Saturday, July 31, 2010

Seth Godin on the seductive peanut butter 'n' arsenic cookie of self-sabotage

Do you follow Seth Godin's terrific blog over on our FeedMe bar? Go. Read. Print. Post on your office wall. Saith Seth:
We know more than enough about marketing now. We know how to craft a story that will spread, we know how to find and lead tribes. The thing we have trouble with is making the commitment to do it even when it's frightening and difficult.
Here's a link to the rest of the item.

Saturday Morning Cartoon: How "Lost" should have ended (a lesson for writers)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Networking in Brief

Conference networking tips: Don't be surprised if you meet no one and have a lousy time if you sit with your arms crossed and a sour expression on your face.

Be willing to smile, ask strangers about themselves, and listen with interest. Share a tip, hear a tip, and converse in the spirit of genuine helpfulness rather than tit for tat.

You'll often be surprised when - sometimes years later - the seeds you've planted flower and bear fruit to nourish you.

"I'm a professional observer." (Sebastion Junger on WAR and rhythm)

Today on Steven Pressfield Online, Sebastion Junger stops by to talk about his latest bestseller, WAR, and his documentary, Restrepo, which premiers this fall on NatGeo.

Junger commenting on his personal writing process:
I’m a professional observer. I try to understand how things work and what they feel like to experience. Then I take those ideas home and try to turn them into words. Each sentence and paragraph has to have the right rhythm, word choices must be original and metaphors must be exactly right. I know I’ve done it right when I pick up something I’ve written and can’t stop reading it. That’s the same criterion I use, obviously, with other peoples’ writing as well.
Click here to read the rest. 

Buy WAR from IndieBound.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Buy This Book: The State of Jones: The Small Southern County That Seceded from the Confederacy by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer

In the small phantom world of ghostwriting, you don't find anyone better than Sally Jenkins, who co-authored Lance Armstrong's mega-bestseller It's Not About the Bike. A huge part of my education as a co-author has been reading everything she writes. I was delighted to see her name up front on the release of her latest book (pubbed by Doubleday last summer, now fresh out in paperback), The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy.

A starred review in PW says "Sally Jenkins and Harvard historian John Stauffer combine to tell this story with grace and passion. Using court transcripts, family memories, and other sources--and filling the remaining gaps with stylish evocations of crucial moments in the wider war..."

From the press kit:
Newton Knight is the most famous Civil War hero you’ve never heard of, because according to Mississippi legend he betrayed not only the Confederacy but his race as well. In 1863 Knight, a poor farmer from Jones County Mississippi, deserted the Confederate Army—and began fighting for the Union—after the battle of Vicksburg. It was rumored he even started a separate Unionist government, The Free State of Jones, and for two years he battled the Confederacy with a vengeance that solidified his legend. During his life Knight was hardly regarded as a proper soldier by either side, and after his death his Mississippi backwoods grave went unstrewn with flowers. Many southerners would have preferred to spit on it, and most northerners never recognized that such loyalty to the United States could exist in Dixie. But in truth, this lost patriot was a vital actor in helping to preserve the Union.

The recovery of the life of a Mississippi farmer who fought for his country is an important story. The fact that southern Unionists existed, and in very large numbers, is largely unknown to many Americans, who grew up with textbooks that perpetuated the myth of the Confederacy as a heroic Lost Cause, with its romanticized vision of the antebellum South. Some historians have even palpably sympathized with Confederate cavaliers while minimizing—and robbing of credit—the actions of southerners who remained loyal to the Union at desperate cost.
It never even occurred to me that the majority of Southerners would have voted against slavery and secession if they'd been given a chance. Sally Jenkins creates a compelling, readable history lesson about how the mouthy, moneyed few can subvert the will of the moderate many. A history we've never heard and are apparently doomed to repeat.

Check out this clip from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and click here to buy the book from IndieBound.

"Secret Room" and Brutus Morris: Stoker's Character Notes for Dracula

You may have to click on this a couple of times to zoom in, but it's definitely worth looking at. Quincey Morris was originally supposed to be Brutus (can you imagine?) and there's a note about a "secret room." I also love the scratch outs, and the insistence upon Wilhelmina, called Mina. You can also find another version here if you can't zoom in enough from this entry.

