Friday, April 30, 2010

Salinger's not sacred coming (or going) through the rye

This from Publisher's Weekly today via the FeedMe bar:
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated a September 2009 injunction barring publication of Swedish author Fredrik Colting's 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, which lawyers for author J.D. Salinger argued was an illegal, "unauthorized sequel" to The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger's legal team now has 10 days to seek a temporary injunction, otherwise the preliminary ban will be lifted, possibly paving the way for Colting's book, published last year in Europe, to come out in a U.S. edition.
Interesting in light of Fred's post earlier...

The Text Entire

Last night, probably too late to have undertaken it, the estimable Richard Eoin Nash and I engaged in a brief twittering discussion. This odd reality (a tweeted colloquy) kicked in when Richard tweeted a link to a post at Magellan Media. That post is the assertion that a book "is made great by the people who read it, connect with it and communicate about it."

That seems to me another assertion of the primacy of the reader, which thought always gives me pause.

I don't want that to put me in the wrong light. It's just that for a while it has seemed to me that discussions about the future of the book assume that publishing is universally in opposition to the reader.

Although it troubles me, I understand the argument that publishers need to be moved out of the way. Sometimes this is about the reader. But the argument also posits itself in support of the author who is already able to self-publish--which, I think is a clearer discussion. I always respond to the sake-of-the-reader assertions by arguing that, given the hundreds of thousands of books published in this country each year, the publishing industry is (collectively and obviously) a horrendous gate-keeper.

What our colloquy raised for me last night was a set of questions that have become perennial in the new publishing environment: Is the text entire valuable in itself? (is it worth more than $9.99?) Should it be re-read? Should it be kept? Who is qualified to judge a book? Who owns it? Should we allow a text to be sampled in the composition of other works. Can an author still assume that it will even be read from start to finish? Ever?

The trouble I'm having is that in the world of books considerations of the author and of the primary existence of the text are not often enough at the center of the matter. At times we are told to encourage equal, cooperative roles for the author and the reader, as though a novel were a conversation.

I'm just asking whether the text is full in itself--as the author has made it.

Writing Out of the Box

Some young, inexperienced friends of mine bought their first house this week. They asked my advice about decorating it--I've owned half a dozen houses over the years, of all shapes and sizes--and I thought for a moment, and said honestly: beware the box. Some houses, like this one, invite boxiness. The house itself is a rectangle; all its rooms are square. It's a serviceable, in fact substantial canvas. But your temptation, I said carefully (I've owned houses like this one), will be to repeat the box over and over. To buy square rugs, square pictures, and when it comes time to paint a room, paint it all in one nice color. One very nice color, in fact. Because it feels so . . . solid. Safe. And only when you have lived in this steady symmetry for a while will you realize how tight it all feels. How you've left yourself no room to breathe. How the structure has worked you instead of you working the structure. How you've goofed.

My advice, I said, is find ways to open the box. Play with it. Paint two or three walls of this room one color, and the fourth another. Introduce unexpected shapes. Make pathways. If you look at highly geometric Navajo rugs, you'll see what's called a "spirit line"--a line of color leading out of the pattern that looks like an imperfection, an interruption, but is actually a deliberate breaking open of the sequence to let energy in and out. It's bad luck, in the Navajo tradition, to box the spirit in. I've always had better luck, and better design results, I told my friends, when I remember this. I love looking at Navajo rugs and searching for the unexpected thread that leads away from the obvious and to the very edge of the fabric, outward into . . .

I try to remember this at the level of the sentence and the paragraph as well. In my rough drafts, some of my writing tends to be boxy, while other passages are loosey-goosey (another blog post for another day). I don't mean they are bad sentences. They are generally fairly good sentences: solid, serviceable. They say what I mean; they get the job done.

But they don't move much air around. For example, here's the first version of the sentence I wrote above:

"In my rough drafts some of my writing tends to be quite boxy, while other passages seem to lack any structure at all."

Not bad. Makes the point. A bit formulaic, though. Frankly, I can't imagine getting anyone to take a breath and really look at their own sentences with that kind of stuff. How about:

"In my rough drafts some passages tend to be boxy; others bag around my ankles."

Better. A gust of something, at least. Not just a description, but an invitation. To imagine. To compare. Boxes? Ankles? What kind of writing is that? (I think we all know.)

But let's say you are describing something boxy. Surely we want the writing to reflect what we are describing, yes? Surely this is when we should make sure the prose is totally square?

"The house itself is a rectangle; all its rooms are square. It's a serviceable, in fact substantial canvas. But your temptation, I said carefully (I've owned houses like this one), will be to repeat the box over and over. To buy square rugs, square pictures, and when it comes time to paint a room, paint it all one nice color. One very nice color, in fact. Because it feels so . . . solid. Safe. And only when you have lived in this steady symmetry for a while will you realize how tight it all feels. How you've left yourself no room to breathe. How the structure has worked you instead of you working the structure. How you've goofed."

Now imagine that paragraph without the spirit-line, How you've goofed.

Air. A shift in gears. A shift in diction. A shift in energy. Movement in an unexpected direction. As a gesture of kindness to the reader ("I do not want to bore you. I respect your need for interest. I can ride more than one horse, I promise"). As a way to keep the writing awake and alive. As a way to keep myself awake and alive. As a way to keep sentence, paragraph, chapter, plot moving into the next room.

As a way to tickle.

--MD

Serial Monogamy and the Not-So-Single Writer

I'm coming clean with you, dear readers. I've been tempted lately to stray. To cheat on the manuscript to which I've sworn fidelity (if only for a the time being.)

I just can't help myself. Main Squeeze Manuscript wants waaay too much attention, while over in the shadowed corner, the Sexy Diversion crosses manly arms (oh, how I love the look of a firm bicep) and casts a smoldering look my way.

Discipline, I tell myself, yet I'm continually distracted by the low rumble of whisper, a spicy, masculine scent... and the fact that he's had the waitress bring an extra fork with his strawberry-covered cheesecake. (Forget the beefcake, baby! It's cheesecake all the way!)

The trouble is, I'm committed elsewhere, to a swell story I owe every crumb of my attention. Even when -- no, let's make that especially when the going gets touch. Though I might occasionally lust in my heart after that tabled project or scintillating new idea, only a monogamous relationship will allow me to be the kind of author I can respect.

Fortunately, even the toughest projects come to an end, or go on hiatus, so serial monogamy does the trick quick nicely. So long as I give over my full attention to each story in turn and keep working, I can feel content and virtuous, knowing there's a new love just over the horizon.

And if he knows what's good for him, he won't have eaten that last bite of cheesecake by the time I get there, either.

Nature for the Nature Deprived: A Prisoner Writes About Nature

I just looked at the PEN prison awards listing for this year and was pleased to see a few of my students there. It's a national contest, and we usually do well. I was particularly happy to see one of my favorite pieces from last summer's nature writing class honored with an honorable mention. It's short and vivid, and worth a lunch break read.

And congratulations to all the winners of this incredibly prestigious competition! So looking forward to being back at the prison again this summer--to teach my infamous class in Gothic literature. :)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Four Different Kinds of Writer's Block--And What We Can Learn From Them

Last night, Joni and Colleen came to my fiction class and spoke about various aspects of the writing life, including the importance of setting up a schedule and actually writing. As is inevitable with such a discussion, there were those people who talked about having trouble getting started. This got me thinking about Mylene's earlier post about resistance to writing.

The problem with lumping all of our reluctance under the generic terms of "writer's block" or "writing resistance" is that if we don't know why we are resisting writing, we will find it difficult to break through. Writing resistance can happen at any stage of the process, and it usually happens for one of four main reasons:

1) The fear that the words will fail us. This is probably the most common reason, and is also known as the terror of the blank page. Mylene talked about this earlier when she talked about our fear of corrupting that perfect vision inside us, the realization that what we put on paper will never live up to that which is so beautiful inside our minds. I call this an internal fear. We are fighting against ourselves, fighting against an ideal that only we have created.

2) The fear that we won't connect with readers. We worry what we write won't be good enough to get published, won't find the right (or any) audience if it does get published, or will be badly reviewed. We worry that what we're writing won't be understood or be trivial and boring. We have internalized voices from outside ourselves, and we are too adept at listening to them. I was stuck here a long time, after years of hypercritical workshops. I got so good at listening to everyone else's voices I forgot to listen to my own.

3) The fear that our time will be better spent elsewhere. This also got me for a long time, and will be the subject of a later expanded post. For the longest time, I thought that because I was a Christian, that writing was selfish and not a wise use of my time. I was a steward, after all, of my resources, and what was I going to give to the world by sitting behind a desk? Shouldn't I be out there feeding the homeless, or leading worship in my church? Shouldn't I keep singing in the choir? To be honest, I still struggle with this one, and am working on figuring out how to continue to serve God in other ways, along with (rather than in spite of) my writing.

