Posts Tagged ‘literary agent’

First Lines in Young Adult Novels

September 3, 2012

I  get about 10 queries for fiction every day. Most of the time I reject them after only reading the query letter and try to send a timely and polite reply. If my curiosity is piqued, I’ll  request the first 10 pages of the manuscript. And if I get excited by that, I’ll ask for the complete manuscript. Fiction is so hard to sell that I end up representing only a few titles a year out of the several thousand submissions received. What really surprised me when I first started evaluating fiction is that I could usually tell by the end of the first page, sometimes by the end of the first paragraph, whether the writer had talent or not. I thought perhaps there was something wrong with my own critical faculties. But when I asked experienced book editors, they acknowledged that they do the same.

Last year at the Book Passage Children’s Writers Conference, I sat in on a wonderful workshop conducted by author Kristin Tracy about young adult fiction. We spent a lot of time looking at some examples of first paragraphs. And we talked about why they worked and how they were able to express so much in so few words.

So today I’m going to use 3 examples of beginnings of some young adult titles and try to understand what makes them work. Let’s start with Kristin Tracy’s first novel and see how she does it.

 Lost It, Kristin Tracy

“I didn’t start out my junior year of high school planning to lose my virginity to Benjamin Easter – a senior – at his parent’s cabin in Island Park underneath a sloppily patched, unseaworthy, upside down canoe. Up to that point I’d been somewhat of a prude who’d avoided the outdoors, especially the wilderness, for the sole purpose that I didn’t want to be eaten alive.”

Kristin  likes to write stories that start right out of the gate. No prologues, no weather reports. And I think that is generally  a good idea.  She gets  a lot of information out in the first 2 sentences without sacrificing the very engaging and natural voice of the narrator. We learn in the first 15 words that this is going to be a story about losing your virginity. We know that the narrator is 16 and her “seducer is probably 17. Important information for a teen reader.  We learn that the critical incident occurs under  an old canoe somewhere in the wilderness.   And we also know from the writing a lot about the tone of the book. The book will probably be funny, given the lighthearted voice of the narrator and even more the comical description of the place where she lost it. It wasn’t in a grave yard or a haunted house (for a paranormal novel). It didn’t take place on the field of Gettysburg (historical). Or in Middle Earth (fantasy). It’s just a cabin by the lake  (or something). A realistic genre with a realistic story.  The style is fun and you gotta love the character after just these 2 lines.

 The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

“Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time thinking about death.

“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying.”

Sometimes it’s hard to define great writing. But I usually know it when I see it. John Green tells us in the first sentence that this is not going to be a whimsical book. And he tells us in the second sentence that it is about disease. And in the 4th sentence, about dying. But what makes this short passage amazing is the way the words get put together and the way the sentences sound when you are reading them. Try reading it out loud. It seems effortless, but it isn’t.  Look at his careful selection of words. “Winter”, for instance. I think that word really sets the stage for a book with a lot of elegiac qualities in style and content. This  wouldn’t work at all if it began in the spring with blossoms bursting forth.   Check out the cadence in these first few sentences. The first sentence is long, lots of subordinate clauses.  The second sentence is of a normal length.  The third, shorter still and with a kind of staccato feel to it. All a build up to the last sentence, made all the more dramatic by the brilliant use of the rhetorical repetitions of “depression” and “side effect”. A powerful release that hits the reader with a wallop.

A less experienced writer might have started this story: “I woke up feeling depressed…again. It was, after all, my seventeenth birthday.  I pulled myself out of bed and looked out the window. More snow. The third time this week.”

The Hunger Games,  Suzanne Collins.

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

“I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together.  In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so broken down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a rain drop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.”

We all know that this book is based upon Katniss’s decision to risk her own life to save her sister’s. And most of the book is about the violence and the horrors of The Hunger Games.  To me it seems perfect that Collins begins the book by painting this incredibly intimate scene at home as a contrast to what will befall Katniss in the coming story. Think about the evocative atmosphere of  intimacy and love Collins creates in this scene.  Katniss’s fingers stretching out, Prim’s warmth. Climbing in bed with the mother where she is curled up.  A lot of manuscripts I see from inexperienced writers have similes and figures of speech that seem overwritten and  usually miss the mark. But here Prim has a face “as fresh as a rain drop”. It’s simple and short and profoundly expressive. Even the choice of the words adds to the feeling of warmth of the scene (curled, cocooned, cheeks, rain drop, primrose).  The few words Collins uses to describe her mother tell us about the harsh conditions of the post-apocalyptic world they live in and prefigure the story to come.

Interview With Kristen Iversen: Author of Full Body Burden

August 5, 2012

Today we are going to interview Kristen Iversen and talk about her new book, Full Body Burden (Crown Books, 2012)  and the challenges of writing memoir. Kristen is the director of the MFA program at the University of Memphis. She is also the author of : Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth .

We last heard about Kristen in this blog where we meet Kristen,  myself,  and several other writers and agents going from bar to sleazy bar in San Miguel de Allende. There was lots of writerly talk about how much money Kristen actually got in her nail biting auction for Full Body Burden. She won’t say. And we won’t ask her here.

Full Body Burden is an amazing book. It tells the story of  Kristen growing up in Arvada, Colorado just down-wind from Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility. She interweaves her  memoir  with the astonishing work she did as an investigative journalist uncovering the 50 year (and ongoing cover-up) of the horrific contamination caused by the negligence of the plant as well as  the accidents that almost resulted in nuclear catastrophe.

The book has  received effusive reviews.

Andy: Kristen, tell us a little more about  Full Body Burden  and  how you came to write it.

 Kristen: I’ve carried this book in my head and my heart for a very long time.  Ten years of research and writing went into Full Body Burden, but it really began all the way back when I was around eleven, looking out from our back porch at the Rocky Flats water tower. Rocky Flats was a great mystery to me; no one in our neighborhood talked about it.  It was operated by Dow Chemical, and like many families, we thought they made household cleaning supplies. My siblings and I spent our childhood riding our horses in the fields around Rocky Flats, swimming in the lake, and floating on inner-tubes down the canals that carried water off the plant site.  We had no idea that Rocky Flats—which secretly produced more than 70,000 plutonium pits for nuclear bombs—was contaminating the environment with plutonium, carbon tetrachloride, and a host of other contaminants.

Later, like many of the kids in my neighborhood, I worked at the plant myself.  Even then I was unaware of how dangerous the plant really was  I eventually learned that there was nearly 14 tons of plutonium  onvsite, much of it unsafely stored.  The day I quit was the day I knew it was time to write the book.

The book isn’t just about Rocky Flats.  It’s also about my family and the secrets that nearly destroyed us.  Two things frightened me as a child: Rocky Flats, and my father’s alcoholism.  Both were forbidden topics.  Full Body Burden turned out to be a book about the destructive power of secrecy at the level of family and government, and the high cost we pay for those secrets as individuals, as families, and as a culture.

 Andy: Can you bring us up to date on the on-going saga of Rocky Flats, things that you didn’t cover in the book?

 Kristen: I mention in the book that production at Rocky Flats halted in 1992, following the FBI raid and grand jury investigation and discontinuation of the W-88 missile program.  A “cleanup” was declared complete in 2005.  But the site has not been cleaned up so much as covered up.  In 1995, when I worked at Rocky Flats, the Department of Energy estimated it would take 70 years and $36 billion to clean up the site—and they weren’t sure they had the technology to do it.  A modified cleanup agreement allowed the company Kaiser-Hill to do the cleanup in less than ten years for roughly one-fifth of the cost.   But after this cleanup,  they left a very high level of plutonium in the top soil levels and removed very little contamination below 6 feet. 1,300 acres of the site are so profoundly contaminated that they can never be open for human use.  The rest of the site—roughly 4,000 acres—is now the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, slated to open for public hiking and biking.

Andy: Your book was the object of a very intense auction with multiple New York and UK publishers involved. Did you have any idea that the book would attract such a feeding frenzy? How did it feel?

 Kristen: I had no idea what would happen with the manuscript.  I’d lived with this book for more than ten years. I wasn’t sure anyone would be interested in it.  It’s deeply personal, and very controversial. I wasn’t sure a publisher would take a chance on it.

My agent sent the book out to publishers and I expected to wait several weeks at least.  Only a few days had passed when she called.  Stay by the phone, she said.  Several publishers are interested. Things are heating up. “Some of the editors will want to talk to you,” she added.  She decided to auction the book, and set a bidding deadline of 5 p.m. New York time.

What happened that afternoon felt like a little piece of heaven suddenly opened up. I talked to editors in New York who not only had read the book but had read it closely and deeply. And they liked what they read. (“We were just blown away by the book.” “It’s a work of art, and a work of public service.” “I loved the way you deftly wove your own personal story into the Rocky Flats story.” “It’s effortlessly written.” “It opened my eyes to powerful subject matter.” “Beautifully rendered.” “The reader is right there with you, all the way through.”)

Between editor calls, my agent called to discuss each offer with me. We closed the deal at 4:59, New York time, with Crown.  And then she called with congratulations from her cab as she was on her way to the airport, heading off to the London Book Fair to negotiate potential deals with publishers from the UK.

How did it feel?  It was one of the best days of my life.  It still feels like a dream.