Good stuff. Reminds me of seeing the plot of "A Fable" written out on a wall in Faulkner's house. And can you imagine how different the book would be if Van Helsing were a "german professor" named "Mat Windsfoeffel?"

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Listen to This: "Wonder Wheel" by the Klezmatics

My comfort food of choice is peanut butter toast and applesauce. My comfort music, "Wonder Wheel", the Klezmatics (a sort of hopped up klezmer band) doing the songs of Woodie Guthrie. It's evocative of the past, enticing to the future, and maybe speaks to the idea of artistic mashup/smashup that's finally making its way into the publishing industry -- that it's groovy to stand on the shoulders of giants and do your own lovely new old thing. Anyhoo. Give it a listen.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Talk Yourself Unstuck

This past week, my work came to a screeching halt as I realized I'd written myself into a corner at the 3/4 point of my book. For once, rereading the synopsis was no help at all, since my characters had taken a detour and fallen off the edge. Rereading the completed chunk of manuscript did nothing either, except for convince me that yep, I had well and truly fallen down the well on this one.

Not knowing what else to do, I decided to whine - I mean talk it out - with my online critique partner, who reads and comments on every chapter of the evolving draft as it's completed (as I do for her.) Since she knows the story more intimately than anyone else to this point, I thought she might have some insight to pull me out of the well.

Turns out she didn't have to. During the process of clearly and methodically explaining both the problem and my ultimate story goals to a knowledgeable and willing listener, the solution popped into my head and out of my mouth within a very few minutes.

This has happened to me on numerous occasions, and I have no idea why it works after I've beat my head against the bricks for days (or sometimes weeks) to figure out how to write an ending. It almost feels like those times you're trying so hard to think of a word that you can't possibly access it but the moment you stop struggling, it pops back into your head. Perhaps because I'd admitted my inability to solve the problem and turned it over to someone else's expertise, it took the pressure off my brain and allowed the subconscious to do its work.

So today, I'm sharing this suggestion. The next time you're hopelessly, irredeemably stuck, call a friend and make a lunch date or schedule time for a conversation (the phone works fine, but not so much e-mail, since the give and take really helps) about a story problem you're having. Then explain it, answer any questions, ask for advice, and listen carefully. Don't be surprised if you end up piggybacking off one of your friend's bright ideas and coming up with something even better of your own.

Something you never could have accessed by continually spinning in circles on your own.

Good luck!

Monday, July 26, 2010

On Words, Work and Jerry McGuire

This is the time of year when I begin prepping my speeches and lectures for the fall.  Some of these are on topics related to writing and creativity; but others I write for those who don't generally have the luxury of sitting down for any length of time and thinking about how they might use language more effectively, more powerfully, more satisfyingly in their lives--people who don't often get to explore and experience their own, creative relationship to words (as we writers are so fortunate to do), this richness we all carry around with us, in dimes without any weight.  Musing over all the forces that lead us to limit what words can do for us, I found myself writing:

"Life and work have an uncanny way of inviting us into language ruts.  Think about it.  How many of our professions invite us to be routine in the way we use words?  How many of us have set ways of speaking and writing and communicating within our individual fields that we are expected to master, and that we do in fact need and want to use, for all kinds of reasons--as handy shortcuts in communicating with our colleagues ("Liz, what's the take-away on that?"); as signals between colleagues that we know what we're talking about and inhabit the same world ("Who are we assigning to SEO on this?"); and sometimes as a sheer safety mechanism, because we know if we use certain words and phrases we can't go wrong, we won't offend anybody, we won't hit the wrong note, we know where we are There are, as it happens, powerful incentives as we move through life to fall into language patterns, literal and figurative abbreviations, and begin narrowing our language skills instead of expanding them . . . And while there is nothing wrong with mastering certain kinds of language forms that we have to master, where we should begin to become concerned is when we notice the box of words we're required to work with all the time is yielding nothing but stale crumbs in the mouth . . . when unwittingly we begin to represent ourselves to the world, as a result of this, in a stale way.  I'm talking about when we can feel ourselves not feeling our own words.  Because when our words fail to move or inspire or excite us, we begin to lose the ability to move ourselves toward the brightest things of which we are capable.  And we begin to lose, too, the ability to inspire people around us . . ."

