Saturday, December 27, 2008

TV quotes over the holidays

As I (sometimes perhaps annoyingly) point out when people ask if I saw such- and- such show, I have not owned a television since 1988. But my family has several, and when I visit a TV is usually on somewhere. While walking from one room to the other I heard a character say "I've gotta write a book!" To which another responded, "You should read one first."

It was dry and funny enough to look up, and it turns out to be a somewhat well-known quote from Navy NCIS, a series that has apparently been on the air forever but I had no idea. Jethro Gibbs exchanges the lines with Tony DiNozzo after DiNozzo is let into an exclusive nightclub simply because he is recognized as a famous author.

Okay, so that's the literary part. I watched a few episodes over several days and concluded that NCIS writers have probably never been to Washington, DC, not even on school field trips. They get fact after fact wrong . . . it may feel like DC to outsiders, but to this insider the regional references feel clunky and off. The funniest blooper to me was the ambitious Georgetown University student who had a revealing MySpace page.

Um. Not likely. On so many levels I don't even know where to start.

But the book quote was still funny.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Draws versus drawers

I fully admit to being a "Best of Craigslist" addict. Most of you know what I mean, but for those who don't, it's a section of Craigslist devoted to the posts that readers voted on as being the funniest. Some of them are priceless.

Today I saw one that wasn't really one of the all-time best, but it nonetheless made an amusing point about books and publishing. You can read the whole thing here. The author rants about people who post on Craigslist and write "draw" instead of "drawer," and what this means for the literacy of society as a whole:

Literature: Madame Bovary kept things in drawers. Jo March used drawers. Franny and Zooey used drawers. Portnoy used drawers. Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Three Investigators all solved mysteries by striking an old desk, thereby unlatching a "secret drawer." Drawers aren't only in old literature; they are in recent, highly regarded and prize winning literature: staggering geniuses use drawers. People for whom things are illuminated use drawers. Even in current best-sellers there are drawers. According to a millisecond-long search, on page 31 of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (#62 in Oprah's Bookclub), "...[at] odd moments she might discover Trudy rearranging the chest of drawers..." And in Extreme Measures - a Thriller (2008), on page 271, someone opens a drawer to take out a pack of Marlboros. There are many, many, maaaaany others. It's more likely than not that any work of fiction will refer to a drawer at some point within it's pages.

Even funnier is that this outraged poster mis-used the apostrophe in its (writing it's, a possessive). And yes, that is one of my pet peeves (although I once taught a class on the apostrophe for a group of sixth graders from the DC public schools, and I accidentally got its/it's backward at first... it was a laugh and also a humbling moment...).

Ah well, outrage is funny. Ironic distance outrage is even funnier.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A book you must read if you love books

Oh, what a wonderful book this is. If you want to understand publishing history from an insider's point of view, then find and read the excellent The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors, and Authors by Al Silverman. Here's a NYTimes book review. Milly Marmur suggested it, and as in all things, she was of course correct. Maybe I love it more because the first chapter is about my publisher for two books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and FSG has gone through some very sad, even agonizing times this month, or maybe it makes me feel nostalgic for a publishing past I never had the privilege to know (also well-documented in At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf and Another Life: A Memoir of Other People by Michael Korda), but this is a don't-miss-it gem. Seriously, drop everything.

Words I Looked Up: Submit

After that last post about submissions, I began thinking about the strange sound of the word "submit," and all the things it can mean. As usual, the OED was helpful but a bit florid, so I turned to Merriam-Webster. The one that fascinates me most? "To yield oneself to the authority or will of another." Scary.

Main Entry: sub·mit
Pronunciation: \səb-ˈmit\
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): sub·mit·ted; sub·mit·ting
Etymology: Middle English submitten, from Latin submittere to lower, submit, from sub- + mittere to send
Date: 14th century
transitive verb1 a: to yield to governance or authority b: to subject to a condition, treatment, or operation 2: to present or propose to another for review, consideration, or decision ; also : to deliver formally 3: to put forward as an opinion or contention intransitive verb1 a: to yield oneself to the authority or will of another : surrender b: to permit oneself to be subjected to something 2: to defer to or consent to abide by the opinion or authority of another
synonyms see yield
— sub·mit·tal \-ˈmi-təl\ noun

Blogger bait part two

My second "I took the bait" post about this month's Poets and Writers concerns the cover. P&W gives them this front-cover line: "Four next-generation agents reveal what they love, what they hate, and ten things writers should never do." The list enumerates glitches that are hallmarks of the uninitiated, such as sending letters addressed "Dear Agent," gushing about how Oprah will love this book, sighing about how many times they've been rejected before, etc.

But why would anyone in publishing complain about this? Such mistakes are harmless enough, and it's not as though we don't all see them. Can't people be given room to learn? In fairness, I think the agents were just answering the question (after a bit of wine... it was a dinner interview). It was P&W's editorial decision to go the classic "never-ever," ruler-on-knuckles direction.

I have always loved the words of that great man of letters, Lewis Lapham, who once said that he received submissions to Harper's "with gratitude." I suggest that is how the literary profession should treat the submission letters or e-mails that come our way. Instead of instructing them on how they should dare approach the throne (the belly crawl? or perhaps the miserable grovel with a flourish?), we might consider remaining ever grateful that would-be authors think well enough of us -- and of their art -- to even try. If they get it wrong, we could simply bless them with the kindest words we can muster. (After all, even the least likely may become bestselling authors one day -- and here I think of Tennessee Williams, who legend says began with few social skills and spoke like a yokel when he first approached super-agent Audrey Wood, and who was known to write dialogue on cocktail napkins.)

We don't live long, any of us, and our relationships would benefit from more mutual ease and forgiveness, and fewer "don't" lists, especially from writer-focused magazines.

Blogger bait

I think I've been baited. This month's issue of Poets and Writers seems almost deliberately controversial... some editor out there is hoping against hope that they've peeved off enough bloggers to get some free digital ink. Okay, here's some. First the headling on page 14, "Google Gets Generous, Settles Suit," referring to the Authors Guild's heroic suit against Google. It GETS GENEROUS? Is this a joke or something? Google tried to appropriate authors' works for free, claiming a laughable definition of "fair use," and the noble Guild fought and won. It was an amazing effort carried out over years of court battles, and Google et al (while I do appreciate their interest in digitizing books) acted like a pack of low-down, scurvy dog pirates. They deserved to lose, and the $125 million payout was barely enough, not an act of "genersity."

More energy in the next blog post.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Georgetown University Press named one of the best places to work in publishing

Congratulations to our colleagues at Georgetown University Press. Their charming shop on Prospect Street was recently named the third best book publisher to work for by Book Business magazine. Although Booklab and Georgetown University Press are not officially connected, we consider them friends and colleagues, and I certainly agree that their director, Dr. Richard Brown, runs a terrific organization.

Acknowledgement and thanks to Rich Byrne as well

Richard Byrne, who was a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education before becoming the Editor of UMBC Magazine, the alumni publication of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (where I once joined a panel on publishing!), had also discussed writing an article about Booklab a couple of years ago. At the time we were too new... there wouldn't yet have been enough to say. I'm grateful to Rich for suggesting the piece, however, and then for introducing his Chronicle colleague Jennifer Howard to me/us after he moved on. She did such a brilliant job, yet of course I'm curious what his take would have been as well. You can read his blog here (it is also in the blogroll).

Booklab makes the Chronicle!

Now this is a delightful early Christmas present. The Office of Scholarly and Literary Publications and just some of our wonderful authors are featured on the front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Jennifer Howard researched and wrote the article, and she did a beautiful job of capturing the spirit of what we do here. Although I love editors and the physical, editorial process, this is far more than a manuscript shop, and Jennifer got the nuances of that. We're here to think with you about how to further your career and Georgetown's overall stature via books wonderful books, and in the process to feed your soul (and our souls as well).