4) The fear that we will break open. In Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg says that in order to write fully and honestly, you must be "willing to break open." You have to be willing to tell the truth, no matter what genre you're writing in. Sometimes that truth is difficult. Sometimes it has the power to dismember. But in order to write what will most resonate with readers, we have to go there, to the heart of that which we are most afraid. Frankly, there are days I can't handle it. There are days when I wake up with my very mentally disturbed antagonist in my head, and just don't want to go with her. This happens less now than it did at first, when I was early in the writing and research process. Now I can listen to her with more compassion, having already broken open so many times. But sometimes what she tells me paralyzes me--because I don't know if I want to put something that dark out into the world.

I can remember my first writing sessions at Panera--I had to write there because I couldn't write alone--I would go into the bathroom stall and lay down on the floor if no one else was there and put my hand on my stomach and just breathe. I had to tell myself that I was okay, that this was my novel and not actually happening to me, but all the research I'd done put me there. It put me there so viscerally that I felt like I was actually experiencing it, and I had to do something to mediate the horror.

While most of us aren't writing books like that (and Lord help you if you are!), I still think #4 is the reason for the vast majority of writer's blocks. We may say it's #1 or even #2, but deep down, I think we know the truth. For most of us, it's that there's another level of depth beyond where we are already writing, but in order to access that depth, we have to be able to face the darkest parts of our characters and the inevitable darkness within ourselves.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The dynamics of word fail (It doesn't matter twat you MEANT to say.)

Saturday afternoon, the Gare Bear and I were parked in front of a slow news day on MSNBC. A fresh-faced anchor woman was nattering with New York Plastic Surgeon, Dr. Rich Niptuck (or some such) about the refurbishing of presidential portraits on newly minted money. They flashed up the twenty dollar bill with a new and improved image of Andrew Jackson.

"They've filled in his temple with some injectables," said the doctor, "and they've done a really nice blow job on him."

The anchor woman uttered a strangled giggle. The plastic surgeon tried to recover, stammering something about Jackson wearing a - a smock from the - the salon, like, they blow dry hair. At a salon. And it's like that. The anchor cut him off with a brusque "yeh-yeh-yeh" and moved on with amazing self-control.

So what may we as writers extrapolate from this little moment of zen?

It doesn't matter what you meant to say. Words live in cultural context, and skilled communication depends on full understanding and deft usage of both words and meaning.

Way too many workshop hours are spent on writers explaining subtext instead of refining text. If your editor doesn't get the jokes and your critique partners are baffled by your dialogue, it doesn't matter that you laughed out loud when you wrote it or that you're crystal clear about the character's motivation. It's. Not. Working. That's what counts. You lit the fuse at the keyboard, and no puff of smoke went up from the reader's head.

Back in the day, the celebrated poet, Robert Browning, published the beautiful "Pippa Passes":
The year's at the spring
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hillside's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn:
God's in His heaven—
All's right with the world!
But there's another line I don't remember from lit class:
Then, owls and bats,
Cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!
According to literary legend, Browning later explained to editors of the Oxford Dictionary that he'd heard the T word in these lines from a poem published in the 1600s:
They talk’t of his having a Cardinal’s Hat;
They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat.
And in his naivety, Browning deduced that cardinal is to hat as nun is to...

"Wimple!" The word is "wimple", dude. Why didn't someone tell him? An editor or friend? Was everyone around him so smitten by emperor's new clothes syndrome? Doing a really nice blow job on him because he was Browning and therefore above critique or even question?

It doesn't matter. However you stumble into it, word fail is word fail. Take a look at your intention from a different perspective and try again.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

By this book: Todd Johnson's "The Sweet By and By"

Todd Johnson's debut novel, fresh out in paperback. Last year, the hardcover release scored a sweet blurb from another debut author who was about to seriously blow up. Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, says, “I am in love with this book -- the language, the story, the sass. Five women bickering, judging, loving, growing old together. You won’t stop laughing, even when your heart is hurting. Keep a pencil close -- you’ll be underlining all your favorite, funny lines.”

Adriana Trigiani calls it "heartfelt and stunning." PW cracked on him for plotting, but conceded “the underlying message of the power of love and friendship resonates, as does its depiction of the way in which people leading unremarkable lives can have a tremendous impact on those around them.”

Meanwhile, Todd Johnson's website is a great one for emerging authors to check out. Everything that could be done for this book is being done and done right. And it seems to be working.

Click here to buy from IndieBound.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Baldacci's brave new book world: "You have to go where the readers are."


Grand Central released David Baldacci's new novel, Deliver Us from Evil, in hard cover last week. From the flap:
Evan Waller is a monster. On Waller’s trail is The Whole Truth’s Shaw. And someone else is after Waller — Reggie Campion, agent for a secret vigilante group. Hunting the same man, unaware of each other’s mission, Shaw and Reggie will be caught in a deadly duel of nerve and wits.
Next comes the enhanced eBook with DVDish special features, including deleted scenes and behind the scenes stuff about the writing process. Baldacci told the Associated Press, "For a long time it seemed all people were talking about was pricing and the timing of the e-book. And I want to bring it back to the books themselves, to the content, because that's what should matter. I want people to have a great experience and give them a behind-the-scenes look at what I do, the way you would have it on a DVD."

This seems to me the best possible use of the new platforms...as long as the story hasn't been forgotten. I'm thinking of Tim Burton's mind-blowingly beautiful new "Alice in Wonderland" movie, which was amazing to look at and a fantastic use of new tech and talent right up until the actors are forced to speak the lame script. PW (for what it's worth) says Baldacci's sequel to The Whole Truth "lacks the creative plotting and masterful handling of suspense that marked his earlier thrillers. ...Crucial developments come across as contrived rather than clever. The ultimate resolution will surprise few." (The ultimate resolution, of course, being another gimongous bestseller?)

Go here to read an excerpt and if you've already consumed the book, let me know: Did Baldacci nail it? Or are we losing the forest in the trees?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Cheno Coast to Coast

Kristin Chenoweth gets a nice write up in the LA Times this morning and opens on Broadway in "Promises, Promises" tonight. (I hear the show is edgier than the 1968 version, taking cues from the "Mad Men" aesthetic.) Meanwhile, Kristin's memoir A Little Bit Wicked is out in paperback this month, and Gleeks worldwide will see her working her Bacharach on next week's "Glee."

Go, baby girl, go!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Worth A Thousand Words: Using Images to Shape and Reshape Your Thinking


Last Saturday, I found myself in a place where I was excited about my work, but in too much pain to create. I couldn't stand or sit long enough to do any lengthy sessions of revision, and the pain was getting in the way of my mental processing. But it was the weekend, and I still wanted to make progress, so I decided that even if the words were failing me, I could still inhabit the novel's images. So I set up my laptop on my lingerie chest, and started scouring the web for pictures. I found several to represent each character, and several to represent what I think are key elements in the book. It was a lot of fun. In fact, it was so much fun it didn't really feel like work--but it was. Strangely, what I thought would just be a stop gap exercise turned into something much more profound. As I began pasting the images into a Word document and aligning them in tables, I started to see some conceptual and tonal problems in my work.

Seeing the pictures made me realize just how I needed to change things, and made me see what images don't quite fit. For instance, I refer throughout the novel to my main characters' ancestral past, and much of the story takes place in and around a graveyard, but I hadn't realized that the very modern medical devices stood out in contrast to this. In some ways, I think that's a good thing--21st century syringes in a 1920s Victorian, but it did give me some ideas about how I could connect back to the medical devices of the past. It also helped me think even more about the backstory of the novel, backstory that is creeping into this revision in brief flashbacks, which happens to mirror a comment I got during the defense, which was to do more with the past. Somehow setting out all those images made me see the past along with the present, and gave me connections I never would have had otherwise.

Also, quite by accident, I put two of my minor characters on the same page and realized that although they are generations apart and unrelated, they looked alike. This gave me the idea that they could be related, and if in fact they were related, that might tighten the storyline. I'm still not sure I'm going to do that, but it's an intriguing idea, and one that only came up because the page break bumped the characters into each other.

Final verdict: It was a great exercise in thinking, and a great way to sharpen my characters. When I emerged five hours later into the sundappled green of my backyard, I felt alive again and revived. And the image on the left (a bloodletting device from the 19th century) might just have brought me to another novel.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Sarah Weinman on Random House changes: Will New M&A Exec Expand or Shrink the Publisher?