Not long after I got this down, I decided I was done writing for the day and went into the living room to relax and watch Jerry McGuire on cable; and by changing a word or two of the movie's dialogue in my mind (language is possibility, language is ours) came up with the following :

If you don't love all the words, you can't sell any of them!

Language completes us.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

"But can't you just take a look at it?": What You're Really Saying When You Ask An Author To Read Your Unpublished Manuscript

I teach fiction writing. I am revising a novel. I have an MFA. It amazes me that even though I am an unpublished novelist myself, the combination of those three things alone brings all the writers out of the woodwork. In fact, as soon as I tell people any one of these things, somehow they think this qualifies me to read everything from the most experimental literary fiction to their spec script for Cold Case (yes, it's happened). But most importantly, they think I want to, and that I'll do it for free.

Now don't get me wrong; I am all about helping people with their writing, whether that's teaching them to establish a schedule for it, helping them figure out their psychological blocks, or giving feedback to my students and workshop partners. And I don't even mind reading short snippets of things for close friends who aren't in my genre. But when someone I barely know hits me up with their two unfinished screenplays and their 450-paged fantasy novel, I tend to blanche. In fact, I get nauseated. And it's not because I don't want to help another writer, because my heart goes out to any writer who is hungry for community and feedback. It's just that I can't help every writer.

"But can't you just take a look at it? A quick look? All of 20 minutes?" You'd be surprised how many people ask this. For a poem or a flash fiction piece, maybe that's realistic. But it is not realistic to ask that of someone when you are dealing with a larger body of work. It's also not even advisable. Reading someone's work thoroughly and with a critical eye takes time--lots of time. When my fiction students submit between 10 and 30 pages apiece for their graduate workshop, I block out an hour per student, per week. That's how long it takes to read the work, think about it, and offer a valuable critique. Maybe some people can do it faster, but not me. When one of my graduate students gave me her 250-paged manuscript last fall, I spent 15-20 hours reading and critiquing it, and then an additional 8-10 hours reviewing her revision later on. When I teach first-year composition, it takes me 10-20 minutes per student per essay, again, because I'm thorough and diligent. And I would not want to read and critique any other way.

That's the kind of workload writing teachers have, and we have to balance that with our own writing. A full-time author has to balance their writing with their marketing and other professional commitments, whether social networking, speaking engagements, book-club visits or signings. They, too, may critique full manuscripts occasionally, but not often and not for free, not unless you're their critique partners.

So when we say we can't do it, it isn't that we don't care about you or your work or that we don't want you to succeed; it's that we, like everyone else, have to carve out time for our writing (and blogging and families and any other personal pursuits) and there's just so much time and mental energy to go around. We also might turn you down because your work is not in our genre, not in our medium, or just not our aesthetic. You don't want someone reading your work who has a diametrically opposed sensibility. Sometimes that might work, but you really want to find critique partners who are more similar to you or have similar goals.

Finally, there are so many places now on the web for aspiring writers, so many forums where you can have your work critiqued. Go to those places first. Find two or three like-minded individuals who give you both encouraging and constructive feedback. Use that feedback to write multiple drafts. Put in what Colleen calls "the sweat equity."

Then read someone else's 250-paged manuscript and see if you can do it in 20 minutes.

Dang, I wish I was cool enough to go to Comic Con!

Visit for more.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

What You Will and Will Not Get Out of a Writers' Conference

Ever wondered if attending a large writers' conference is for you? As I prepare to attend (and present a workshop at) the Romance Writers of America national conference in Orlando, Florida, I've been a little overwhelmed by the logistics of getting myself together for four jam-packed days of events with about 2100 participants from all over the country (and increasingly the world.)