I am astonished at the amount of legwork and old-fashioned reporting she did. Not only did she come to Booklab and for an interview, but she met an author and me at Barnes & Noble, she interviewed Provost O'Donnell, and she tracked down faculty who had come here for consultations (this work is confidential, but some people offered to speak). The result is an accurate snapshot of what we have spent the past three years trying to build.

Merry Christmas, Booklab authors. It's all (as always) about you.

Once I see the print edition, I'll scan and post the cover with photos.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

What is Google doing to the books it scans?

Google Books has a voracious appetite for out-of-copyright books, which can be good news for those of us who root around in them for tidbits like pigs in the forest hunting truffles. But what is Google doing to those books, many of which are old and fragile? Have you ever asked yourself how the scan gets there in the first place? I assume it has to go on a scanning bed, which means (potentially) cracking the spine and/or damaging pages to get a good, clear image. This photograph is a screen shot I took directly from Google Books. Does this book look damaged to you? Of course, we don't know if Google caused that damage, but how does it ensure that books are protected?

(And lest you think I'm worrying over nothing, remember what happened to many old newspapers in the early days of document scanning. Many libraries scanned all of their historic newspapers and then tossed them, often throwing away priceless literary research in the process.)

Why the advice in the columns is free

I enjoy reading advice columns for the letters, because they are often such vivid, painful glimpses of human life. But I often disagree with the answers. This week a reader wrote to Emily Yoffe, who took over the "Dear Prudence" column in Slate from Margo Howard. Yoffee herself is always worth reading; she has an offbeat energy that is smarter-than-your-average eccentric magazine writer, and she is charmingly open about her own flaws and foibles. She is a gem in her "Human Guinea Pig" pieces, and overall I consider her quite talented.

But this time around I must take issue with her resolution to a wife's question in the December 11 column (2nd letter). The wife has finished editing her husband's book manuscript, and she thinks it's awful. She wants to know if she should just keep her mouth shut, or sit him down and inform him that he'll never be published. Yoffee writes "You don't need to crush your husband—you're right, the marketplace will take care of that task—but you should be honest. The next time he starts talking about what he's going to say to Meredith Vieira when she's interviewing him on the Today show, you need to convey that the chances of anyone's book becoming a best-seller are vanishingly small, and his are less than that."

Bzzzzzzzt! As someone who has mediated in many a would-be literary partnership masquerading as a marriage, I have to throw a flag here. What? Why? How on earth can this be helpful advice? Everyone has to learn to write somehow, and some of the best-published authors today -- authors sitting at the top of the bestseller lists -- got off to a rough start. An underrated but lovely volume called Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul has a zillion of these stories, including mystery author Tony Hillerman, whose agent told him the Native American theme would never sell, and the now-insanely-rich romance author Debbie Macomber, whose friends begged her to stop typing at the kitchen table and get a real job so she could help support her family. In my own past I have a rogue's gallery of people who felt the need to inform me that my interest in writing books and working with them for a living was both unrealistic and self-indulgent. (Sometimes I think this society must have an undeclared war on literary interests.)

I am grateful to Yoffe for publishing the letter, though, because it highlights why in an earlier post I urged authors to stop making your spouses, partners, parents and colleagues your readers. 97% of the people close to us have no qualifications whatsoever to read and edit our writing, yet I counsel author after author who has been actively discouraged by loved ones who thought they were helping by being honest (i.e. unkind).

Here is my answer to the woman who wrote that letter. "You are his wife, not his editor, so if you don't care for his writing then I urge you to resign at once and return to your most important role in his life: that of partner and supporter (the role that he should also fulfill for you). Personally I would nurture my partner's dreams, whether that person wanted to write books, act, direct, sail, or run marathons. It doesn't matter if you think he's good or bad at it -- what matters is that when you two merged your futures as one, you agreed to be there for each other. If he joined a running club and had the slowest time in the group, you wouldn't stand out there on the trail yelling 'Give it up! You'll never win the Marine Corps Marathon so stop embarrassing me and get back to the couch where you belong!'

By the way, editors are losing jobs every day in this country, and most of them are very good. Let him pay a professional editor to work with him (or send him right here to Booklab!), and enjoy your retirement from the defacto book coaching profession."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Funny postscript to the Roy Blount bit below

This follow-up e-mail arrived later in the day after the earlier one. I assumed no permission was needed, but apparently others were more cautious:

The Guild's staff informs me that many of you are writing to ask whether you can forward and post my holiday message encouraging orgiastic book-buying. Yes! Forward! Yes! Post! Sound the clarion call to every corner of the Internet: Hang in there, bookstores! We're coming! And we're coming to buy! To buy what? To buy books! Gimme a B! B! Gimme an O! O! Gimme another O! Another O! Gimme a K! K! Gimme an S! F! No, not an F, an S. We're spelling BOOKS!



The Authors Guild sends a holiday message

With the blood running in the streets of New York publishing, and editors leaving to become lawyers or something, this is a timely message from the Authors Guild. I personally will make all of my gifts new, full-price hardcovers, as a show of solidarity:

I've been talking to booksellers lately who report that times are hard. And local booksellers aren't known for vast reserves of capital, so a serious dip in sales can be devastating. Booksellers don't lose enough money, however, to receive congressional attention. A government bailout isn't in the cards.

We don't want bookstores to die. Authors need them, and so do neighborhoods. So let's mount a book-buying splurge. Get your friends together, go to your local bookstore and have a book-buying party. Buy the rest of your Christmas presents, but that's just for starters. Clear out the mysteries, wrap up the histories, beam up the science fiction! Round up the westerns, go crazy for self-help, say yes to the university press books! Get a load of those coffee-table books, fatten up on slim volumes of verse, and take a chance on romance!

There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they're easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves. Stockpile children's books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they'll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books. Then tell the grateful booksellers, who by this time will be hanging onto your legs begging you to stay and live with their cat in the stockroom: "Got to move on, folks. Got some books to write now. You see... we're the Authors Guild."

Enjoy the holidays.

Roy Blount Jr.


Authors Guild

Monday, December 08, 2008

We're in the Blue and Gray. Cool.

Assistant editor Lauren Burgoon wrote yet another terrific piece about Booklab for The Blue and Gray, Georgetown's newspaper. Normally I don't get too exited over campus publications about a university's own activities (rah-rah journalism, etc.), and I've tried to avoid being an obvious Georgetown tool on this blog, but Lauren is talented and she always brings another dimension to her work. She also did a great job when Sebastian Junger visited last year, and she has come to Book Fair at the National Press Club as well.

Lincoln's doctor's dog (with a nod to Bennett Cerf)

Book groups can make the careers of some authors, and for a few years now it has been painfully obvious that many authors are writing specifically to pander to book clubs. When the book is a gem like The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society, then fine... even though the title reads like a fawning bid for the book group business (the late author herself was encouraged by her book club to write it), it also happens to be an excellent little charmer, so no harm no foul (although I still chafe at the title, and I would object even more if I were in a book club).

But what about all those other books with book club code words in the title, such as "Knitting Society," or "Friday Night," or some other semaphore that screams "We're pandering to yooooooooou, book clubbers!" Many of them even include book club discussion questions at the end. Often you'll see the name of a famous author such as Jane Austen invoked to give the book gravitas, but it usually ends up being sacrilegious, akin to using God's name to sell used cars. Some howlers are on the way in future titles, and although I do not use this blog to put down any book by name, you can find some of the forthcoming ones if you go to Amazon and type in a few of the code words above. It's enough to make you run screaming from the bookstore. ;-)

Am I holding out on you?

