate purposes. But is that really the case?
Too often, category fiction is treated like the bastard stepchild of the written word. But, frankly, I’m a whole lot more likely to pick up Stephen King’s new book than dive into Thomas Pynchon’s latest doorstop. Which isn’t to dismiss literary fiction, either.
Years ago, I was getting a ride to a train station from an MFA student in Massachusetts, and we talked about the challenges of fiction writing and writer’s block, not to mention how competitive the marketplace is. And then he unleashed this on me: “I could knock out the sort of mystery novels that sell hundreds of thousands of copies, but I’m better than that.” If he weren’t behind the wheel of the car, I would have smacked him upside the head. I mean, really. Do you honestly think the only thing holding people back from becoming bestselling authors is…integrity?
As I patiently explained to him (who am I kidding? I sounded like a howler monkey in heat), it takes a lot of talent to write a fantastic mystery, just as it does to write an amazing literary novel. They just happen to be very, very different talents. Anyone who thinks that just because someone is a wonderful writer means they can pull off working in other genres clearly hasn’t read Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days. I recommend they keep it that way.
And let’s not get too far without mentioning that literary and commercial are not exact opposites. There are plenty of authors who mix the two forms freely. One can see this by reading the stunning, bleak mysteries of Dennis Lehane or the thrilling horror of Clive Barker. And is it just me, or is the award winning Cold Mountain as much a retelling of The Odyssey as it is a historical romance novel?
What I’m saying is, let’s let the snobbery go. Reading Madame Bovary can be as entertaining as reading Valley of the Dolls and vice versa, and there’s nothing wrong with that. To those people who consider genre fiction to be “guilty pleasures,” let it go. I grew up on a steady diet of Stephen King, Charles Dickens, Jackie Collins, and Victor Hugo, and I’ll happily debate the merits of Lucky Santangelo and Esmeralda any day. I’m the guy on the subway reading The New Yorker and Romantic Times.
The lines for me just aren’t that sharply drawn. So whether I’m pitching a new cozy mystery or a collection of interconnected stories previously published in literary journals, you can know one thing links them: I love both.
We think a lot about book trailers here. How effective are they? Does anyone watch them that isn’t the author’s husband, cousin, editor, or Facebook friend? And how do some trailers begin to get tons of hits while others wouldn’t stand a chance of going viral even if they ran on the back end of a Susan Boyle video?
We’re still in the beginning stages, even if the book trailer has been around for a few years. Do you think they’ll last? Do you watch them? Are they the best advertising for books?
To help you make a decision, I present a book trailer that offers something I know the internet loves: pretty animals! From DGLM's own, Thomas French: