Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Mary Mackey on Writing Historical Fiction

September 7, 2009

MACKEY WIDOW (1 of 1)MACKEY AUTHOR PIC (1 of 1)Mary Mackey   is the author of a new historical novel, The Widow’s War,  just published in paperback by Berkley Books (a division of Penguin). It is the story of a woman’s life and struggles set against the backdrop of the approaching Civil War. As in many of Mary’s other sweeping historical epics, it portrays a strong and courageous woman caught up in historic times.

Maxine Hong Kingston said of The Widow’s War: “We thrill to the story of Carrie Vinton, as she courageously takes the side of freedom over slavery.”

MACKEY NOTORIOUS (1 of 1)Mary has been a professor of English and Creative Writing at California State University for over 30 years. She has published 12 novels and 5 books of poetry. Her works have been translated into 11 foreign languages including Japanese, Hebrew,  Greek, and Finnish. Her best selling novel, A Grand Passion,  sold over a million copies and made The New York Times bestseller list.

Mary will be reading and discussing The Widow’s War on Friday, September 11, at 7:00 PM at Book Passage Corte Madera, California.

Andy: Mary, I want to talk to you today about writing historical fiction. It is a genre that I love to read and that you, it seems, love to write. But first I’d like you to tell me a little bit about your new book, The Widow’s War, which has just been published by  Berkley Books.

 Mary:  Well, we might start with the fact that Carrie Vinton, the heroine, is a widow because she’s just shot her husband.

 Andy: Wow. That starts things off with a bang. I presume she had good reason, yes?

Mary: A whole list of good reasons. This is a novel about the first African-Americans to fight in the Civil War. They’re a fictional cavalry unit, but they could have existed. The story that surrounds them is filled with Afro-Brazilian magic, heroism, history, and a passionate love affair that borders on obsession. But it also explores the subject of betrayal: personal betrayal, political betrayal, and, of course, sexual betrayal.

 The heroine, Carrie Vinton, is an American who was raised in the jungles of Brazil by her father, a botanist. Carrie is passionately opposed to slavery.  In the fall of 1853,  Carrie finds herself alone and pregnant in Rio de Janeiro after William, her abolitionist fiancé, disappears. William’s stepbrother, Deacon Presgrove, arrives in Rio, tells her William  is dead, and convinces her to marry him for her baby’s sake.

 After they return to the states, Carrie finds out she’s been tricked: Deacon is a fortune-hunter who’s married her for her money and William is still alive. From that point on, the novel is one series of betrayals after another. Believing that Carrie is dead, William has emigrated to Kansas where he is running slaves out of the slave state of Missouri on the Underground Railroad. Carrie goes to Kansas to search for William. This isn’t the Kansas Dorothy went back to after she returned from OZ. This is a Kansas convulsed by a violent civil war that raged for seven years before the official Civil War broke out. Two years earlier, in 1854,  President Pierce had signed a law which gave the residents of the Territory the right to vote to determine whether or not Kansas would come into the Union as a free state or a slave state. Almost immediately fierce fighting broke out in the Territory as proslavers flocked over the border to vote and abolitionists, mostly from New England, emigrated to Kansas to bring the state into the Union as a free state.

 William and Carrie are reunited but their happiness is short-lived. Attacking Carrie’s home, proslavers kidnap William, Carrie’s newborn child, and thirteen fugitive slaves. Desperate to fight for what she believes in, to get her child back safely, to prevent innocent people from being sold back into slavery, and to be reunited with the man she loves, Carrie arms a cavalry unit of African-American soldiers and leads them on a rescue mission into the slave state of Missouri. These soldiers have been trained by John Brown, the same John Brown who attacked Harper’s Ferry in 1849. Brown believed armed insurrection was the only way to end slavery and he was very active in Kansas at the time.

 I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, so I’ll leave you with William with a noose around his neck and Carrie riding into Missouri to try to save him.

 Andy: Can you be bribed to tell us if she makes it in time?

 Mary: Afraid not.

 Andy: Okay, then, the next question: This is your second book that takes place in  the time of  the Civil War. Your first was: The Notorious Mrs. Winston .[ picture of book.  ]  What caused you to become interested in this historical period?

 Mary: My great-grandfathers fought on opposite sides during the Civil War. One died for the Union at Shiloh; the other was a Confederate Army surgeon. I grew up hearing both points of view, and by the time I was twelve, I had decided that slavery was a great evil, and that if I had been alive in that period, I would have been a abolitionist.  Of course, I’m not the only person interested in the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of people are still drawn to the subject. It was one of the great turning points in American history, and many of the issues it raised are still with us—racism, for example.  You can’t understand American in the 21st Century  if you don’t know what happened when this country was almost ripped apart in the mid-19th century. In the 1850’s  slave owners came very close to controlling Congress. If Kansas had come into the Union as a slave state, all the western states, including California, might have become slave states. The North might not have won The Civil War; we might be two countries instead of one.  You might say we escaped by the skin of our teeth.

 Also, as a novelist, I’m always trying to create a plot that’s exciting—one that sweeps the reader along. There are few periods more exciting than the years just before and during the Civil War.

 Andy: It seems to me that historical fiction as a genre has an enduring attraction. I have always loved it because it seems to  focus on the heroic virtues (and vices) of humans. In the best works, I always come away being uplifted by these kind of epic themes. What is it about the genre that allows you to –well- get away with these kinds of portrayals. After all, most contemporary literary fiction seems to dwell on more intimate and private subjects.

 Mary:  I love writing historical fiction  because it allows me to set my stories in times when people face serous adversity.  I think you really get to know a character—or a real person for that matter—by the choices they make under stress. When the going gets tough, does the person endure or fold;  show compassion or shove the children aside, jump in the lifeboats, and save him or herself at the expense of everyone else? 

 At present in the industrialized world,  most people have few opportunities to show how heroic (or how deeply wicked) they are. We live sheltered lives. If we drink the water that comes out of our faucets, we aren’t likely to die of typhoid; most women survive childbirth; the majority of babies don’t die in infancy; our homes are warm in winter; most of us have never really gone hungry, and although we may deplore the violence in our cities, an army is not likely to attack the town we live in, burn the buildings, and massacre all the men and boys (which is what actually happened in Lawrence, Kansas in 1863). 

 Writing historical fiction gives me wide-ranging, exciting possibilities that allow my characters to be heroic or foolish on a grand scale with important consequences. I have an opportunity to examine the point where personal life and history intersect. Tolstoy does this masterfully in War and Peace. Dickens does it in A Tale of Two Cities. I learned from them that historical fiction can also be literary fiction.

 Andy: So now here is the big question. What is the greatest historical novel ever written?  Or let me rephrase that. What is the greatest historical novel ever written other than  War and Peace?

 Mary:  I’d say Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (a.k.a. Remembrance of Things Past),  all seven volumes of it. It’s not usually classified as historical fiction, but it covers the first decades of the French Third Republic and fin de siècle. Published between 1913 and 1927, it has a timeline that begins in the early 1870’s. Proust is one of my mentors. He’s influenced the way I think about psychology and style. He taught me that concrete detail and well-developed, complex, vivid characters can recapture the past and make it come alive.

 My next favorite piece of historical fiction is Mary Renault’s novel The Persian Boy.  I’ve read it several times and each time I go back to it, I’m impressed by how beautifully Renault integrates the history of Alexander The Great’s conquest of Persia with the intimately personal, first-person narrative of Alexander’s lover, the eunuch Bagoas.  Like Proust, Renault has strongly influenced my writing, particularly my pre-history novels The Year the Horses Came, The Horses At the Gate, and The Fires of Spring.  

 Andy: Lately, when I have tried to sell publishers any book, fiction or non, publishers seem obsessed about the books not being too long. It seems that the internet has created a generation of readers with ADD. But historical fiction seems to be able to get away with more words. I see 800, 1000, 1400 page historical novels. Got any thoughts why this is so?

 Mary: I suspect readers are willing to buy and read long historical novels because historical novels are offering them a history populated by human beings who love and suffer in ways that haven’t changed all that much over the centuries. Also,  I think many people (myself included) like to learn history in an enjoyable, painless way. Reading primary, or even secondary, historical documents can be a complex, difficult, boring process. I do it all the time, and even though I’m a trained academic researcher, I often find myself exhausted as I try to sort through events and make sense of them. Good historical fiction spares the reader this process. Ideally, the author tells a good story and in the process of reading that story, you learn a lot of history, but you learn it without having to spend two or three years consulting hundreds of books and articles.  Better yet, you remember it. Once I read The Persian Boy, I never forgot that Alexander The Great made it all the way to India in his attempt to conqueror the world.

 Andy: When I saw the movie  Zorro 2, there was a scene that took place when California was admitted to the Union  in 1850. The scene included Abraham Lincoln and a Confederate general. So my question is when the historical record clashes with telling a good yarn, who wins out?

 Mary: History, at least in my novels. I think my readers rely on me to be accurate. That said,  I’m writing fiction, which means that, among other things, I’m inserting fictional characters into real history, so sometimes I rely on possibility rather than on the exact record. For example, in The Widow’s War, I have a fictional pro-slavery senator  named Bennett Presgrove help a South Carolina Congressman nearly beat an abolitionist senator nearly to death on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The beating is a real, historical fact—one that shocked me when I discovered it– but in real life, the South Carolina Congressman conducted his infamy solo. At the end of the novel, I have an Author’s Note. In it, I tell the reader what’s fact and what’s fiction. I would never consider putting Abraham Lincoln next to a Confederate general in 1850. If I were reading a novel that did this, the entire illusion of being transported back to another era would be ruined for me. Even small mistakes in the historical record bother me. For example, I’ve read novels set in prehistoric Europe where people sit around drinking tea.

 On the other hand, some novels intentionally set out to distort history or change history. For example, there is a whole genre of science fiction alternate history novels that take as their subjects things like the South winning the Civil War or Hitler dying as an infant. As long as the author tells you at the beginning that this is the game plan, I don’t mind. Fiction is just that: fiction. The joy of fiction is that you can do anything you want with it as long as you are honest with your readers.

 Andy: I know you have been writing about the Civil War period now. But have also written about Czarist Russia and European pre-history. Are there any other  historical periods that you find really appealing?

 Mary: My doctoral dissertation was on the influence of the Darwinian Revolution on the 19th century novel, which is why the 19th century always attracts me, but I’m also particularly interested in ancient Rome, Britain as the Roman empire was crumbling, the Middle Ages in general, 17th century France, and Latin American just before and during the Spanish and Portuguese conquest. I read about these eras constantly, although I don’t know if I will ever set a novel in them.

 Andy: So what is it with the God damned Tudors? It’s like one novel after another about Elizabeth, Henry, Mary Scots, that stupid rogue Essex, the Boleyn girls. Is there really anything new to say about these people? Why do they seem to have such an enduring  fascination?