A while back I promised terrific new information from the university presses that I visited in New York: Columbia and NYU. Then I shared some of it, but didn't keep going. Why not? The answer is somewhat complicated, but it boils down to a lot of the information being traceable back to the individuals who shared it, even if I keep identities private. When I wrote and said "Can I blog about this?" the answer came back "In this instance, I'd rather you didn't." Normally people are fine when I blog about books using material they shared, but when a university press editor trusts you enough to offer candid industry information in private, it is understandable that she or he wouldn't want to later see it in a public forum when it would be easy enough for an insider to guess who said it.

I don't kid myself that this blog has more than its seven dedicated readers, but all seven of you are bigshots, and more than one of you could potentially know who I'm writing about. So I'm pondering how to reveal some tidbits. What I'll probably do is visit two more presses (Cambridge NYC and Norton) soon and then create some composite stories based on getting verification there for things I learned elsewhere. Once you have five people giving you a variation of the same odd phenomenon, then it's not gossip. It's news.

Should you tell your agent your new book idea?

Yesterday I had brunch with an author colleague and his wife at their beautiful home in DC. He has published books before -- to considerable praise -- and he worked with me to get a literary agent for his most recent project. Now he has a new book idea, and he wanted to know if I thought he should run it by his agent.

Without even thinking about it, I put down my fork and said "Be careful!" Then I backpedaled. What I meant to say was "Of course you can run it by her, but (I suggest) only after you've worked it through." I urged the author to work with me to develop the idea and make a wonderful case for it. The art of writing a full-featured nonfiction book proposal and sample chapter would help the author determine whether he loved this particular idea enough now to take it all the way to a book, and it would also demonstrate that book's essentiality in document form that an agent could then see.

In my experience, agents can be professional naysayers when it comes to new literary projects. For them, new books mean more work with little hope of monetary reward unless the project is highly commercial or fits a specified niche. "No" is the easiest answer in a world where "yes" means having to babysit the author through an idea that may not get off the ground. Yet by definition, most work-in-progress is just that -- embryonic, shape-shifting, uncertain. Innocent authors call their agents when they get new ideas, only to hear some variant of "It will never work."

I listened to my then-agent over a decade ago when he nixed a project I was working on about having been born into a family that lost a child, and what it meant to be the child who was specifically conceived to take the place of another. Personally I have liked the role fine (we are all born in unusual circumstances, yes?), but I thought it would be worth exploring my own family and others where a devastating loss is followed by a planned new arrival. "Too much of a downer," said my agent, and it wasn't until years later that I stopped to remember that his first book -- a bestseller -- had an equally bleak theme. His "no" wasn't the considered wisdom of a literary guru at all. It was the knee-jerk response of an agent being an agent. I don't blame him for this, because now that I work with scores of agents I can see that most of them do it.

One famous agent is known for taking client calls on his cell phone that never last more than one minute, during which time he usually barks "Don't do it!" and hangs up. No fewer than three of his clients have come to me distressed over phone calls with him that went exactly the same way. Once I detected the pattern, I was able to warn the third one about him, but she didn't believe me. So she called him, and of course the same thing happened. She then came to me and said "How can he earn a living if he says no all the time?"

Neither do I, but then, maybe he knows something I don't, because he has landed a lot of bestsellers in his day. I'm curious how, and why.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Oh? Commandments? Really?

As soon as I see a list like the engaging one offered in this week's Washington Post Book World, I immediately want to argue with it. You can read the article here. Most of the list is smart and thoughtful, but my lighthearted quibbles are with Commandment 2 ("A classic is always welcome, especially in a pretty edition...") and 4 ("Remember the books you love yourself . . . it makes sense to share your passion with others...").

Ahem. Let's start with Commandment #2: much of my life is spent getting RID of books, thankyouverymuch, because if I didn't I'd be overrun with them. I usually donate them rather than selling them, because the hassle of listing them online is greater than the buck or two I'd get out of the transaction. Sometimes on sunny days I put a box of free books on the curb in front of the Booklab townhouse, and then sit back to listen to people stop by the box and exclaim over the pickings (Who would give away this?) Answer: I would, and I do, so please, my beloved friends and family, don't burden my conscience and my bookshelves with any luxurious gift editions. Once I've read them, they are destined for the curb.

And now on to Commandment #4 about giving your own favorite books to others: have you MET my friends? If they all start giving me their favorite books I'll be stuck with duck mysteries where the duck solves the crime, sports-themed thrillers, and religious historicals (these are actual examples from my actual friends, bent only slightly for illustrative purposes). One of my friends gave everyone on her list the same beloved book one year, and I did enjoy it, as did many she gave it to. I liked her variation on the "give people a book you like" theme, but I still couldn't get around the fact that it meant investing hours reading something someone else wanted me to. It felt like college required reading, like eating vegetables, like doing chores . . .

My favorite of these choices is #9, "Support the Midlist" (Yes! There are gems there! Lots o' crap can climb the bestseller list, and much unsung treasure sits in the middle, preparing to be remaindered...). I also suggest buying hardcovers whenever possible, because hardcover sales do a better job of supporting authors.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The bloodbath layoffs in publishing this week

Brave leaders figure out how to keep the team together when times get tough. They encourage everyone to think creatively about how to turn things around. They set an example of both thrift and foresight, and they act like heroes. They remember that publishing was never primarily about the money, and they resolve to get through temporary hard times with their integrity and organization intact.

They do not lay talented people off in December in a blistering economy to fend for themselves, precisely at a time when a lot of similar talent is hitting the streets looking for the same jobs.

NB: I speak, as always, for myself, not for any organization or other individual.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Great book for television writers

Okay, I'm no one to talk, given that I haven't had a television since 1988. Whole programs have come and gone, such as The West Wing or the various CSI shows, of which I never even saw one episode. So why am I blogging about a TV writing book? First because many of the authors who come to see me think that they might be good at writing for television or film, and many are probably correct. Second because I always want to applaud a how-to book that is actually well-written and the author of which is a genuine and successful practitioner, rather than someone who washed out in the field and now purports to teach it.

The TV Writer's Workbook: A Creative Approach to Television Scripts is written by Ellen Sandler, who worked for a long time on Everybody Loves Raymond as a writer and producer (she was nominated for an Emmy), and who has other programs to her credit. Her IMDB bio is here. She now teaches, which I roughly interpret as "rakes in fat consulting fees," which makes sense. Her book is warm and funny, but it gets down to business quickly, and by page 50 or so you really know what you're doing.

I read whatever how-to-write or how-to-publish books I can find, and 90% of them are unnecessary. The remaining 10% are quite good, and there is a top 1-2% that I consider essential. This appears to be one of those books (I welcome comment from people who actually work in television to tell me if this is accurate).

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Even Dickens tried self publishing

I have long maintained that there is nothing vain or historically new about the current trend toward self publishing. Although it often presents a rough road for authors, and considerable financial risk, it is both viable and honorable, and never to be sneered at. From the day the first printing press took the first bite of type on good, cotton paper, we have had self-published books. I have also shared the names of famous authors who self published, from Lord Byron to A. E. Housman to Marcel Proust.

But now there is another name to add to the roster: Charles Dickens. His scholars surely already have known this, but I only just learned from Jonathan Yardley's review of a new book that he paid to have A Christmas Carol published because his publishers were not interested. In Yardley's words quoting the author: His publisher, Chapman and Hall, expressed little enthusiasm for the book, so Dickens decided to have the firm bring it out "for publication on his own account." All the risk would be his own: "He would be responsible for the costs of the book's production, which would be deducted from its sales. He would also oversee the book's design, hire its illustrator, and consult on its advertising. In essence, his publishers -- which would receive a fixed commission tied to sales -- had become merely his printer. In contemporary terms, then, A Christmas Carol was to be an exercise in vanity publishing."

The book is The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford (Crown 2008).

