Saturday, December 27, 2008
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
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 A9.com 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
Main Entry: sub·mit
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
synonyms see yield
— sub·mit·tal \-ˈmi-təl\ noun
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.
More energy in the next blog post.
Monday, December 15, 2008
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
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
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!
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!
Monday, December 08, 2008
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.
Saturday, December 06, 2008
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
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
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
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).
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
"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
Saturday, November 22, 2008
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.
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.
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.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
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.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Monday, November 17, 2008
Sunday, November 16, 2008
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
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 Cyropædia..is 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.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
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
Tuesday, November 11, 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
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
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
Sunday, November 02, 2008
Friday, October 31, 2008
Friday, October 24, 2008
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
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Friday, October 10, 2008
Thursday, October 09, 2008
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.