 Mary: I think some of the appeal is celebrity gossip. “OMG! Henry the VIII beheaded 2 of his wives!” Plus the women wear really beautiful clothes and are very rich and live in palaces while the rest of us are trying to pay the mortgage. I have nothing against these novels. They provide entertainment and escape, and in the best cases they bring history to people who would never read it otherwise. Some are very well-written and well-researched. I particularly enjoy the work of Philippa Gregory. I think the problem with the Tudors is that they are being mined to death. It’s like the Jane Austen craze. Jane Austen is a great writer, but you can only take so many rewrites of Pride and Prejudice. I’m reminded of great songs that are played until you can’t stand them. At this very moment, someone who has never heard it before is listening to Stairway To Heaven and being blown away by it. But when I hear it for the 6,000th time, all I want is earplugs. It’s the same with the Tudors.

 Andy: Ok Mary. I want to write an historical novel. I’m thinking of doing a kind of mystery. Maybe Sherlock Holmes teams up with Otto Von Bismarck. Maybe a murder in the Hapsburg court. A lot of scenes with generals in cool outfits doing the waltz. Is this a good idea. What periods of time do you see really working right now for a successful novel?

 mary: Right now I’m hoping that the Civil War period is the best for a successful novel. Seriously, Andy, if you’re planning to write a historical novel, you should start by finding a period you love and set your story in it. If waltzing generals in cool outfits make you happier than Roman emperors in togas, go for the waltzing generals.

 Historical Novels that Mary recommends you read:

Mary Mackey suggests you read all of Andy’s suggestions (below) plus:

 Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Year The Horses Came by Mary Mackey

The Widow’s War by Mary Mackey

Ten Historical Novels that Andy recommends you read.

Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears

The Dream of Cicero by Iain Pears

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

The Three Musketeers s by Alexander Dumas

Saints and Villains by Denise Giardino

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Lincoln by Gore Vidal

The Notorious Mrs. Winston by Mary Mackey

The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Tom Farber: Teaching Creative Writing

August 24, 2009

Thomas Farber teaches creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley. Among other awards and prizes, he is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and three NEA Fellowships for creative writing. He is the author of over 20 books of fiction, non-fiction, essays and a few oddities—books of the epigrammatic–thrown in.

He also founded and directs the non-profit publishing house El Leon Literary Arts, which publishes literary and graphic works that are perhaps just too economically risky for commercial publishing.

 We will be  talking to Tom about the art and science of teaching creative writing.

 Andy: Tom, let’s say I have a concept for a novel. There are these 4 brothers. One is a priest. One is an atheist. One is a moron. And one is a voluptuary. They have a father who is a schmuck, and he gets killed by the moron. There’s also some material in it about sin and redemption to make it look deep. If I take your class in creative writing, what can you do for me to make this into a serviceable novel?

 Tom: Andy, you well know this plot will never fly, not even in a Russian novel. But if it could…

 In my seminars, one of the things that gets conveyed is that prose is a recalcitrant form, almost always takes a number of drafts and much time to get to the heart of the story. There has to be a willingness or, actually, a great need, to bother. There are plenty of books in the world; the book market is cruel; and there are so many wonderful other things to do in the world. I myself don’t privilege books over, say, affection, gardens, music, dance, etc. etc.  Writing is only for the needy of a very particular sort. Writing may also create at least as many problems for the writer as it solves or ameliorates.

 Andy: So maybe you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Can you make a better silk purse?

 Tom:  Yes. So much of writing is at the level of craft, like so many other crafts.  Much of the pleasure in writing is in the revising, making something truer in language. The process of discovery.

 Andy: My friend and I have been walking around Lake Merritt. She isn’t a writer,  but she has been writing a novel. We talk a lot about what is working and what isn’t. Most of our conversations revolve around: the plausibility of the concept and plot, the robustness and believability of the characters, the quality of the dialogue,  flow of the writing and  how to make it dramatic. Are we on the right track? Are there some other issues that we should address?

 Tom: Novels are quite an enterprise. Doctorow said there’s no way out of one except to finish, which can be a long haul. So many things to learn more or less simultaneously, so many things that affect each other. Probably better, if one can, to start with a shorter form—a story, taken from what would be the novel if extended—and master what one can at that length. As for these different variables you mention, plot is, I think,  the least important to worry about. That is, I think you can make any story tellable in the telling. It’s the telling, line by line, that binds the reader to the story. As for dialogue, one can learn so much from reading a writer who’s good at it. I think of the genre writer George V. Higgins, whose The Digger’s Game or The Friends of Eddie Coyle were almost all dialogue. You read them as a writer to learn how Higgins did it. Not quite the same as reading for pleasure. Finally, regarding characters, you simply want them as (virtually) alive as the living.

 Andy: If we were in your class, how would you advise us to work with these building blocks?

 Tom: A writer is someone who writes. There is no way a priori to know how good a book is until it is written. So you write one story, rewrite. Write another. Rewrite. Much is inevitably being learned, if only that one would prefer an easier path to happiness. I think it was Frost who said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

 Andy: What do you think about writers conferences? Are there any you especially like?

 Tom: I’ve been a part of only two. One was the Berkeley Writers Conference, hosted by the late Lenny Michaels, at which I met the late Grace Paley and  had the pleasure of time with her. Such an amazing woman. Also met then-unpublished Elizabeth Tallent, read her extraordinary story ‘Ice,’ soon to be published by The New Yorker, the first of many of hers they took. I’d have to say that was quite a conference!

The other conference was when I read at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, a low residency writing program. Probably the most attentive and hungry audience I’ve ever read to. A marvelous eagerness in the people there to write and to write well. Also, a fine and committed staff.

 Andy: You know, the cliché is that publishing is a marriage between art and commerce. In my humble opinion, these days the commerce is the dominant partner, and it is looking more like S/M. Are things getting worse for good literature or is it business as usual?

 Tom: Well, as you know better than I, the industry is in disarray. At its best, publishing is where commerce and art intersect, but for all the well-known reasons both aspects are struggling. It’s a wonderful time to have a small non-profit press, however, to do just what one loves with a very, very low overhead. Perhaps New York publishing will reform with a business model somewhat closer to El Leon’s, though no doubt with far less pro bono…Our business travel and entertainment budget last year was less than $200.00.

 Andy: Gee, that is how much I have to pay for lunch with one of my big author / clients.

 Andy: Read any good books lately? What do you recommend? And are there any books that your writing students should read about the craft of writing?

 Tom: I just reread Grace Paley’s A Conversation with my Father, a story from which I never fail to learn more, both about our lives and about the craft of storytelling. Also, just reread Philip Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools,’ a miraculous poem, again, one that teaches me both about our mortality and about the craft of words. Updike said that a writer is a reader moved to emulation. One could do worse than to try to emulate Paley or Larkin. As for nonfiction books about writing and the writer’s life, I wrote one, originally published as Compared to What?, later reissued as A Lover’s Quarrel. Also, my latest book, Brief Nudity, is both a writer’s memoir, recounting aspects of life as a writer, and also an argument– by example—of how one might go about telling such a life story.

Alan Rinzler: The Art of Freelance Editing

August 17, 2009

This is a continuation of our interview with Alan Rinzler. Two weeks ago, we discussed his legendary life as an editor and publisher over the last 45 years. Alan continues to be a freelance developmental editor, one of the best.  Since I often tell people that they need a freelance editor, I thought it was time to try to get to understand the process a little better and to find out what a freelance editor can and can’t do.  This was a very short interview. And I learned an amazing amount about the process. You should read this one carefully.

rinzlerAlanAlan has his own blog called: The Book Deal.  It has a lot of information that you, gentle reader and writer, need to read!

 Andy: Alan, starting with the fundamentals. What is the difference between line editing, copy editing and developmental editing?

Alan: Copy editing is a process of technical correction done by free-lance professionals with an obsessions for spelling, grammar, punctuation and formal style – none of which I have. All publishers depend on outside copyeditors who do yeoman work on correcting errors and hopefully but not always checking facts.

Developmental editing is line editing, changing and polishing the text, but also larger conceptual problems like story, plot structure, characterization, visual description and other big picture choices and necessary revisions. The developmental editor has to enter the consciousness of the author and help make the book better wherever it needs it. This may mean suggesting language for new material, including dialogue. Or it may take the form of requests for explanation and amplification that only the author can supply.

Andy: When I first started as an agent, I used to get rejection letters saying that the acquisition editor “just didn’t fall in love” with the project. This didn’t give me or the author any real sense of where to proceed from there. Now I’m hearing that a book under submission  “doesn’t have a robust narrative arc”. I sort of understand what this means. But it is more like, “I know it when I see it”. Can you explain what editors mean by “narrative arc”? What are the pitfalls that writers fall into? And how do you work to improve this?

Alan: Acquisition editors are usually in a big hurry and don’t take the time to explain why they don’t like something. It may be for very idiosyncratic reasons that have nothing to do with the book itself, like their board or sales department is cranky this Tuesday, or they already have a book just like this, or they hate people named “Nancy” or “Harold”, who knows, but they say whatever comes to mind and forget about it.

Jargon like “robust  narrative arc”, however, actually means something. All narratives, fiction or nonfiction, should have a beginning, middle, and end. You know: Act One, boys meets girl, John Adams meets Thomas Jefferson; Act Two, they quarrel and become alienated. Act Three, everyone kisses and makes up, including  John and Thomas. Proposals need to show this progression or the story doesn’t usually work unless you’re James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon, and I’m not really sure about their sales these days either.

Unfortunately, however, when an editor plays the narrative arc card, it may still be an act of avoidance and obfuscation. The reasons may actually be because they’re fighting with their marketing manager and can only submit a presold brand name guaranteed best seller for their next proposals meeting. But “doesn’t have a robust narrative arc” sounds a lot smarter.

Andy: You are  a  freelance editor, and   I know you enjoy  working with fiction. What are the kinds of flaws that you frequently encounter with fiction writers. How to you work to improve them? Do you try to get them to improve their literary values? Do you try to make them more suitable for a publisher? Are these goals at odds with each other?

Alan: I’m glad you asked because it’s uncanny how many draft novels have very weak and boring opening sentences, paragraphs and pages, which make you want to stop reading and lie down immediately. Or huge information dumps, meaning tedious back story explanations of what happened before the book started and who are two dozen  characters and their ancestors. Another common flaw is no dialogue, all telling what’s happening from a distance. Or dialogue where all the characters talk like the same person and you can’t tell them apart. Or all dialogue and no visual description, no pause between quotes to explain what else is going on, where they are, and what they might be feeling internally.

Another major flaw for many beginning writers is too much material, stories that are hugely but unnecessarily complex, flashbacks within flashbacks so you can’t tell where or when anything is taking place, and a general sense of a writer being unfocused and overwhelmed by his material.

As a developmental editor I go through page by page making deletions, edits, polishes, suggesting specific new language and material, and requesting explanation or amplification for text that only the author can supply.