Despite Sarah Weinman's excellent breakdown in this Daily Finance article, I'm having a hard time tracking changes at Random House.
Consolidation has been the strategy of Random House's parent company Bertelsmann throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Most famously, in 1998, it scooped up Random House -- which had long owned imprints Knopf and Pantheon -- and tucked it under the same umbrella as Bantam (acquired in 1980), Doubleday (1986), and Crown (1988), creating the behemoth we know today...

"Dohle is all about core businesses, consolidation and trying to get control of the beast," one industry insider told DailyFinance. Control, in this case, may be about separating out chaff instead of buying more wheat.
Read the rest here.

Here in my own little corner in my own little chair, I'm finishing up another thoroughly enjoyable experience at Random House. I've done three books there in the last six years, and the corporate structure has gone through a lot of changes in that time, but the people on the ground are consistently terrific, work incredibly hard, and genuinely love the art of publishing. The artistic culture at Random House doesn't float down from above. It's between the lines. Walk in their front door and you'll see what I mean.

This kind of movement is like changes in the weather down here on the Gulf Coast. Storms roll in, sun shines, winds blow, heat rises. Yes, we get beat up by the occasional hurricane. But we keep doing what we do.

Why Is This Seal Smiling?


Allow me to introduce my new friend Sabrina "Seal the Deal"Seal, from my recent trip to San Diego. She's smiling because I shared the news of a brand-new book sale, of Shadowed Dawn to Harlequin Intrigue for their new Shiver series.

Shadowed Dawn (Sept. 2011) is a spooky, atmospheric New Orleans-set story about a young cemetery tour guide, an enigmatic photographer, and the creepiest killer ever to haunt the Quarter. The book's follow-up, Gossamer Moon, written by my pal, Joanna Wayne, will come out the next month.

Since this book was sold off of a brief treatment (I'll describe how that works in a later post) I'll be writing the manuscript in the coming months and charting my progress here. I hope you'll join me on my journey -- or at least share a smile in the name of a new sale to a new-to-me line and editor.

I'm very excited to be embarking. Can't wait to sink my teeth into this book!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Buy this Book: The Best Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant

I'm going through a Guy de Maupassant phase this week. I'd almost forgotten how wonderful his short stories are. From "Boule de Suif" (which for my taste is one of top ten short stories of all time):
The woman, who belonged to the courtesan class, was celebrated for an embonpoint unusual for her age, which had earned for her the sobriquet of "Boule de Suif" (Tallow Ball). Short and round, fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints, looking like rows of short sausages; with a shiny, tightly-stretched skin and an enormous bust filling out the bodice of her dress, she was yet attractive and much sought after, owing to her fresh and pleasing appearance. Her face was like a crimson apple, a peony-bud just bursting into bloom; she had two magnificent dark eyes, fringed with thick, heavy lashes, which cast a shadow into their depths; her mouth was small, ripe, kissable, and was furnished with the tiniest of white teeth.

As soon as she was recognized the respectable matrons of the party began to whisper among themselves, and the words "hussy" and "public scandal" were uttered so loudly that Boule de Suif raised her head. She forthwith cast such a challenging, bold look at her neighbors that a sudden silence fell on the company, and all lowered their eyes, with the exception of Loiseau, who watched her with evident interest.

But conversation was soon resumed among the three ladies, whom the presence of this girl had suddenly drawn together in the bonds of friendship--one might almost say in those of intimacy. They decided that they ought to combine, as it were, in their dignity as wives in face of this shameless hussy; for legitimized love always despises its easygoing brother.

Is Kindle for old folks?

In Publisher's Lunch today:
Following Engadget's report in early April, yesterday Target confirmed that they will start selling Kindle as of April 25. But they'll start with just their downtown Minneapolis store and south Florida (which apparently holds 102 Targets), "rolling out to more Target stores later this year." (Does that confirm that the target Kindle demographic is retirees?)
Oldladysayswha? I don't want my ereader to multifunction as a video game or mini TV or BlackBerry flavored all-purpose brain dildo. I just want to read books on the thing. Though I do periodically revisit In the Night Kitchen, most of the books I've read since my ninth birthday were not illustrated with full color pictures. The instant library gratification and simplicity of the Kindle has more than doubled my readerly consumption since I got it, and I've been reading mostly classics. I felt a surge of hope that this would be the dynamic for younger readers, too, but I fear the iPad has so much other stuff going on, it won't encourage reading straight up old books that just, you know, tell stories'n'junk.