JO'D in the TLS

The Ruin of the Roman Empire is a "Book of the Year" in the Times Literary Supplement. Here is what British author and Byron scholar Tom Holland writes: "James O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History (Ecco) takes as its centrepiece the period of Ostrogothic rule in sixth-century Italy... [it is] revelatory: scholarly and original, unafraid to tackle profound issues of cultural and religious identity, and often hauntingly poetic."

Another good writer disguised as a journalist

I found some more humorous writing in The New York Times, this time from Towle Tompkins. Tompkins offers three (now) articles about the East German Trabant, a car with the soul of a cold war tin can that fell out of fashion when the Berlin Wall came down. Apparently the Trabant is back, and Tompkins is celebrating with sparkling prose dotted with just the right balance of humor and insight: "The good news is that the Trabant is twice as powerful as a Sears Craftsman two-stage snow blower; the bad news is that it’s twice as loud." Tompkins's series would be well-positioned as the run-up to a charming book.

So perhaps you ask, "Hey Book Blogger, you're a Washingtonian, so why don't you point out great humor writing in The Washington Post?" The Post does have occasional writing that makes me smile, but much of it is too often obvious and lowbrow. I don't respond to it in an "I'm above this" way, but rather in a "potty humor is lame and too easy" way. Some of the Post's writers have earned kudos for their humor writing, and the recent humor Pulitzer was well deserved, but the day-to-day level of the wit could be better. If I see something, though, I'll post it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

POETRY magazine has the coolest covers. Ever!

Just a note that I love many of POETRY magazine's covers, and I can't say that about all journals. A surprising number of them are actually off-putting. But POETRY has some amazing art. Just visit this link and click around:

The Journal Experiment: Cracking Poetry's Code

One of my glorious correspondents sent this insider information about getting her work into POETRY magazine. Part of the secret, it seems, is persistence, but not just any ol' kind. Many authors interpret persistence as "sending the same thing again and again." (These souls are often of the "I'm a genius, but those idiot editors can't recognize it" school.) Instead, my correspondent intelligently made the assumption that most successful journal editors actually know what they're doing, and s/he adjusted accordingly.

"Like all poets, I have hazarded a submission to POETRY magazine. Like all poets, I received my generic rejections--three times over. I crossed paths with the editor and sent again, hopeful; again, rejected (though gracefully, with a personal note, by which I mean a hand-scribbled sentence). When I sent again, I stacked the deck: a long poem, a formally acrobatic poem, an ekphrasis. I'm not sure if there's any particular code-cracking to POETRY--as safes go, it is dynamite-proof--but somehow, I made it in. Three poems forthcoming! (She says, before fainting in exhaustion and relief.)"

Besides the "I'm a genius" assumption, many authors come to me after one or two rejections, heart-in-hand, crushed that they weren't loved enough to be published (yet). Huh? I usually smile and say I don't want to hear any complaints until at least rejection number 30. Authors tend to exaggerate the number of times they actually tried, and they also think that rejections are even remotely personal. In fact, they're so impersonal that unless you made a particularly strong impression for some reason, you can probably try again in a week with no fear of even being recognized, let alone spotted as "That doofwad dreamer we so wisely bounced last time."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Kinda sweet

I found the video of the man who wept when the library closed to be quite touching. Some internet folks seem to be laughing, but I get it. One of my earliest memories is of going to the George Mason Regional Library in Annandale, Virginia with my mother to check out books. I remember sitting in the aisles to read, and also going to the adult shelves long before I was old enough to understand the books over there. I checked out Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood: A Play For Voices with absolutely no idea who he was or what any of it meant. I don't even know why I picked out that particular book, something critics think is either a mishmash or a masterpiece, depending on who you ask. Whatever library they were planning to close, I hope his heartfelt plea saves it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is the University of Minnesota Press's Backlist Initiative Good For Authors?

According to Publisher's Weekly (November 21, 2008), "The University of Minnesota Press has announced a new initiative to reissue virtually every book published by the press since its founding in 1925. The project, Minnesota Archive Editions, was unofficially launched six months ago in partnership with, Google, and BookMobile, a short-run printing company specializing in POD and bound galleys."

At first glance this seems good for authors, especially academicians whose work might otherwise be unavailable except through library loans once it goes out of print. But the Authors Guild has long pointed out that "out of print" serves a contractual purpose for authors as well as publishers. Here, in the Guild's own words, is its interesting point on this subject (italics mean a quote from the Guild's website):

Your publisher should only have the exclusive rights to your work while it is actively marketing and selling your book, i.e., while your book is "in print." An out-of-print clause will allow you to terminate the contract and regain all rights granted to your publisher after the book stops earning money.

It is crucial to actually define the print status of your book in the contract. Stipulate that your work is in print only when copies are available for sale in the United States in an English language hardcover or paperback edition issued by the publisher and listed in its catalog. Otherwise, your book should be considered out-of-print and all rights should revert to you.

Negotiation tips:

Don't allow the existence of electronic and print-on-demand editions to render your book in print. Alternatively, establish a floor above which a certain amount of royalties must be earned or copies must be sold during each accounting period for your book to be considered in print. Once sales or earnings fall below this floor, your book should be deemed out-of-print and rights should revert to you.

Stipulate that as soon as your book is out-of-print all rights will automatically revert to you regardless of whether your book has earned out the advance.

So do I agree with the Authors Guild on this one, or the University of Minnesota Press? Dear reader, I'm torn. I can think of valid arguments pro and con. It's true that a publisher can lock up your book forever in electronic form, spitting out a copy every two years and never giving you the rights back. But does that matter in the case of academic work for a by-definition small audience? Isn't it only a problem if one can earn money on the book by republishing it elsewhere? (And yes, many books gain new life this way...)

I'm open to arguments pro and con from anyone who wants to weigh in.

My first Kindle disappointment

I wasn't in the earliest wave of Amazon Kindle adopters, but I got one fairly soon after they were released, and I love it. Living carless in the city I am on public transportation a lot, and Kindle has turned my commutes from drugery to pleasure. Sometimes I even hope the bus or train will wait a little while longer so that I don't have to interrupt a chapter to board!

So why am I now so disappointed? Because Kindle has (predictably?) begun jacking the price of its books. It promised less than $10 even for new books. But the just-released biography of V. S. Naipaul (which reviewers seem to admire, yet I don't plan to read, as good as it may be, because I just don't want a litany of author's private lives in my head -- in grad school I burned out on Plath, Hughes, Lowell, Sexton, and their ilk, and I Just Don't Care Anymore -- but I post it here as an example) is $17.82.

HUH? Paying around $10 for a book you can't give as a gift or share with anyone else was stiff enough, but I went for it because of the convenience. But $17.82?

That, my beloved seven readers, is a rip-off.

Why it is so challenging to pitch authors to radio

Radio and authors seem like a natural fit. There are so many wonderful regional radio programs around the country, and it only makes sense that some of them will be just right for particular authors, especially those who are conversational and have an exciting story to tell.

So why doesn't your publisher simply keep an exhaustive list of radio producers, and assertively pitch you to them? Come to think of it, why didn't your publisher bother to book you on regional radio programs all over this great land of ours?

I just found out why. Because every show, no matter how small, wants a free copy of the book. The cost of the book itself isn't even the biggest barrier, because books are far less expensive for publishers than you might think. But there's a second consideration: postage. And a third consideration: people power to label packages and stuff envelopes, plus the clerical work involved in keeping track of personnel changes (even the expensive media database services aren't perfect at this).

Can you imagine how much time and effort it would take to package, label, and send out several hundred copies of a book just to land a slew of regional and/or local radio shows? Of course it is worth it for the national shows, and even for the major regionals. But when you're talking about a program that has a community reach or even smaller (some stations only broadcast for a few miles), unless you're fairly certain they'll want your author, it becomes a game of diminishing returns.

