Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Book Babes have a new book!

Oh, I'm so intrigued by the Book Babes. These erstwhile Floridians are controversial, smart, and they've been writing about books long enough to have a lot to say. One little-known fact about your own Book Blogger is that besides being a Washingtonian passionately in love with Georgetown (both the university and the community in which I live), I'm also a Floridian. My family has lived on the Gulf Coast for decades, and I consider myself a citizen of that wonderful state where I have lived off and on, and where I visit at least six times a year to loll on the white sand beaches and sip the tasty margaritas. I have long admired the Book Babes and even once wrote a review of the book Lincoln and Whitman for The St. Petersburg Times before Book Babe Margo Hammond retired from her celebrated role as its book review editor.

Anyhoo, they have a forthcoming book-about-books with the unsurprisingly provocative title Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures.

Hey Book Babes! If you want to come to Book Fair at the National Press Club on November 18, we'd love to have you! We have an all-star lineup and you'd be perfect... drop me a note (I'm this year's chair), and we'll get you in.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Lionel vs. Calvin

Re the previous post, am I the only one who sometimes says Lionel Trilling when I mean Calvin Trillin, and vice versa?

Deeply touching conversation

Today I met with an author. We were talking about our respective publishing interests, and she mentioned that she worked on a novel for years, and re-worked it to the point where it felt over-revised. It hurt because she poured a lot of love and energy into it, and she couldn't let it go, but she also couldn't get it to the point she wanted. Agents and editors gave her positive feedback, and all sorts of professionals had an opinion about what it needed. She agreed that it needed something, but she couldn't decide whose counsel to heed and whose to discount. Over time it became a burden for her; she described it as something like pie crust that can become overworked, and no longer tender and flaky when baked. I loved that image, and I also ached in an empathetic and connective way to hear her talk about her novel, because something similar happened to me.

I started a novel back in 1993, in graduate school, in response to a specific event (a helplessly deteriorating friendship, the demise of which felt like mostly my fault). Years later even though the friendship had long since slipped away, I still futzed with it, producing three chapters that an editor at a major house said she liked and would be willing to publish if the rest of the book maintained that momentum. That plus the jealous feedback of a love interest who didn't want to compete with a book for my attention was enough to freeze me up for years. When I finally finished it with the help of a writing group in 2002, it was so old, marbled, re-worked and memorized that I had lost all objectivity. It sits in boxes under my bed today, technically finished but spiritually unloved, and a symbol of what felt like the Longest (and ickiest) Learning Experience Ever.

Do you have an overworked piece of long fiction that has bothered you far too long? Would you be willing to post about it?

It felt so comforting to hear another author say that she had suffered with a novel that wouldn't resolve itself, but also wouldn't go to sleep and let her be. I thought I was the only one! Perhaps you have thought you're the only one, too.

Interestingly, while writing this post, I searched on the words "unfinished novel" and found what looks like a lovely new book about an unfinished novel by the late Lionel Trilling by Geraldine Murphy from Columbia University Press. Pure serendipity! I've ordered a copy, and there's a photo of it here.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The book journal, part eight: authorial food fetishes

I'm writing a book, WHICH MEANS I'm developing a serious snack problem. I think many writers perhaps indulge food fetishes when they're deeply involved in their projects, and my particular sin has generally been traffic-cone-orange-colored baked Cheetos.

But now I've discovered something worse! Wisemiller's is an iconic quickie-market a block away that sells the junk students like to eat. I claim to be above it, but in reality I'm in there a bit too often buying beer, Haagen-Dasz, or Cheetos, plus my standard poodles' favorite, string cheese. Tonight, however, after hours spent deep in research from the 1680s for a book chapter, I dog-walked over to Wisemiller's for a snack. I happened to look up and see a huge display of Cheez-Its. There were four different flavors (regular, cheddar, white cheddar, and spicy). I did not grow up with Cheez-Its, but I figured the store must know its audience and what they like, so I bought a package just to try them.

HEAVEN. Plus they are ultra-fattening -- 450 calories for a tiny bag! A bonus!

Do any of you authors out there suffer from food cravings that become pestilential when your book is truly underway? By all means share...

Oxford Hears a Hugo

Oxford University Press launched a Hugo-award-winning book: Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction by Jeff Prucher.

Hugo awards look different every year. I've included the 2007 one because the design makes me smile. Here's a link to past designs. Hugo's trademark design proves that Kurt Vonnegut was right (if you need to ask, send e-mail).

New fiction imprint at Northern Illinois University Press

This is from a recent edition of Publisher's Weekly. I'll try to get more news on it:

Northern Illinois To Launch Fiction Imprint
by Claire Kirch -- Publishers Weekly, 9/26/2008 1:19:00 PM

Northern Illinois University Press in Dekalb, Ill. is launching a new regional fiction imprint, Switchgrass Books. NIU said Switchgrass is “committed to enhancing the cultural landscape of the Midwest” by focusing on literary fiction set in or about the Midwest and written by authors with significant ties to the region. According to Alex Schwartz, NIU Press/Switchgrass Books director, agented manuscripts will not be accepted for consideration, in order to provide both emerging and established writers a venue to “have their Midwestern voices heard.” Two books will be released under the Switchgrass imprint each season, with the first release scheduled for fall 2009. NIU Press will continue to focus its nonfiction line of books on U.S. history, Russian studies, transportation, religion, and regional studies.