I don’t think this approach is at all unsuitable for either the author or potential publisher since their goals are the same: to publish a good book that sells copy.

Andy: What about other non-fiction genres: narrative, social commentary,  journalism, self-help? Do each of these (and others) have their own challenges and requirements?

Alan: The need to be original and directly competitive with prior books in the field is more essential a challenge in nonfiction. So many ideas and proposals I receive, even 400 page manuscripts, are almost exactly like something already written. Writers can save themselves a lot of grief if they do their homework and see what’s already out there on the same subject. And they need to be honest with themselves about doing something new and better in their own work.

Aside, from that, however, I edit non-fiction pretty much the same way as fiction. Nonfiction still has to tell a story that makes sense, like how to do it, here’s the history, or this is what I believe about this or that – it’s really all the same to me, except that you can use headings in nonfiction which I love, as signposts for topics and subtopics. You can also make lists, add boxes with side-bar materials, and use other techniques that wouldn’t usually be appropriate for fiction.

Andy: As an agent, I am looking for 3 things: good concept, good platform, good writing. I like to tell people that the last of these is the easiest to deal with. I frequently refer them to an editor. Frequently, you. Am I just being glib here?  Does your experience in publishing give you an inside track on how to improve writing to make it more attractive to the acquisition editor? And can you help them refine an imperfect concept as well?

Alan: I wouldn’t put good writing last but first. And it’s the hardest, not easiest, to deal with. Readers will usually put bad writing down, no matter how powerful the concept or big the platform. As a developmental editor I can make a million suggestions, half of which may be spot on, but they’re all no good unless the author can write. I can definitely refine an imperfect concept and improve writing that isn’t that bad to begin with. But no one can make a silk purse out of a proverbial sow’s ear and anyone who says they can is a ghost writer not a developmental editor. Most authors don’t want to use a ghost or co-author, but I do recommend it when there’s no chance an author can produce writing at at least an A minus level.

Andy: I’m always afraid that when I tell a writer that they could benefit from a freelance editor,  they will take it as an insult. I tell them that even the most experienced writers need a good editor. And frequently they submit their work to one as a matter of course. Am I right about this?

Alan: Yes. The best writers I’ve worked with all want high quality professional editing whenever and wherever they can get it, either before selling their books, or from the publishers once acquired. That goes for Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Hunter Thompson, Irv Yalom, Shirley MacLaine, Lenore Skenazy, Michael Gurian, Michele Borba – all writers I know. Tell your writers it’s a compliment to say their book is worth editing, not an insult but a necessity.

Andy: And going back to your experience over the years in trade publishing, would you say that publishers are less likely to accept a flawed book knowing that they can doctor it up in the course of  the editing process? It seems to me that they are too busy to do this and want something publishable right out of the box.

Alan: Publishers are probably more willing to take a flawed book but they may not take the time to doctor it up, which is why so many books fail and lose money. You’re right about them being too busy and wanting something right out of the box. This is why free-lance developmental editors are often the only chance an author has to improve a flawed book that could do a lot better.

The Art of the Pitch

August 12, 2009

This blog is called “Ask the Agent”. But I haven’t been dispensing much agently advice yet. There are some excellent books out on how to write book proposals, how to find an agent and how to get published. But I am here to give some tips as well. It is a tough world out there. And if you aren’t a disgraced ex-governor of Alaska, it is pretty hard to get a book contract. So here are some tips and examples of weak and strong pitches to make in your book proposal.

Weak: I am willing to go on an 8 city tour (they probably won’t send you, and this indicates  that you might have unrealistic expectations. They used to let you travel first class and stay at the Ritz Carlton. They’re hard up now, so expect to go by Greyhound.)

 Strong: I am willing to schedule an 8 city tour at my expense (or  any other ideas that include:  “at my expense” are always popular with publishers)

Weak: This would be a great story on Oprah (uh-huh. It’s also the oldest story in the book. Similarly unrealistic)

Strong: I am sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser. ( If you are going to pitch media connections, they should  be concrete and have reasonable expectations of results. But don’t oversell yourself. They can smell bull shit.)

Weak: I am willing to go  to book signings at my local bookstore (They know that anyway. And this won’t sell books).

Strong: I have arranged presentations with the staff at Google. Steve Jobs loves my book and has agreed to purchase 5000 copies to give to the key employees at Christmas time. They are also interested in purchasing non-verbatim electronic multi-media rights as an app for the I-pod. (This is too good to be true, so you better get Steve to write a letter to that effect. Publishers love sales outside of bookstores. It is like extra money.)

Weak: I will reluctantly agree to be on Fresh Air, schedule permitting.  (If you are not going to aggressively flog the product, this will not be well received. )

Weak: This will make a great movie (see Oprah above).

Strong: Film rights for this product have been optioned to Stephen Spielberg (there might be a possibility here, but there are many options out with few movies ever made).

Very Strong: Film Rights have been sold to Stephen Spielberg.  Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are signed up. Currently being filmed on location in Montana. (This pitch doesn’t happen very often).

Strong: I am the extremely charismatic and controversial governor of Alaska and vice-presidential candidate. (Don’t worry that she is inarticulate, has nothing to say, and can’t write).

Almost as strong: I am the extremely charismatic and controversial governor of Alaska who has quit with disgrace and lack of dignity. (Hey, it’s all about celebrity).

Weak: My neighbor will host a publication  party. (See booksigning above)

Strong: My neighbor is Barack Obama, and he will give a publication party at the White House (nuff said)

Weak: My friends loved this book. (Your friends won’t tell you the truth).