Anyone who reads this blog knows how much I love community and regional radio. This is not even remotely a swipe at these programs or their producers -- I can certainly understand why they would want to see the actual book before inviting a guest on the show. But now that I have spent some quality time pitching certain select authors to radio programs nationwide, I also get why it doesn't happen more often, and why publishers don't typically go hog wild pitching their authors all over the USA. Who can afford it?

This is one time when an electronic version of the book available online in a limited format for regional radio and TV programs might be the way to go. But the technology just isn't there -- as a producer you can't look at the electronic version (yet) and tell whether the book is cool enough for your program. If I find a solution to this interesting dilemma, I'll post it.

(Oh, and the next time any authors reading this blog are tempted to sigh that your publisher didn't seem to push your book hard enough on radio, um, send me a note and we'll tawlk.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Stephen Coonts at Booklab

Steve Coonts stole the day by making an audience of Georgetown faculty laugh... he is quite funny! Yes, he talked about book publishing, and yes, the outlook was bleak for fiction writers (it is as tough or tougher now than ever), but he offered some heartening statistics. Did you know that almost half of the books published in the U.S. today are fiction? Granted, much of that is by established writers, but it's still a good number. At one point he said "Remember this, class, because it will be on the quiz: trade publishing is a for-profit business!" He stamped his foot on each of the last three words for emphasis. Authors like to come to trade publishers with artistic work, but publishers like (and need) to turn a profit. Genre writing isn't the only way to do it (just ask Anne Tyler, A. S. Byatt or Paul Auster), but there has to be some consideration of what will make the book successful.

Coonts is convinced that it's all about characters. He does not believe that strictly plot-driven or gimmick-driven fiction can last long, although he acknowledges that it sometimes makes it out there. He emphasized both how he draws his own characters, and how he suggests that authors think about them. He prefers fiction with larger-than-life characters to that which reflects reality too faithfully, and he has a resistance to heroes who too closely resemble the author him or herself. I've heard debates on this either way, and I think it boils down to the artistry and skill of the author. Some can pull off autobiographical main characters and some can't, but for Coonts's money it's better to look outside oneself. As realistic as he was about how hard it is to get an agent these days for fiction, he also added that most manuscripts bobble not for lack of an agent, but because their authors need to learn their craft. He's also a big fan of writer's conferences (this was a surprise to me, as he seems a bit iconoclastic for that sort of thing), and he believes valuable author-agent relationships can be forged there.

The above photo was taken later yesterday evening at Book Fair.

Book Fair at the National Press Club -- Aftermath

We survived! There were record crowds last night, and it was wonderful to meet Roger Mudd, James Reston, Jr., Justice Scalia, and to re-meet Helen Thomas and Chip Bok, Alan Geoffrion, Russell Baker, Jim Wooten, and other stars. This is a photo of your book blogger (exhausted from chairing Book Fair this year, but trying not to show it) with (l-r) Jacques Berlinerblau, author of Thumpin' It, Alison Crowley, a Georgetown student who works in this office, and James J. O'Donnell, author of The Ruin of the Roman Empire.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bret Hart will be at the Press Club, not my house!

In one of the more bizarre twists to come out of Book Fair this year, Bret "The Hitman" Hart's official website accidentally posted my home address and telephone number for his signing tonight, instead of the National Press Club. His publicists quickly corrected the error, but not before it was picked up by a number of fan sites. I have been fielding professional wrestling inquiries for two days now!

My interest in pro wrestlers goes back to around 2000, when I met legendary wrestler Luna Vachon on a plane ride from Tampa to DC (Tampa is a big hub for pro wrestlers). We had a great conversation, and I came away with so much respect for the history of the sport, and for what she termed the modern-day carnival. Her husband Gangrel was also on that flight, and later on another flight I met the Bushwhackers. When I became chair of Book Fair at the National Press Club late last year, I wanted Bret Hart in as a nod to that long-ago plane ride with Luna and her colleagues. He has certainly proven to be a popular choice, but who knew that fans might be showing up at my front gate tonight?

If you are reading this and wanted to go to Book Fair to meet Bret Hart or any of the other 85+ authors, PLEASE go to 14th and F Streets, NW (The National Press Building), 13th Floor, at 5:30 p.m. Do not come to my house. If you do, you will find the lights out, and a printed map with directions to the National Press Club. ;-)

Monday, November 17, 2008

A cup o' cliché

In an earlier post I wrote "a side-order of snark," and then later wondered if it was a cliché, so I googled it. Yep, cliché.

National Press Club 31st Annual Book Fair and Authors' Night

Wow, Book Fair is tomorrow night! I should have blogged about it earlier, seeing as how I'm the chair and all, but I did create a Facebook group, and we have had amazing publicity. It's an editor's pick at The Washington Post, we were on Elliot in the Morning today when Bret "The Hitman" Hart made an appearance on that show, Roll Call buzzed today for a quote, and we're in the regional media all over the place. Georgetown University will be represented by authors James J. O'Donnell (The Ruin of the Roman Empire), Jacques Berlinerblau (Thumpin' It), and by Anna Lawton and New Academia Publishing.

Other stars include Roger Mudd, Helen Thomas and Chip Bok, Kerry Kennedy, Senator Mel Martinez, sports authors Len Shapiro and Andy Pollin, Russell Baker and Jim Wooten (featuring the work of their friend and colleague, the late David Halberstam), James Reston, Jr., professional wrestler Bret Hart, bestselling author Stephen Coonts, renowned artist Wendell Minor (who designs David McCullough’s book covers,, plus he contributed rights to use the Abraham Lincoln image on this post and on the official poster), historian Thurston Clarke, Loretta and Linda Sanchez (the first-ever sisters in the House of Representatives), Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Senator Jim DeMint, celebrity chefs including Bon Appetit editor-in-chief Barbara Fairchild, Kennedy family chef Neil Connolly, and “Made in Spain” star José Andrés, for a total of more than 90 great authors.

Just $5 buys all the excitement you can handle. 5:30 - 8:30, and you can dine at one of the club's two restaurants (casual upstairs, fine dining downstairs) afterward. 14th and F Streets, NW (National Press Building), 13th Floor.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Thriller author Stephen Coonts at Booklab

Booklab continues its proud tradition of bringing authors, editors and agents to campus. We started with Paul Aiken and Jan Constantine of the Author's Guild, and then soon followed with authors Sebastian Junger and Thomas Moore, agent Mildred Marmur and editor Cary Goldstein. Now Steve Coonts joins us. He wrote the classic Flight of the Intruder, and his newest thriller is The Assassin. Why do I bring a thriller writer to this oh-so-scholarly campus? Because I know your secrets, people -- scores of Georgetown's faculty, grad students, staff and undergraduates are closet thriller writers. I have seen your manuscripts and the truth is undeniable: many of you dream of seeing your name in bright, foil type on a hardcover book with a picture of a gun on it! Coonts is one of the very best, and he will join us for a 12:00 talk on Tuesday, November 18 in the Murray Room of Lauinger Library. This is open to faculty and select graduate students, and RSVPs to me are an absolute must because of space (the room holds 50 and we have 40 now).

Good writing found accidentally

I found a charming, witty, well-written article in today's New York Times, and I was so surprised that I almost wrote a fan letter to the author. Published wit seldom seems warm anymore -- it is all too often accompanied by a side order of snark, and a kind of deep-in-the-bones cynicism that can border on outright bitterness. So imagine my surprise at finding a straight-faced appreciation of Grand Central Station in the Times, written by Seth Kugel, a gifted writer with a name so perfect that it seems like a pseudonym. I was engaged enough to visit his website, where I learned that he will soon leave to be a full-time correspondent in Brazil.

He says he has co-authored a travel guide, but surely that's just throat-clearing. When will his first single-authored book appear? We need another Thurber, a colleague for Trillin, hell, we could use a new Bombeck while we're at it!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Words I Had to Look Up: Tendentious

From the OED: Having a purposed tendency; composed or written with such a tendency or aim.