Bottom line, I just don't see iPad as an ereader like Nook and Kindle. I see it as a super cool lightweight entertainment system, and if you really must read a fusty old book, well, there's an app for that.

Or maybe I'm just getting old.

This from the Wall Street Journal:
During a recent episode of "The Colbert Report," Stephen Colbert gushed about the iPad and showed the cover of Newsweek, which carried the headline "What's so great about iPad? Everything." He then flipped to the back of the magazine to show a black and white Kindle ad. Poking fun at the pitch, Mr. Colbert said: "Oh look, the screen has both black and gray."
Ouch. Next thing you know, I'll be yelling at those damn kids to get out of my yard. And reading my Kindle with horn rimmed glasses on a fake pearl chain.

Earth Day 2010


My friends, I wish you a glorious Earth Day. May we all take a moment to stand in grateful, grounded astonishment.


La Sal Mountains, Utah

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

No More Crash and Burn

When I first began writing novels, my friends, I started each day this way: I would sit down at my computer and start all over, each time, at the first chapter, with the very first sentence. And scrutinize it, to see if it could be any better. If it could be, I would then make it so. Or at least try to. And then, and only then, move on to the second sentence. And repeat this procedure. And so on. And so on. And so on.

Each feather of my manuscript had to be carefully examined to see if it was properly aligned for flight. Of course, each day, the feathers somehow seemed to be all ruffled again. (How does that happen?) Which meant it often took me months to lose the coop of the first and second chapters. (There's nothing wrong with this, by the way. We write our first drafts--and our seconds and our thirds--in any way we choose. All in a rush, in three weeks. Or painstakingly, over three years. It's our work. It's our life. It's your business.)

The upside of my habit of course was that the openings of my manuscripts became more and more polished and vital as I went; the downside was that, the longer I went, the fewer new words I could add toward the hatching end of any story. Because by the time I got to where a new sentence needed to be added, I was exhausted. I would lay it down . . . or rather, I would simply drop it. And then I was done for the day. Time to go to sleep and then get up and do it all over again.

One day I realized that though I was certainly entitled to do as I pleased, this was an awfully cumbersome way to write books. So I made a new rule: every morning, I was not allowed to go back to the beginning. I had to start where I'd finished. Period. No peeking. No pecking. No polishing. How liberating! My fingers dashed new sentences off! I could go for days! Days! DAYS! Then a funny thing would happen. I'd start to descend. I'd start to lose the feel of the manuscript. I'd lose the weight, the voice, the sonar of what I'd already done. Crash. Burn. Give up. Go back to the beginning again.

Any of this sounding familiar?

I'm not sure when exactly I settled into my new routine. It was a few years ago. I'd crashed and burned somewhere in the middle of a draft. I'd gone back to the beginning, yet again. But all I did, for some reason, one day, was fiddle with the first chapter. That was it. When I had done that, when I was satisfied, when I had remembered why I began writing the story in the first place, what its polished voice sounded like, and held the first, round, fine stone of it in my hand--I set it down, hopped over all subsequent chapters, and went to the last chapter I'd been working on the day before. I didn't need all the words. I needed only their example. A talisman.

It's what I'm about to do, this morning.

Whatever works. Whatever works.

--MD

When the Going Gets Slow... 7 Quick Techniques to Notch Up the Tension

All too often, a really promising beginning runs out of steam. It's the reason agents lose interest in material they've requested, editors sigh and start making notes for the revision letter, and readers stick a bookmark in the novel and forget it. Many times, it's the reason the manuscript is never finished in the first place, as the writer loses sight of the initial spark once so enticing.

Many projects fall by the wayside at this juncture, but those willing to perservere can find a way to stoke the fire heating up the story. Here are a few possibilities I've used in the past when things slow down:

1. If your protagonist's goal has a pressing time limit, shorten it.
2. Remove your protagonist's "crutch character," forcing your hero to stand completely alone. Many a best friend has died in the service of this cause, but there are many other possibilities, including a betrayal, or a perceived betrayal.
3. Blow the story's original goal out of the water, forcing the protagonist to regroup and the reader to reassess what the story's really all about. This can be a risky choice, but if done properly, it's refreshingly surprising.
4. Make the consequences of the character's failure more severe, more personal, or more widespread than originally believed. Have the consequences impact (or threaten to impact) the innocent.
5. If you're tempted to whip out a "magic amulet" to make life easier for the hero, try giving it to the story's villain instead.
6. Strengthen the antagonist.
7. Allow your protagonist to make a poor choice. (How else will she learn enough to complete her arc?)