Strong:  My friend, Bill O’Reilly (Rachel Maddow) loved this book. (Connections, connections connections).

Weak: My mother and spouse loved this book. (Oh, come on!)

Strong: My mother is the disgraced former governor of Alaska and she loved this book. My former boyfriend hated this book and will go public and tell tawdry and salacious tales about me. (In this business, there is no such thing as bad publicity.)

 Weak: I’ll set up a blog and a website (whoopee!)

 Very Weak: I have a blog that gets 50,000 hits a day and will promote my new biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. My blog is called (All blogs are not equal. All successful blogs are not equal).
Strong: I have a blog that gets 50,000 hits a day and will promote my new biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. My blog is called

Weak: Your  readers are going to love this book. It is like Petrarch meets Robespierre. (Although publishers are infatuated with pitches premised on dubious and glib equivalencies, the pitch must be based on subjects that are readily recognized – usually in the Safeway checkout line.)

Strong: Your readers are going to love this book. It is like the Bronte sisters meet the Olson Twins.

 We welcome examples of Good pitch / Bad pitch from our readers

Alan Rinzler, a Legend in Publishing, Shares His Memories

August 4, 2009

rinzlerAlanAlan Rinzler is a legendary figure in publishing. He began his career in 1962  as assistant to Robert Gottlieb, then the managing editor of Simon and Schuster.. He has worked as an editor at Bantam Books, where he was Director of Trade Publishing, Macmillan, Holt, and Grove Press.  He was the creator and director of Straight Arrow Press, the book division of Rolling Stone Magazine, where he was Associate Publisher and Vice President during its formative years.  During the course of his career, Alan edited an amazing list of the great writers of our time: Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Hunter Thompson, Jerzy Kosinski, Claude Brown, Shirley MacLaine, Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Irv Yalom, Woody Guthrie,  and Andy Warhol. Alan is currently executive editor of Jossey-Bass Publishing in San Francisco, a division of John Wiley & Sons. He’s also the Academic Director for Trade Book Publishing at the Stanford Professional Publishing Courses.


Alan is also a freelance consultant and developmental editor.  One of the best. And we will talk to him about this later. If you want to see  Alan in action, here is a list of his upcoming workshops. Also I highly recommend looking at his website and blog. It has lots of information and advice about freelance editing.

When  I have a client that needs some good freelance work (and let’s face it, most of us can use it),  Alan is the guy I recommend. I would like to do 3 interviews with  Alan. The first will be a conversation about his life in publishing. We will then go on to talk about the role and the value of freelance editing in the work of a writer. We will also talk to him about his editorial work in publishing and try to get him to help us understand what publishers are looking for these days –and how they think.

  Andy: Alan, let’s start at the beginning.  How did you get into publishing and   what were your first jobs there?

Alan: The year after I graduated from Harvard I was living on the Lower East side, writing terrible plays and loading trucks as a fur freight dispatcher in the garment  business. My former English Tutor at Lowell House knew I needed direction, and said I should be in the book business, so go see this guy, who turned out to be Bob Gottlieb at S&S and he hired me.

 Andy: When did you start doing editorial work?

Alan: Right away. Gottlieb saw me for the callow, jejune puppy I was, and tried to show me the ropes. He let me work with his authors like Joe Heller, Jessica Mitford, Sylvia Ashton Warner, Sybil Bedford, and Rona Jaffe. “Give the reader a break…” he had framed on his wall, so at his feet I began to stifle my ego and enter into the consciousness of the author to help them be clear, useful, and to struggle to put out the best they could. He also gave me the freedom to start signing my own ideas, since no author or agent was sending me anything.  I began commissioning “youth culture” titles, since I was young and connected to that sixties revolutionary material from the inside. I brought in the likes of: Bob Dylan, Lorraine Hansberry, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,  Fair Play for Cuba, and other lefty, civil rights, rock and roll, so-called radical stuff. Then  Bob and I had to break up our Oedipal relationship (I wanted to kill him, or was it the other way around?) so he got me a job at Macmillan, which led to Claude Brown (Manchild in the Promised Land), Vine Deloria Jr. (Custer Died for Your Sins), Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel, Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Shaft, and eventually Rolling Stone.

 Andy: What was it like working for Rolling Stone?

Alan: Very scary. We had no idea what we were doing and nearly went into Chapter Eleven bankruptcy when we were just getting started. I opened the NYC office, then packed up my young family and moved to California. The notorious Jann Wenner was the boss of Rolling Stone then and now, nearly everyone who’d worked on the first few issues had walked out in a huff, so the situation was perilous and unstable. Jann and I were the only so-called grown-ups around for the first few years, so the office culture was treacherous  and deeply crippled by too many self-indulgent and immature bad habits which shall remain nameless. We had no idea how to make a financial plan, no calculators or knowledge of managing a business with modern accounting methods So we’d line up green thirteen-column book-keeping sheets and budgets which were filled with math mistakes and preposterous financial projections. Nevertheless, through the kindness of grownups like Ralph Gleason, who persuaded record companies to advertise, and avuncular family friends with some money, and a lot of really good writers, we survived and did great issues.  Eventually we published  books by the likes of Hunter Thompson, Annie Leibovitz, Jonathan Cott, Joe Esterhaz, Ben Fong Torres, David Dalton, David Felton, Jon Landau, and others.