1900 T. DAVIDSON Hist. Educ. I. iv. 70 Xenophon's Cyropæ a mere edifying, tendentious romance, intended to recommend to the Athenians the Spartan type of education. 1905 Times, Lit. Suppl. 28 July 239/2 He [Zimmer, in ‘Die Keltische Kirche’] thinks that the legend of St. Patrick was tendencious, springing up to support a special ecclesiastical thesis. 1909 C. LOWE in Contemp. Rev. July 42 A false and tendencious account of what had taken place.

Hmmmm... the OED isn't exactly clear on the meaning. Merriam-Webster is better when it offers biased as a synonym.

Great Books, anyone? Or perhaps just coffee and the paper?

An engaging New York Times review looks at the concept of Great Books. Like so many useful links, I found this one on Arts and Letters Daily. It is a review of A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam(PublicAffairs 2008). If you look up the book on Amazon, you'll find an interesting review by Max Weismann, co-founder of the Great Books Academy, who pointedly calls the work an ad hominem attack, which it may be (I won't opine until I read it).

I used to teach a literature course at Georgetown called "What It Means to be Well-Read," which tackled a similar topic -- how different eras and generations considered gentlemen and later ladies to be educated. Instead of doing what many of my fellows back in grad school did by picking apart the canon and finding things wrong with it (every canon is flawed, and so what?), instead we explored other eras' definitions of what constituted a must-read. We looked at times when Latin and Greek were required to be considered literate (albeit at fairly low levels bordering on the aphoristic), at the concept of a "lady's education," and we explored how different generations discarded their forebears' assumptions and replaced them with equally fragile ones of their own. Students loved it, and we had a lot of fun reading some of the required gems from the past that have now been lost (has anyone memorized Tennyson lately? Indeed does anyone memorize much of anything in school anymore? And why not?).

Reviews of the Beam book seem mixed, possibly because (as we discovered in our course together) many of us like the idea of Great Books, and someone has to help us figure out what to read. There is simply too much published in any generation not to take an educated approach and attempt to agree on certain works that endure beyond their moment. Great Books concepts may have their flaws (most notably: bowlderization, censorship, sexism and racism), but even worse is the opposite approach where all books are considered Equal, and where one discards all judgments and leaves young minds to wander without guide or historian. With 30,000 new books published every year in the U.S. alone, somebody has to figure out some way to make sense of it all.

Dana Luciano wins the MLA First Book Prize

The book is Arranging Grief: Sacred Time and the Body in Nineteenth-Century America from NYU Press. Congratulations, Dana, and what a wonderful accomplishment. I just returned from a visit to NYU Press, where they are delighted about this.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Booklab author lands on radio!

One of the unsung things we do at Booklab is guide authors to broadcast their writing on public radio. I used to work in radio (first at my university station, WTJU in Charlottesville; then at WUNC, an NPR station and the home of NPR's Southeastern Bureau in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and finally at WGMS, an all-classical station in Washington, DC), and I'm an occasional guest on radio, including shows like Talk of the Nation or One Union Station, or most recently Georgetown Forum, hosted at WAMU. A couple of years back I began coaching writers to get their own work on NPR member stations, and we've had several hits. Just today, a Booklab author (a retired physician) wrote to say that he had just returned from recording two pieces at an NPR member station in Roanoke, Virginia. This is a wonderful way to build a literary platform, and to cultivate radio listeners who may turn into your literary audience as well.

The photograph above is from the archives of WUNC, a radio station where I learned so much, and that I still love. Donate to your favorite radio station today...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Is anyone out there a public intellectual? Anyone?

Daniel Drezner has an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about whether the role of the public intellectual has truly waned. Personally I'm pessimistic, especially when it comes to women, but his piece interests me on a number of levels, not the least of which is his catalogue of who's writing, and his defense of blogs. The paperback of his book -- All Politics is Global -- arrived in September from Princeton University Press. Here's his bio from Cato Unbound, the blog from the Cato Institute.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Photos from Laura Benedetti receiving the Flaiano Prize

When Laura Benedetti's book The Tigress in the Snow: Motherhood and Literature in Twentieth-Century Italy (University of Toronto Press, 2007) won the Flaiano prize, she attended the ceremony in Pescara, Italy, on July 6, 2008.

On the left is Laura at the Theater Gabriele D’Annunzio. On the right is Canadian novelist Alice Munro who also won the prize. There were other winners, including Russian film director Eldar Ryazanov.

Named after author and screen-writer Ennio Flaiano (1910-1972), this international prize recognizes achievements in the fields of cinema, theater, creative writing, and literary criticism.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Touching Johns Hopkins video about a true bookman

I always love to see someone with so many books that his entire collection could become a library. Thomas Jefferson was one such (and his collection formed the basis of the University of Virginia library, and also the Library of Congress). Richard Macksey of Johns Hopkins is another. This engaging video tells more.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Michael Crichton at the National Press Club in 2006

Today I read the news about Michael Crichton's passing. He is one of the authors I've met in person, because I had the privilege of introducing him two years ago at the National Press Club. Famous authors are at the Club all the time, and if I wanted to I could have played Zelig and created a wall full of those grip-n-grin photos that are so popular in Washington (not that they'd have a clue who I am), but seldom does meeting an author really matter to me. In Crichton's case it did. He had the sort of full-package career that I admired -- his movie directing was especially impressive, and I loved his way with a story ever since I saw Westworld as a kid. He annoyed a lot of people with his political positions, and that made me like him even better. His personality really didn't seem firebrandish, however. He was laid back and gracious (not all famous authors are that way), and easily conversational.

The photo above is a little better. It was taken by Bruce Guthrie, a photographer who comes to literary events at the National Press Club from time to time. We laughed most of the time that night -- I was choosing questions from the audience, and I tried to be a little off-the-wall because he seemed to enjoy shaking things up a bit. The face he's making is him getting ready to chuckle at a particular question.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Are you still arguing with your publisher over paperbacks?

One of the many interesting discussions I had during visits to NYU Press and Columbia University Press this past week had to do with academic authors who want a paperback version printed at the same time as the hardcover version. They usually request this because university press hardcovers are notoriously expensive -- sometimes near or at $100 for a single copy. The academic authors rationalize this demand by saying they want their students to be able to afford the book.

However, the demand works against the author almost all of the time. First, most libraries will often acquire the least-expensive available version of the book, so many will buy the softcover if it is offered simultaneously with hardcover. Result? Not only does the press earn less money, but the author receives lower royalties and the book ages out on the shelves more quickly if it is used. Second, by blocking the publisher from earning more, the author chips away at the university press's already razor-thin profit margins. This has the net effect of making publishing more expensive overall, and (surprise) it increases the likelihood that hardcover prices will remain high. If academic authors really want to see hardcover prices decrease, one consistent way to do it is to work with the university press publisher to help them publish the book in an economically sustainable way.

There is a win-win solution that most publishers are willing to offer, but few authors know to request. If you really want your students to be able to buy the book economically, coordinate with your press to provide copies to you or to your university bookstore (if the bookstore will cooperate) that reflect the deeper author discount, which is sometimes as much as 40% or more. This can bring the price of the hardcover down close to where the paperback would have been priced anyway. Result? Your press makes its money on institutional sales, you get cheaper-priced copies for your students, and your students get a nice hardcover rather than a paperback.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A marvelous, detail-rich book about a legendary place

The more-than-a-century-old artists' community in Saratoga, New York known as Yaddo gets a delectable treatment in a new book by sociologist Micki McGee. Yaddo: Making American Culture (Columbia University Press 2008) has a back-in-time feel that reminds me of one of my favorite books ever, The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love by Alice A. Carter (Harry N. Abrams 2000). Both volumes gather photographs, documents, and interviews to weave stories and pictures in a manner that that makes the reader feel like a knowledgeable insider.