Cool piece of NIU trivia: One of its graduates is Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson! NIU also boasts Dennis Hastert, and Tim Bennett, the president of Harpo Productions.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The book journal, part seven: Knowing editors and agents as people

Getting involved in the book industry is one way to establish yourself as an author. Even if you have already published a book or several, I find that authors can sometimes be book industry loners when it is just as easy to make these vital connections. This linking can mean going to academic conferences and meeting successful editors in your scholarly field (I'll share my trademark pub meeting method later), or hosting university press editors at your campus for book talks. However you go about it, there's no substitute for befriending members of that group of superb professionals before you need them. Of course, friendships alone won't get you an academic book deal, but once you have a scholarly product worth selling, these esteemed colleagues can be pure gold when it comes to helping you take the next step.

This worked for me in an interesting way. This weekend I signed with an agent, and I wasn't even looking for one. She is actually my second agent -- my first was a wonderful man who represented me from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s when my writing was going a completely different direction. Back then I dreamed of mainstream media success (newspapers, radio, television), but when it began to happen I discovered that I missed the academy and traditional scholarship, so I completely switched direction (name change, all of it). The agent remains a good friend, but he manages a different type of literary career than the one I'm building now. We let each other go in the kindest way possible -- and I have since sent him other authors.

This new agent as of two days ago is an industry veteran just like the first, but she is more on the scholarly side of the aisle, and she represents a number of academics. By coincidence she is also very good friends with the previous agent. Usually scholarly books don't make money, which is why I didn't expect to find representation, but she has always kept a few of us on her list for (I guess) the prestige factor (something quite valuable in its own way).

The most interesting part of this, however, is that I didn't ask her to represent my book. I didn't even ask her to read it! We met through this business and bonded as colleagues and eventually friends. We enjoy one another's minds and spirits outside of work-related matters, but of course we also see eye-to-eye on most of those. When she asked to read the sample chapter and proposal of the book I've been blogging about here, I sent it to her thinking she'd have a glance and tell me what university press editors might want it. When she actually offered to represent it, as the Brits would say "I was gobsmacked." Add to that I was honored, pleased, shy about it, you name it.

Surprise connections like this one are what I also want for some of you as readers of this blog -- literary friendships that may grow into wonderful partnerships (I'm well aware that others of you have more industry connections than I could ever hope for... but I'm speaking to those of us who can be more reticent about such matters). So often book writing devolves to an exercise in jumping university press hoops for tenure or full professorship, or trying to satisfy trade editors in order to make money, but books can connect people in larger ways -- they can link authors, presses, agents, and editors, all of whom (we hope) love books and the creation of them. The best agent will care about your career, and that can only happen if she or he gets to know you dimensionally. The nervousness and sometimes neediness that so often accompanies agent submissions can be antithetical to a comfortable and easy collaboration.

I highly recommend it this way instead -- get to know many editors and agents as people, and develop your book at the same time. Then when you have something to share, you'll have a number of colleagues from whom to choose, and one of them might just step forward and say "Please, allow me . . ."

Monday, September 29, 2008

What your author biography says about you

Writing the "about the author" section of your book proposal is a bit like being asked to stand undressed in front of a three-way mirror in a harshly lit department store and describe what you see. Self-image issues slither into the scene, and for many people (myself included), it can feel so awkward. Here is a note I recently wrote to an author who was struggling with the "about" section. The author had mentioned being an outcast in high school, and it was easy enough to see a tale-within-a-tale in that deceptively simple paragraph.

"Now for the bio . . . what I heard most in your earlier versions was the echo of negative self-mythology. When we define ourselves by how popular we were or weren't in high school, we're essentially ratifying the opinion of a coven of adolescent middle-minds (whether we think we were hot stuff or not). Once I busted open those stories I told myself about who I was in school, I personally began to flourish as a much quirkier and more interesting person who no longer shadow boxed with uninteresting and largely imaginary characters from a so-called past. I also began to have different -- and equally valid -- memories about those same years that were much richer. It was as though the Big Mythology bad memories had crowded out the flowers, but once I learned to question my thoughts, they vanished. I now have an entirely different internal narrative of what school "was," and better yet, it changes all the time because I constantly question it."

The author had an interesting time learning to challenge the degree to which he bought into others' definitions of who he was from two decades earlier (he is now 38), but he also tried a trick which I heartily recommend: he asked people who like him now to write the bio for him. He didn't just ask one person, but he solicited the comments of five. Not only was he quite surprised at how seriously they took the task and what a good job they did (far from simply flattering him, they truly attempted to define why in their opinions he was an interesting author and how they perceived his history), but he ended up with a much more dimensional and truthful self-portrait, since the loving eyes of others will always see us in important ways.

Image: "Studio Self Portrait" by Boston artist Jeff Hayes.

Bring out yer dead!

Do you ever start writing a piece only to find that it goes nowhere? I have files full of these. A well-published writer friend wisely advised me to keep every scrap, because you never know what form it will take later. In fact, my very first published short story was based on something I had begun a decade before and discarded. An editor asked me for a submission, and I panicked until I remembered that file. There was a begun-but-never-finished tale, ready to go. I shined it up just for her, she loved it, and I felt like a cheater until I pondered that -- uh -- it was all my work, just at different times in life.

Now here's a fun Monday morning literary challenge if you're up for it. Go back and find the oldest, most forgotten bit that you began and never finished. If there are many years between you now and you then, it should be sufficiently settled not to feel like unfinished work (with the attendant guilt), and simply seem like words. My challenge to you is to think about where it might work, finish it with an eye toward guiding it to that place, and then submit it it there.

Endings are some of the most challenging parts of a piece to write, second only to beginnings in difficulty (at least for me). What I like to do is come up with a wonderful ending and then write toward that rather than starting a piece to see where it leads. I stole this idea from Truman Capote, who once claimed it was the only way he could work.

PS: I'm working on a book now based on an idea from 18 (count 'em) 18 years ago, and it's happening! Time is no-time. Bring out yer dead...