Despite the stress level, I keep going back for...
1. The best craft/research/business-of-writing workshops, bar none. A large conference has its pick of experienced, popular, and well-prepared speakers on a variety of topics. You're never too old a dog to learn (or relearn) new tricks or benefit from someone else's wisdom. I go to however many workshops I can manage, and buy recorded sessions for the rest. Sure, some are going to end up duds, but there's a lot of good stuff in the mix.
2. Fresh-squeezed market information. Every year, I hear about who's buying what, what's trending up, what's fizzling out. This has helped me choose between ideas a little more wisely and save myself a lot of time.
3. Networking with industry pros, authors, and aspiring authors. The best way to wade into networking, a.k.a. schmoozing, is to take - not fake - a genuine interest in the other person. If an author, ask her about her latest book or how she got started writing in that area. If an industry pro, try asking what's the latest project he/she is really excited about repping/acquiring. If an aspirant, ask her to tell her about her work in progress or her reasons for attending. And ask everyone you meet to tell you what books they've been reading and loving of late. Since we're all book peeps, conversation should flow naturally - which is a heck of a lot better that making the other person feel stalked.

If you attend, I'd advise you to meet everyone you can and never snub beginners. For all you know, they'll be next year's publishing world darlings (and everyone remembers kindnesses done.) I make a point of wandering into luncheons late so I'm forced to sit with a table of strangers. Then I do my best to make sure they aren't strangers (at least the ones within earshot, because my hearing in a crowd is a sad remnant of its former glory) by the time the meal is over. Even if you're shy, you can train yourself to do this.

4. Friends. If you're doing #3 right, you'll acquire new friends with every conference. As you catch up in subsequent meets, you'll pick up industry tidbits you will never hear in the official publisher dog and pony shows. And you'll get to meet the coolest people from all over, people who will listen to you crow or weep over your writing/publishing highs and lows, who will support you in the same way you support them in their journey.

Here are a few things you shouldn't count on getting out of a large conference.

1. A vacation. Bwahaha! Conferences and being "onstage" comprise serious work. If you're an introvert like I am (don't faint; I'm not kidding) you'll be tired just thinking about the hordes and exhausted for about a week afterward. With events scheduled from early morning to late, late at night, don't expect to have a lot of time to cavort in the host city, either. If you want to do that, I suggest arriving a day or two early. If you try to do it afterward, I suspect your brain will be cooked.

2. An economical experience that pays for itself in future contracts. You can tell your spouse whatever you like, but... no. Large conferences are generally an expensive proposition. Aside from the conference fee, you'll generally have airfare, hotel, food/drink (not all is part of the package), books you'll pick up, and extraneous things such as a fresh new haircut, shoes, clothing items. I never stay extra days and always have a roommate, but RWA national conferences can easily run me between $1500 and $2K. Other conferences, such as the Mauii Writers Conference (where I'd give my eye teeth to attend) and a number of those taking place in New York City can be even higher. And heaven only knows when or whether your attendance will pay you back in some tangible form.

3. A career. You may or may not score a meeting with an editor/agent, but whether or not you do, pitch sessions are only the teensiest toe in the door. They're great practice in the art of honing the essence of your story to a few marketing-hook-savvy lines, but in reality, they sell nothing. They can only offer you a possible invitation to submit. And frankly, people sell without the in-person pitch session every single day. Besides, with so many people at the conference, you don't stand a great chance of getting an appointment, much less making a big impression. The smaller to mid-sized conferences can by better on that front.

You don't really sell your story. Your story sells your story. To an agent, an editor, and then to readers. So don't sweat the pitch sessions as if they're you're only shot.

That's all I can think of for this evening. If you're going to Orlando, look for me among the 500 authors attending the giant, humongous Readers for Life Booksigning to benefit adult literacy on Wednesday from 5:30-7:30 PM.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Are you really selling the story?

Everyone I know loves, loves, LOVES the new Old Spice commercials with Isaiah Mustafa, and with a series of related You Tube vids (including hilarious responses to Twitter comments) the campaign has gone viral.

But sadly, Time magazine is reporting that Old Spice sales have actually gone down since the campaign began.

So what's my point here, on a blog devoted to writing and publishing? Ask yourself today, what ideas am I attempting to sell with my story? And am I really selling it, or clouding my core product (the manuscript's heart and soul) with clever techniques or convoluted asides?