McGee is the curator of an exhibition by the same name at the New York Public Library, which jointly sponsored the book with Columbia UP. Interestingly, her bio says that among many honors, she has been a resident at another famous artists' retreat, the McDowell Colony. There isn't any mention of Yaddo, but maybe that's a given, or else in her future.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Tidbits to come...

On Thursday and Friday, October 30 and 31, I visited two academic publishers in New York: NYU Press and Columbia University Press. It was an amazing trip, punctuated by a wonderful evening at Broadway Baby hearing Jan Constantine and Sue Elicks sing. Jan serves as General Counsel for the Author's Guild, but what many don't (yet) know about her is that she performs cabaret at various venues in New York, and that she and her singing partner are amazingly wonderful alone and together. I went with literary agent Milly Marmur, and we had so much fun.

You won't believe what I learned about publishing from visiting the two presses. I have visited university presses since early 2006, going to The University of Chicago Press, Northwestern University Press, The University of Arizona Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, and Oxford University Press in addition to these two most recent visits. But every trip is different, and the conversations vary as publishing evolves (and yes -- things can change just that fast). I came home with five remarkable trade secrets that I'll share here, one blog posting at a time, starting tomorrow when I'm better rested.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Literary amplification: Creating bigger characters in NON-fiction

Drawing bigger characters in fiction is standard advice. Yet we academic nonfiction writers often forget that we're working with characters, too! In fact, every one of us is a character if we exist in the mind of another. All we are is cartoons in each other's brains, and often inaccurate ones at that. So if you're writing about someone who really lived, the challenges are in many senses the same. The only major difference is that you're dealing with a chronology and a world picture that you can't alter at will (although you can to a certain extent by choosing what to tell, what to leave out, and how to tell it, and therein lies great art), and you are stuck with what the person is known to have done and said... you don't invent it. But after that initial difference, the crafts become so similar.

My book is primarily about a woman, but I'm also writing a bit in one chapter about her father, who died in the late 1600s. He appears so faint to us now, hundreds of years away, so I'm using the tools of fiction to magnify him. It's like literary amplification -- adding color and sound where there was none previously to bring a once-vivid character back to life. Is it fiction? No -- he really lived, and I'm doing my best to work with the facts of his life as we know them. But it will benefit from many of the tools that make good fiction so fun to read.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A response to common writerly advice

If I hear one more writing teacher at one more conference say "murder your darlings," I'm going to commit a crime! Seriously, it's terrible advice, but it gets repeated over and over again simply because Faulkner or Elmore Leonard or Fitzgerald or somebody Important was supposed to have said it. It is unwise counsel from the same blather machine that gave us the Worship of Hemingway Style (spare, muscular prose, or at least supposedly so), and the Church of Strunk and White (a.k.a. "How to write like a terse New Englander").

Because of this proliferating nonsense, authors with glorious, Gothic, indulgent, magnificent passages set to work paring them back to leaner stuff that is a repudiation of everything that makes that particular author wonderful. Don't even get me started on writers' workshops where these same energetic authors go in with their own voices and come out parroting MFA program product.

I'll offer a counter-bit of advice. Nurture your darlings. If you love a passage, keep it! Lean into your own writerly indulgences, and enjoy them. Give yourself shivers, and then thrill when your readers get them, too. And don't listen to too many gurus at writers' worshops or conferences. If anyone ever gives you advice that makes you either feel depressed or like you did something wrong with your work, just blow them a kiss and walk away.

Indulge yourself, your subconscious, your impulses, your dreams . . . all on the page, all wonderful, all alive. And leave the best bits for me to read -- don't edit them out, please!

The courage to re-write, and even to re-think

Writing can feel overly precious at times. When you craft a passage you're fond of, letting it go or allowing yourself to re-think it can feel almost sacrilegious. Adrianna fell in love with a two-chapter sequence in her most recent book, but she also understood that they really should be combined into one leaner chapter. The first reason was balance -- if she devotes two chapters to one period in the life of the 19th century author she's writing about, that will inaccurately indicate to the reader that this period of the author's life is of outsized importance, and it isn't. The second reason was pacing. Although Adrianna loved her longer passages that detailed minutiae in the author's world, she also knows that readers by definition usually care less. She has devoted her life now to writing this book, but they are doing her a favor by giving her a few hours of their lives, and she can't take advantage of that by boring them, or they'll walk away.

So she combined the two chapters into one, and pared it down by fourteen pages. That felt painful at first, but she is comfortable with what's gone, and it passed a crucial test: upon re-reading, she didn't miss any of it.

The chapter still doesn't "work," however. It's not badly written, but it needs vigor and coherence. It needs pacing. I've advised her to lay it aside for now and move on to the next one, with the promise to herself that she'll return to fix it when it feels fresh again. She may have to consider actually re-writing part of it, or even re-thinking it at a fundamental level. Although words can feel inevitable or unchangeable once you've written them (Alastair Fowler said they tend to harden, like concrete hardens, if you write too soon), they're just words. You can re-state, scrap and start over, try fresh approaches, anything! And the re-write is usually faster than the original, because your mind now knows what it wants to say, so it's simply a matter of stating it in an engaging and accessible way.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Who will create your book's index?

Few scholarly authors think about the humble index, but it is a vital aspect of any book, and one that can become a serious issue in the later stages of publication. Indexing is a craft, not simply a clerical task, and people who index well can also bring it to the level of an art. Most people think of a too-skimpy index as the main problem, but in reality an overly inclusive one is worse. If an index leads you to every mention of a person or a thing, you'll be flipping back and forth in the book with little sense of the intellectual content behind each reference. A good index takes you where you need to go and makes sure you find every substantive instance in proper context, but without sending you to inconsequential mentions, low-content footnotes, etc.

Indexes cost money, and unless your university press contract specifically states that the press will pay for and provide an index, then you can be assured that the index is your responsibility. Can you create your own? Probably not; it is enormously time-consuming and it requires the above-mentioned professional skills. Also, it can only be created when the book is in galleys and the pagination absolutely will not change, which means you can't just press a button on your computer and make it happen from manuscript (that wouldn't work for other reasons as well... there is no such thing as a push-button indexing program and in many ways there can't be). I strongly recommend working with an experienced indexer, and expecting to pay about $4.50 per typeset page.

The secret to a good index is to initiate the conversation with your publisher early so that you know what is expected, review others from the same publisher so you get a sense of the preferred style, and ask for some names. Then do some research on your own, perhaps contacting other university presses to find out who they use. At Booklab we have certain indexers we love and use, but they tend to be trade secrets because we don't want them to become overwhelmed with other people's projects and have no time for ours. Your publisher may feel the same way, so look in the back of trade publications as well to see who advertises book indexing services. Insist on a list of books they have already successfully indexed, look at those books, and also contact the book's editor to see how it was working with that indexer.

Indexing experiences run all the way from heaven to hades and back again. You can make your experience a heavenly one if you plan ahead, do your provider research long before you need the indexer, and budget your money (you will almost always have to pay for this if you did not get an advance for your book, and especially if you paid a subvention). This blog post is also my word of appreciation to professional book indexers. Thank you for the important work that you do!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book acquisitions are usually group decisions

So many authors come to me with the fantasy that one, sole editor will read their work (usually at a desk in a quiet office), make a decision, and act on that decision with a yes or a no. They're surprised when I say that in book acquisitions this almost never happens, and in article acquisitions it seldom does. First, the work is often glanced over or culled by assistants, even when the work is addressed to the editor (although most editors make a point of at least looking at everything that is addressed to them personally and some won't use assistants for this work). Second, few editors sit in a quiet room and read in a leisurely way at a desk. There is usually a lot going on, there are multiple manuscripts to review, and editors frequently take work home. Third, the vast majority of editorial acquisition decisions at a publishing house are made in a group environment. It's not that editors don't have power -- many of them have a lot of it -- but that publishers are group organisms where communication is vital, and where the opinion of colleagues is often highly respected. Most editors like to chat acquisitions over with colleagues, and at almost all houses some sort of conference is mandatory.