Do you have any favorite tips for escalating the tension near the middle of the story? Have you read any reversals that really made you sit up and take notice?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tinkers, not by Chance

Whatever it means to be beside oneself, that's what I've been--beside myself with hope and possibility--since Paul Harding's Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last week. I'm still trying to get my hands on a copy.

I understand from the NPR story that a member of the Pulitzer Committee contacted Mr. Harding and asked him to submit the novel for the prize. I wonder whether, at the time, the Committee realized how significant it would be in today's publishing environment to award the prize to a novel published by Bellevue Literary Press.

It is a remarkable moment. Commenters cite the last such award as that for A Confederacy of Dunces in 1981--but that novel was published by a university press (LSU), which I think we can view as something categorically different.

Following solid pre-publication trade reviews for Tinkers, LA Times reviewer Susan Salter Reynolds, in a brief review, called the book "astonishing." Considerable credit should go to Ms. Salter and the LA Times for taking note of this small-press book so early.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer picked up on PW's praise in early January. And then came a wash of wonderful reviews in The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Boston Globe and from a good number of the best online reviewers. (Though I don't think the NYT or The Washington Post found the book--please correct me if I'm wrong.)

Something was happening that turned the eyes of some important reviewers toward a word-of-mouth book from a publishing house established in 2005. One can only cheer. Bellevue Literary Press has published only a few works of fiction--beautifully chosen by editorial director Erika Goldman. I'm not naive enough to think that the reviews and the Pulitzer Committee's nod mark a widening of the vision in the mainstream book press, but I remain hopeful that it is something other than an aberration. Some of the best fiction being published these days is handled by folks who live without a "big book" focus, without a celebrity publishing mentality. Much is happening in independent publishing--much has always been happening there. And I'm convinced that the future of American literature lies in bringing attention to all that.

My congratulations to Bellevue Literary Press, to Mr. Harding, to the Pulitzer Committee, and to those reviewers and booksellers who saw what they knew to be a fine work of fiction and championed it.

Relative Peace and the Right List: 3 Questions for Literary Agent Kirby Kim of William Morris Endeavor

It's been less than ten years since Kirby Kim ditched law school with the idea that books would be more fun than settlement figures. He started out with Charlotte Sheedy, did an educational stint with Vigliano Associates, navigated some rough reorganizational waters at Endeavor, and is now growing a list at William Morris Endeavor. Repping both fiction and nonfiction, Kirby's forged some major deals, including bestselling memoirs by Kristin Chenoweth, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Motley Crue frontman Vince Neil, without overlooking terrific little novels and less obvious nonfiction. Last month, he sold Z. Rinehardt Linmark's Leche, "a meta-travelogue which follows a gay Asian-American pageant winner through a ten-day trip back to his native home - the chaotic '80s-era Philippines - that unearths forgotten memories and forces him to confront long-neglected issues of dispossession and self-identity," to Coffee House Press.

Kirby, as a young agent building a list at a major agency, you're plowing through piles of queries every week. What does it take to excite you enough to request a full manuscript? And what percentage of queries make that first cut?
Well with a query letter I think it's important to be able to get at the heart of what makes a story special quickly, and to state it succinctly. If the letter's too long or if I'm getting a plot summary and it kind of rambles then I feel like the author doesn't have a firm grasp of their story or the marketplace. Of course, even when an author can execute a great query letter there are times that I don't request the manuscript and that's just me not feeling I'm the right agent.

I think I take a look at one out of every 40. 50?

When you've finally established the author stable of your sweet agent dreams, what will that list look like?
Hard to say, mainly because I imagine that list evolving as my tastes and the market change. Generally speaking though, some narrative nonfiction, some humor, some literary fiction for children and adults, and maybe a little prescriptive non fiction based on my current hobbies or interests.

Since we became acquainted two years ago, I've observed you being Kipling's "if you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs" guy. What keeps you on track as you roll with the changes?
Ha! I'm not totally sure I'm necessarily that guy. You - nor do my clients generally - see those times when the hair's being pulled out by the fistfulls. If I do have any relative peace of mind it's probably just from accepting that there are so few things I can control I'd lose my mind if I got too worked up over all the things I can't.

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