It's so easy to lose focus, especially when you're working on a novel, which takes months or years to produce. You show up to your task, every day a different person. Some days you might be in a down mood or a silly mood or a distracted state, and those all find their way into the story.

Frequently, the revision stage is the place to ask yourself, what is the mood of the whole story? What is the theme, the voice, the point? Once you're certain, it's time to sand down all the rough spots, to smooth away what doesn't belong and emphasize what does.

To sell what you are selling. Otherwise, what is the point?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Cut

She cuts my hair.

Her own is a starburst of magenta and yellow, fireworks on display.  It must be fun, every morning, I think, to stand your hair up on end.  It must make you feel constantly surprised.

We talk.  She cuts my hair whenever I'm in town, and though months pass before we see each other again, we always pick up as though she's just dunked my scalp under water the day before.  We talk about our work and travels, we gossip about celebrities, we mourn or praise the state of the union, we admit we're not exercising as much as we used to, we share a little about our families.

"How is he?" I ask about her husband while she drapes the bib around me (it always makes me feel like a little girl again).

Her husband (like my father) was diagnosed at 51 with congestive heart failure.  He's already lived longer than expected--thanks, she's told me, to his athletic background and his mighty lungs.  He was an avid mountain biker and the owner of a successful mountain bike shop in Colorado; but at 51 he'd been told by doctors that if he wanted to prolong his life, he needed to spend the rest of it tethered to an oxygen tank.  At first he'd refused.

"But . . . but how did you feel about that?" I ask her, wondering, thinking:  how do you manage, how do you go on when someone you love pushes away the line that could keep you as one?

"Well," she combs my hair and then has me part it myself, "it really troubled me at first.  But then I made my peace with it.  It's his life, after all.  We respect each other that way, these days."

I try to say something reassuring, consoling. "Well, at least you can look back and say it's been a good marriage."

"Oh yes," she nods her mane and takes her scissors out of her pocket and narrows her bright, eyelined eyes.  "But we're not married anymore."

I stare in the mirror.  I follow her round, nimble, aproned body moving around my small, bibbed one.  For the last three years, we've been talking like old friends, while my hair curled into the toes of her flip-flops--and I didn't know this?

"You're not married?"

"No.  I still say he's my husband.  But we divorced years ago.  So many things weren't working.  He was very . . . competitive."

Then she tells me that, years before, when they were first married, he had wanted her to mountain bike with him.  And so she had.  She had learned how.  And she had frantically tried to keep up with him while he asked her to do more and more and more impossible things, impossible climbs, straining, gasping to push her body beyond what it wanted to do, beyond what she wanted it to do, beyond what she wanted at all.

"I would be on a mountain with him--I mean dying for air, just dying--and he wouldn't even wait for me.  He was like that.  He loved doing better than other people.  He loved beating men younger than he was.  Everyone.  Everything was like that.  He wanted the upper hand. I wanted to live in a city.  He wanted to live in the country.  He wanted me to work in his business.  I wanted my own shop.  So, finally, we divorced, and then he got diagnosed, and I came back to take care of him.   And now he can hardly do anything.  Do you know what happened one day?"

"What?" I hold very still as she razors the back of my neck.

"One day he found out he couldn't get up a hill anymore.  How nearly impossible it was for him to take a breath.  And then he came home and he apologized to me.  He said he'd never known how hard it could be to climb."

"But you've stayed divorced."

She starts trimming my bangs.  Expertly.  Fast.  "Believe me, we're much better off as friends.  We each have our own space in the house.  And now I can even admit I learned so much from him.  I mean, I was one amazing mountain biker.  But me, I know when enough is enough."

Then she says that the doctors didn't really understand the nature of his heart disease--that that they had told him there was nothing to indicate why his heart was failing, and that they could only speculate that he had used his heart in the wrong way when he was younger, pushing it in the wrong way.

"He's doing the oxygen now?"

"Oh yes.  24/7.  Wait, this is going to be cute," she says and gets the hand mirror and spins me around in the chair, so that I can see what she could see, the shape I couldn't see, myself.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Serenity Now: Seinfeld as Thriller

Buy This Book: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Not a recent read. This book came up in small talk last night in the context of an exchange with a fabulous stranger as we both waited for drinks at the bar upstairs at House of Blues in New Orleans. Thirty-plus years after I read Jean Rhys' beautiful novel, Wide Sargasso Sea found its way into our circuitous conversation.