This month's Poets and Writers magazine (one of the oh-so-few writer's magazines I find truly energizing) has a helpful interview with Chuck Adams, the acquiring editor of Sara Gruen's bestselling novel Water For Elephants at Algonquin Books. The article is noteworthy because it is so authentically written (hard to define, but it sounds right for trade literary publishing, as so few articles in the writer magazines manage to do), and I noticed one good reason why -- the author is Jofie Ferrari-Adler, who is an editor at Grove/Atlantic; he used to be an editor at Viking. The series is called "Agents and Editors," and I recommend it highly. Here is the relevant part from the interview about how Water For Elephants was acquired.

"I started reading it and immediately just loved it. I gave a copy to Ina Stern, our associate publisher, on a Friday. We both came on on Monday and went, 'Oh my God! We have to have this book.' It was the first and, with the exception of one other book I've brought in, the only time that every editor here and the publisher said 'We have to have this book.' Usually there's one naysayer, and sometimes several, but in this case everyone agreed."

Notice how the editor loved it, but still immediately discussed it with the associate publisher, the team at the editorial meeting, and the publisher. This is not usually a mother-or-father-may-I kind of discussion when you are dealing with seasoned professionals, but rather a combination reality check and group coordination to see what others have planned as well. Books and their authors may come and go, but the editorial team has to work together far beyond the influence of one publishing experience. The acquisition has to fit with the editor, the house, the list (what the editor has published overall -- a kind of editorial identity), and the catalogues. It's not that things are matchy matchy, and many times they aren't. Editors break their own rules often, and houses often publish titles that represent departures for them. But discussions almost always preceded acquisitions, especially when money is involved, and your submission may have an interesting life of its own at various meetings or in e-mail forwarding within any given house.

The book journal, part nine: Don't just do something, stand there!

When book writing is going well, writing can feel so pleasurable. But when the writing must stop for some reason (often after the submission of a chapter to an editor or agent), it's easy to hear the party music come to a screeching halt and wonder where the momentum went. Feeling a little down-in-the-dumps at these times is not unusual (this is also common right after submitting the completed manuscript).

If you freeze, thawing out again can be tough, so I have adopted a mechanical approach. I give myself some simple, time-restricted jobs, and I complete each one carefully, almost doltishly, with a constant awareness that it is real work and that it does serve the book. The best jobs for this are ones I can do in one or two hours, tops, and that have a definite beginning and end. Here are some examples of some good start-again tasks for the new chapter:

1. Make sure that I have accurate computer entries for every source I used in the just-handed-in chapter, plus photocopies of the title page and quoted pages for the file so I don't have to look it all up again if I lose my computer file.

2. Make sure I have a triple backup of the chapter. This means (a) e-mailing it to myself to put one on the server; and (b) e-mailing one to my mom, who never deletes anything. In addition to the computer file, these two extras are a little bit of insurance and they're pretty reliable.

3. Return all the library books that won't be needed for this new chapter, and check out the news ones that will. Organize them on the bookshelf, and mark appropriate chapters with Post-Its so I don't have to flip around while writing.

4. Re-read main sources for the chapter. This can be important! Sometimes I'm a few weeks or months from the last reading, and memories can fuzz. Re-reading is such an easy, relaxing prep for writing, and often it can be quite helpful.

5. Type out material that I know I intend to quote, and make sure an accurate citation is attached to it to avoid accidental plagiarism (a sin that is easier to do by mistake than you might think).

6. Use the Alastair Fowler writing method (discussed elsewhere in this blog) to brainstorm some ideas for the new chapter.

7. Write a teeny something, even if only a line or two, to get going again. This works rather like priming a pump.

Usually by this time I'm writing, but I confess that early first drafts generally feel stupid, unformed, confusing, and not very promising at all. That's okay. If I get stuck again I do another simple little task. If the writing is still going slowly, then sometimes I go out for coffee, bring a notebook, and commit to write one paragraph before leaving the cafe.

Oh, and by the way, I now have a proposal plus 75 manuscript pages. Some days I only wrote part of one page, and other days I wrote ten or more pages. Even on the part-of days, it adds up.

If you write longer books, is that better?

One of my academic friends has written 15 books. He comes out with a new one every other year with comforting regularity. I've been to several of his book events, and it's fun. He has a readership, he is well-compensated for his efforts, and within his field he's famous. He keynotes at academic conferences and he enjoys the professional perks that go along with being well-published (full professorship at a superb university, excellent publisher, better salary, pretty much unassailable politically on campus, all that comforting stuff).

His books are also very short. As in really short. As in "Don't you think this should be an article?" short.

That last phrase -- and I'll blog about it more in the future -- is a line I hear over and over again from people who think articles are short and books are long, and if a topic is focused narrowly then it's an article, not a book. I say it's up to the author and the market, but it is just fine to publish short books.

Authors come to me often with the stress that they haven't written "enough" for a book (whatever enough is). Sometimes they'll ask if their chapters are long enough in manuscript. Long enough? Hmmm... like you should add breadcrumbs to the ground veal to pad a chapter out if it's too short? How would I -- or you the author -- know when it was "long enough"? Would we hit a magic page or word count?

Personally I think length is irrelevant when considering either chapters or books, and I also have an enormous fondness for short. Not too short, not Hemingway short (I have no taste for his astringent style or for the recommendations of that annoying and terse Strunk & White book either) not "I didn't say what I meant" short, but tastefully brief, just-right, well-considered and well-said.

Friday, October 10, 2008

There's a writing spider at Booklab

Oh now this is too cute. Years ago when I lived in Carrboro, North Carolina, my novelist friend Marly Youmans lived right down the street. One day Marly had a spider on her bushes, and it made a strange, white zigzag in its web. I looked it up and learned that it was a writing spider. Marly was charmed by this (she was and is a so-prolific author), and her kids drew pictures of it. Flash forward to this afternoon, and I was leaving my house in Georgetown to take the dog for a walk. There was a spider in my pumpkin patch (okay, not quite a "patch," but one vine), and I immediately recognized it as the same kind -- a writing spider!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

And what about the Nobel prize?

Oh yes, and they announced the Nobel Prize for literature today. I'm not sure with which book of winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio to begin, so I'll ask for input.

Reading a book just because it won a prize

There are many ways to decide what to read. Though overwhelmed with manuscripts, I still like to keep up with new books, and following prize winners is one great way to do it.

But prize committees are complicated organisms, and many of us have read the confessions of past participants who admit they skim the books (how can you not, if you have to get through 70 or 100 to make a decision, and you also have a full-time job?). Also, inherent in a group vote is everyone picking the same book as a lower-rung choice, but with many books vying for #1, so the prize ends up going to a book everyone liked but nobody loved. Finally, the prize is usually awarded every year, even if a great choice isn't available each year. So sometimes an author gets a prize for being the best of a lesser bunch, whereas other times an author does not get a prize simply because someone amazing was in the running that year (or cynically, someone more famous whom prize judges thinks finally deserves a win).

Still, even though I understand all of this this (and I've served on several prize committees, one of which I resigned in disgust after the ranking phenomenon, when everyone's #3 won a huge scholarship, and the higher-ranked ones were left thinking they hadn't rated because we could not agree on them), I'm going to take a chance and read the book that just won the Thurber Prize because (a) I love humor and don't read enough of it; and (b) I've never read a Thurber-prize book before.

The book is Larry Doyle's I Love You Beth Cooper, and the publisher is Harper Perennial. I'll read it on my trusty Kindle and post my thoughts about it later.