 Andy: This was all back in the Sixties. I kind of had this image of  publishing as  a bunch of scrungy hippies, taking a break from the  editorial work and going into the back room to get stoned. Lots of free love too. This is certainly the way it was when I was studying German Intellectual History back then. And publishing seemed to be a lot more fun than that. Is my R Crumb image of life in publishing back then  a fantasy?

 Alan: Not really such a fantasy. It was, in fact, a lot of fun in many ways. The corporate bean counters had not yet taken over at S&S, Bantam, Rolling Stone,  and Grove Press. Consequently the editors had much more independence and power. The dark side of letting the lunatics run the asylum, though, was a lack of structure, control, and an unbridled recklessness that led to a lot of internal politics, competition, and nasty behind the scenes machinations.

 Andy: Can you tell us some memorable stories about some of the great writers you discovered and edited?

Alan: Working with Hunter Thompson, the Prince of Gonzo, nearly killed me, and did leave permanent scars that I hope are not life-shortening. For three of his books (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, The Great Shark Hunt, and the Curse of Lono), we stayed up all night for weeks doing terrible stuff and taping our interviews, which we then transcribed and edited into book form. Discovering Toni Morrison was really something. Claude Brown had just written Manchild, which was hugely successful and still sells 43 years later. He had a big crush on his English teacher at Howard, Toni Morrison, then a cute divorcee with two small sons who were working as face models in the advertising business. She lived in a tiny house on the landing flight pattern at JFK Airport so when the jets thundered over us a few hundred feet up, the cups and glasses would all rattle. Claude wanted to marry her but she kept him at arm’s length, until finally admitting she had “this novel” she’d been working on for years that turned out to be The Bluest Eye and the rest was history. Toni has become such a diva now, however, that I have to admit she stopped returning my calls a few years ago. Oh well. Dylan was impossible to edit, going on and on, but Andy Warhol was a peach. Every idea I had was “fabulous” and we’d put it in his “Index Book”, including pop-ups, early plastic recording of group grope interviews, “terrific art”, photos, spin-out balloons, a 3-D cover and other mixed media bells and whistles we’d brainstormed and slapped together at his silver-foil “factory”, while dodging 24 hour film crews and the first generation Velvet Underground.

 Andy: What was the most important book that you were responsible for publishing?

 Alan: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a beautifully written elegiac revisionist history of the American Indian, which was number one on the NY Times best-seller list and sold millions around the world, changing the universal perception of the Native-American and revising American history for the better.

Andy: What job was the most fun?

Alan: The one I still have. No kidding. Not so glamorous, but for seventeen years, I’ve worked with people I love and respect who are totally honest, ethical, and upfront – which turns out to be the most important thing about any office culture.  Jossey-Bass is a place where I can be myself without fear or embarrassment, and still feel accepted. This is my best and last job.

Andy: We all know that publishing has changed over the past 40 years. I have always seen it as a decline from a sort of “golden age”.  That it has become dominated by corporate culture, the obsession with unrealistic profit expectations, a fetish for media driven mass merchandising values, and a disregard for quality books with more modest audiences. What do you think about this? Are the barbarians at the gates (or inside the gates?) Or have I been selling books in Berkeley for too long?

Alan: When I had my first office with a window in 1962, Max Schuster was down the hall and Alfred and Blanche Knopf across the street. They had just been  acquired by TV personality and “random” publisher Bennett Cerf. But those guys were none of them golden paragons of intellectual literary art. S&S had started reprinting and making a lot of dough from the New York Times crossword puzzles. Knopf and Cerf had a reputation for hustling books that made money, and that has always been the name of the game. I don’t think the quality of writing or number of good books per year has declined. It’s always been hard to find great art that made money too. I do agree totally, however, the pressure for  quick profits, and  return on investment  that the book business has never been able to achieve, has put excessive pressure on serious people to come up with mass market books that sell fast but don’t build into long-term back-list titles.  So there’s a tendency to pay huge money for the blockbuster sure things, if you can land them, at the expense of the more marginal, mid-list proposals with promise. Having said that, however, you know that last year more first novels were published than ever before, and all publishers today would like nothing more than to find a new author with a great future. So ultimately I deplore B list celebrity book publishing, the proliferation of mediocre repetitious rip-offs and imitations, and victim memoirs for the Oprah market. Nevertheless I think it’s a wonderful time for the book business, filled with tumult and turbulence, panic and alarum, challenges and opportunities, and big changes coming towards us like a tsunami. 

 Andy: So tell us some ways in which the book business is different today. What about the impact of the chains, of mass media, of the Internet?

Alan: Book chains were at first heralded as the death of good writing and intelligent publishing, which turned out not to be true. Book chains made it possible for more people to find books where they shop and work.  One result was that best-sellers moved up from thousands to millions sold, good for everyone. The bad news was only for independent stores, which is a tragedy, with one half nationally already gone, closed and boarded up like Cody’s. And by the way, this  still upsets and makes me sad every time I see or think of it. There are some wonderful independent book stores left where I live in Berkeley, including Moe’s, Mrs. Dalloway’s, Diesel, Pegasus and Pendragon, with Book Passages and others nearby. But it’s tough, I don’t have to tell you of course, to survive and compete without a lot of us forsaking the few bucks discount and supporting our neighbors.

 As for the internet, it’s good for the author to be able to go directly to the reader, for information, inspiration, ongoing feedback and marketing. Publishers have been too slow to realize this as well as to fully embrace the value and potential opportunities of digital publishing with new content, old content repurposed, and new diverse platforms that deliver titles on Ebooks, cell phones, MP players, laptops, and who knows what next?