Now that's a great book. One that haunts a far dark corner in memory and returns to the reader decades hence, when the reader is an entirely different person. All the old insights are suddenly new, calling the reader to return. And I'm feeling that call from Wide Sargasso Sea.

Emily White writes:
The novel is Rhys's answer to Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë's book had long haunted her, mostly for the story it did not tell--that of the madwoman in the attic, Rochester's terrible secret. Antoinette is Rhys's imagining of that locked-up woman, who in the end burns up the house and herself. Wide Sargasso Sea follows her voyage into the dark, both from her point of view and Rochester's. It is a voyage charged with soul-destroying lust. "I watched her die many times," observes the new husband. "In my way, not in hers. In sunlight, in shadow, by moonlight, by candlelight. In the long afternoons when the house was empty."

Rhys struggled over the book, enduring rejections and revisions, wrestling to bring this ruined woman out of the ashes. The slim volume was finally published when she was 70 years old. The critical adulation that followed, she said, "has come too late." Jean Rhys died a few years later, but with Wide Sargasso Sea she left behind a great legacy, a work of strange, scary loveliness. There has not been a book like it before or since. Believe me, I've been searching.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Novels Like Swords

Tonight I was frustrated by the pace my revision is progressing. I've gotten a lot of work done in the past 10-12 days, but I still have so much further to go before I'll be in a shape to query/submit to agents, and the amount of work is daunting. I mentioned this to my good friend, Sharon, who is both a prize-winning martial artist and an excellent writer, and she sent me this:

Think about making a sword. The steel has to go through the fire many times to be purified. Then it has to go through again to be shaped, to be honed; then it's sharpened, a handle attached, cleaned and sharpened a final time before being called a sword.

Maybe your novel's like that.

I hope so.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Buy This Book: Blazing Saddles: The Cruel & Unusual History of the Tour de France

July will always find Gary and me one of two places: glued to the TV watching Tour de France coverage or in France, watching as many stages as we can catch in person. I first heard of le Tour 27 years ago when I met Gary, who was into bike racing in Bozeman, Montana and rode his bike an average of 40 miles/day. (Suppressing a sigh as I recall what that did for his backside...but I digress.) My first impression of this epic sporting event was a mix of horrified fascination and a non-competitor's cynicism. Over the years, it's grown to an avid love for the extraordinary history, humanity, and thrill of every stage. Howling, head-butting, bloodied bodies, beautiful girls, naked old men and costumed characters running alongside riders decked out and teched out in state of the art socks and ear pieces. The yearning, the road rash, the unforgiving climbs and breakneck descents through panoramic mountains and quaint old villages--we can't get enough.

But don't take my word for it. Check out Matt Rendell's Blazing Saddles: The Cruel & Unusual History of the Tour de France for a crash course on a whole lot of interesting stuff that happened way before Lance Armstrong brought the event to the attention of the mass audience in America. From the flap:
In this fascinating book, award-winning sports writer Matt Rendell covers every corner of "La Grande Boucle," from the eccentric couture of the first Tour winner (white blazer, black trousers, wool socks) to the earliest method of cheating (riding the train). "Blazing Saddles" recounts the famous rivalries and riders that contested the Tour, setting the score straight with complete records of every podium finisher. Rendell's vivid storytelling is complemented with more than 100 classic black-and-white photographs, portraying cycling's heroes and martyrs from Jacques Anquetil to Lance Armstrong.
Le Tour de France is covered live every morning on Versus. Since I was juggling travel and deadlines the first half of the month, I signed up for the Versus Tour Tracker that lets me watch stages on demand in HD on my computer and gives me moment-by-moment GPS updates on the breakaways and peleton while the race is in progress.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Buy This Book: What I Thought I Knew

I absolutely loved Alice Eve Cohen's moving, excruciatingly-honest memoir, What I Thought I Knew, which details a 44 year old woman's struggle to come to grips with an "impossible" and very high-risk pregnancy finally diagnosed by doctors when she was more than six months. Expressing her doubts, fears, and struggle to cope was one of the bravest, most honest things I've ever seen put to paper.

As a person who's circumspect by nature (I express my truths beneath the veil of fiction), I so appreciated Cohen's courage in sharing her extraordinary journey. I've already passed it on to friends and highly recommend it to readers of this blog as well.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Coming around signifying

Over the course of the last week we’ve received several emails with wonderful responses to three of our forthcoming novels. Each one has borne all the compliments I hope all our books will elicit—about the writing, the characters, the story. And I’ve been pleased (and relieved) to hear early opinions from outside the company that jibe with my own. But three of those responses also included another familiar and still (to me) surprising assertion. It felt like the 100th (and 101st and 102nd) time I’d read a note like this about one of our books: “It didn’t sound like something I’d be into, but I loved it.”

Sometimes the comment arrives in this form: “I didn’t know what to expect…but….”

And often, it’s said in this way: “This is not a book that’s easy to pigeonhole.”

Such comments always re-clarify the task we face. I mean, every time I hear such things I realize again how tricky the work is of publishing fiction that doesn’t fit into a so-called genre.

I read books—and manuscripts—for the thrill of all that I don’t know. That is, as a publisher I’m in constant search of the story I haven’t heard before, following some previously unmet characters I can care about, and listening to a voice that is at once real and unfamiliar. (I know I’ve said all this before.)

So I need to be reminded repeatedly that what I call "commercial literature" isn’t what all readers look for first when they shop for the next book. Many readers, maybe most readers, really do want to know before they put their money down more than a little something about what to expect of a novel. I understand this. And I know that it leaves in the second browsing position (at most) the sort of narrative trying-out (experiment?) that all good literary fiction ultimately is.

(Yes, I’m aware that there are established literary fiction formulae—but they interest me not at all, and the books I edit don’t often conform to those either.)

This powerful need to know a bit about what’s coming is, I think, the reason that anyone who has to pitch a novel must eventually answer this question: “What’s it like?”

Which gives us creative invocations like: “It’s Tom Perrotta at an afterparty with Michael Chabon doing a comic imitation of Nick Hornby.” (This sort of line up, by the way, is almost always a linking of unpredictable writers—which I think only makes things worse.)

As an editor, I finally choose the books I publish for reasons different from comparison and expectation. I almost always buy the well-written manuscript that is unlike anything I’ve ever read.

As a result, the marketing work of this independent publisher often can’t depend on the sweet structural definables of genre any more than we can rely very often on the franchise of a well-known author. Instead, we—via the company name and that faceless horse colophon of ours—have to come together as a recognizable brand, an emblem of a certain level of assumed quality, just as the name and logo of a car company or a sportswear corporation must.

And we have to do it in the shh-shh (sometimes silent) atmosphere of the reading marketplace. That’s the endless slow-roar process in a house like ours—the process of signifying one thing, again and again, season after season.

If we succeed, what I’ll be most proud of is the consistent quality of the books that bear that headless-horse colophon. Hi-yo [and] Away.

(I’d like some credit here for avoiding—almost to the end—any references to old Fred Ford Motor Company slogans.--I considered that job one.)


To subscribe to BtO, click "Subcribe to: Posts" at the bottom of the page and then "Subscribe to this feed."

Want to borrow a cup of content? Feel free to share our link or a brief quote with your friends. But please e-mail for permission to reprint or repost our work elsewhere, and always add an attribution and a link back to our site.

We welcome your feedback. Feel free to post comments. PR and outreach from publishers and published authors should be sent to:

Boxing the Octopus: all content copyright 2008 Colleen Thompson and Joni Rodgers all rights reserved.

We welcome payola in the form of pies, cakes, neatly folded laundry and free books!

In accordance with FTC regulations, we're required to inform readers that we receive books from publishers, authors, and PR folk for review. We'd like to receive money via an offshore bank account, but that hasn't happened yet. When my dad was in radio back in the '50s, a local baker used to sneak over in the dead of night and fill the back seat of his car with bread and pastries. We would NOT object to this. Please review our review policy here. And let us know if we should leave the car outside the garage tonight.

Peace, love, and statutory compliance ~