  Andy: I also have a bad feeling about the state of literacy in America. Again my own sense about this comes from the change of reading habits that I saw over the 30 years at Cody’s. It really seems that the Internet has had a huge impact on the way readers read. Reading requires patience and a long attention span. It is the medium where ideas can be expressed in all their complexity and with nuance. I’m wondering whether the Internet has created a world with attention deficit disorder.  Got any thoughts about this? Am I a hopeless dinosaur? How are these new behavior characteristics manifesting themselves in publishing decisions?

Alan: Yes, Andy, you are a hopeless dinosaur but charming and funny, so we love you anyway. Kids still read, just in different ways and forms. Reading will never die, it’s hard-wired. New evolutionary and neuroscientific research tells us that we have to tell and read stories or the species won’t survive. Never fear, there will always be print books and also more and more digital versions and types. And hey, as an editor I’m all for the discipline of having to fit thoughts into short forms like the 140 character tweet. Try it, it’s not that easy to do well.


How the Book Industry will Save the World Economy

June 24, 2009

Several months ago, I conceived of a plan to restore the world economy through generous support of our beloved book industry. I sent this proposal to the President’s economic advisor, Lawrence Summers. I am optimistic that he will implement this plan. He signaled his agreement with the general principles by sending me an autographed picture of himself with his dog. I hope you all will see the wisdom of this plan.

A Modest Proposal: or What’s Good for Houghton-Mifflin is Good for the USA

 Like many of you, I am becoming  distressed by the fact that the nation’s treasure is being squandered on the leaches and parasites of  Wall  Street who have brought us to this sorry state, and the knaves and fools of the auto industry who continue to reinvent the Edsel.

 I believe that these trillions are not only attenuating  the moral fiber of America, but will fail to bring us out of our current economic malaise.  As I sat down to carve   my 20 pound hunk of roast   Spam on Father’s Day, I realized that there was a better way. For a mere 1% of the cost envisioned by Washington, we can not only restore America’s economic vitality, we can create a cultural resurgence that will make America the greatest intellectual super-power since the Golden Age of Athens.

 I offer you, dear reader, a modest 3 point proposal. We will channel a mere nine billion dollars into the book publishing industry which will (in  classic Keynesian fashion) restore America.

 1)   Grants to  book publishers:  Giving  $50,000,000,000 to the auto industry is like fighting fire with gasoline. Rather,  I propose  that the government grant a much smaller amount to  trade publishers large and small with no strings attached. Unlike the hapless and bumbling  auto executives, the titans of publishing are known for their wisdom, their courage, and their commitment to the great values of Western Civilization. It is undoubtedly true that some of these funds will be used for more bottom-feeding memoirs of depraved, drug-addled Hollywood starlets which chronicle their struggles against alcoholism and cellulite. This is an unfortunate side effect (collateral damage, if you will)  that should not distract us from the larger social benefit.

  There will certainly be a “trickle down” effect on the more literary titles. A subsidy of these worthy books will have the residual benefit of bolstering our “intellectual system”. It will allow publishers the luxury of making decisions based on reason and merit rather than on dubious and demeaning sales pitches such as: “This book is like Immanuel Kant meets Danielle Steel.”

 2)  Grants to booksellers.   As an independent bookseller for 35 years, I must say that I have a soft spot in my heart for these beleaguered merchants. It is true that publishers continue to publicly express their sentimental affection for the small merchants . But in the paneled suites of multi-media conglomerates, the word “Indie” is  invariably whispered  accompanied by the word, “whining”. How can this be? Think of the  specter of the pathetic automobile titans being chauffeured in their hybrid jalopies to Washington. Their appearance before Congress surely raised “whining” to  an apotheosis never before witnessed in the history of the West.

 I take my inspiration from the first efforts of the Treasury department to buy worthless mortgages at face value and sell them later  at a debased price of whatever the market will offer for these worthless pieces of paper. Similarly we will use this inverted economic paradigm, “to buy high and sell low”. We will buy up the leases on Main Street and rent to the faltering but virtuous Independents for $1 per year.

 For the mass merchants,  the great chains, we will offer them billions for saturation advertising  that will shift the emphasis on  day after Thanksgiving sales  away from 56 inch flat screen TV’s to something more culturally productive. Imagine the unruly crowd of buyers  breaking down the doors of Barnes and Noble  at 4 AM and cracking the knee caps of  fragile grandmothers  to snatch the last copy of The Oresteia by Aeschylus (Lattimore  translation).  

 3) Writers. Let us not forget the toiling and not-so- silent  proletariat of  culture, the oppressed workers who labor in the “dark satanic mills” of the book business.  We applaud the vision of  President Obama to pump prime the economy by investing in infrastructural upgrades. But realistically, can we expect Philip Roth and Malcolm Gladwell to engage in building bridges and dams? Do we really want Salman Rushdie to design the next generation of plug –in hybrids? Would America be a greater civilization if David Sedaris was fixing pot holes? I believe we know the answer to these questions.  Our modest proposal would direct taxpayer funds to support the continuing fatuous scriblings  of these economically worthless drones.

 We must be vigilant, though, that this money not fall into the hands of the unproductive forces of the culture industry. We cannot afford to subsidize the intellectual fellow-travelers: freelancers, ghost writers, and amanuenses. (I will not mention agents for risk of damaging my own credibility).

 And so, publishers, booksellers, authors. Let us march together and become the engine of our nation’s salvation. And we shall build the New Jerusalem on the ashes of Wall Street and Wal-Mart.

 © Andy Ross