 Andy: Let’s talk about writing memoir.  What is remarkable to me is that you have managed to combine 3 different genres  that normally don’t work well together into a totally unified and compelling narrative. The book is family memoir, a work of tough minded investigative journalism and an absolutely gripping narrative work that brings to life the horrors that went on at the plant. Was that your intention? It’s sort of like The Glass Castle meets The Silent Spring meets The Hot Zone.

 Kristen: The story itself is what created the form.  I wanted to put a human face on an inhumane story.  Who wants to read a book about plutonium?  Numbing facts and statistics are part of what’s helped to obscure the Rocky Flats story.  My intention was to tell the story from the perspective of the people whose lives had been impacted by Rocky Flats in one way or another.  I wanted the reader to share my experience of lying across my horse,  Tonka’s back on a hot summer day, listening to the meadowlarks.  I wanted the reader to understand, as fully as any of us can understand, what was going through the minds of Bill Dennison and Stan Skinger when they went into that burning building on the Mother’s Day fire of May 11, 1969, and knew it was likely they weren’t going to get out.

I’m not an activist; I didn’t write the book to be polemical in any way.  I tried to tell a good story, and it’s a true story.  I wanted to stretch the narrative form as much as possible and keep the reader glued to the story.  That’s what I love about creative nonfiction.  The structural possibilities are incredibly exciting, and yet you’re always working within the invisible web of staying true to the facts and the investigation of the facts.

 Andy: I think writing memoir is tough. Everybody thinks their life is a hero’s journey. (And it is), but it’s devilishly hard to have  any perspective about themselves. How can they shape their story into a compelling one that readers will want to read without throwing in all the crap that is only important to the writer?

 Kristen: It’s so hard to leave things out!  Many, many pages ended up on the cutting room floor—entire scenes that may eventually turn into essays or stories or maybe another book or two. Or not.

I had to write my way through all of it—every thought, every scene, every wrong turn–to find the real story thread.  Then I lopped and cropped and snipped until each scene, each paragraph, each sentence moved the story forward or illuminated a character in some way.

Andy: I also think that it is really easy to fall into narcissism. I tell memoirists that they have to look outside themselves. The story can’t just be about dysfunctional families.  Comments?

 Kristen:  Andy, I don’t entirely agree with you there. All our great stories are about dysfunction.  Every family has its secrets.   Each person has his or her secrets.  I think good storytelling, in fiction or creative nonfiction, is about drama and conflict, repression and desire, things hoped for and things lost.  Memoir is at the core of good storytelling.  Writing from an authentic first-person point of view is emotionally powerful and yet incredibly challenging.

I think the memoirist has to ask some hard questions each step of the way.  What is it about my story that makes it relevant to others?  What hard truths have I learned about myself, and why should anyone care?  You can’t worry about making yourself look good on the page or slip into any kind of bravado or self-pity.  You can’t fall into stereotypes or clichés.


Mary Bisbee-Beek, Freelance Book Publicist

July 22, 2012

Today we are speaking with independent book publicist Mary Bisbee-Beek. Mary has worked in publishing as a staff person with various literary presses as well as the University of Michigan Press, and Literary Ventures Fund. As an independent publicist, she works with publishers of all sizes and with individual authors.     I know a few of Mary’s clients and they rave about her. If you need an independent publicist (and we all know how  publishers never do enough for us!), contact Mary at:

Andy: Mary, every author I speak with complains about how little their publisher did to promote their book. This is true of authors whose books were positioned deep in the midlist as well as those with lead titles and high six figure advances.  This makes no sense. After a publisher has gone to all the trouble and expense of publishing a book, why are they just letting them hang?

Mary: This is a perplexing question, Andy. …. Some larger publishers really do seem to take a back seat approach to marketing and publicity or they spend their marketing budget on advance reading copies and a few well placed advertisements. But by and large I believe that most publishers do feel that they are doing the best that they can. One of the conundrums of publicity is that one can always do more.  It takes a lot of work before a book is actually published — but it can’t stop on the pub date nor even six weeks after the pub date. It is a rare book that will carry on it’s own momentum. It requires diligence, nudging, and the perfect storm of activity both from the author and the publicist. And, of course, a little bit of luck.

Andy: You are an independent book publicist. Could you tell us a little bit about what you do and the types of books you work with?

Mary: I prefer working on literary fiction, creative non-fiction, and cerebral yet readable non-fiction books.  I like coming into a book in the planning stage, so if there is a staff publicist working on the book, it’s a good idea to enter the conversation at the same time as this person so that we can figure out who is doing what.  Once the book is published and the author is actively doing readings and events I become more active and more hands on. This is generally the time that the staff publicist needs to move on to other books in the list or to a new list, but I can help to keep the conversation alive on the book beyond the six or eight week mark.

Andy: How does an author know whether she needs her own book publicist or whether she should just rely on the publisher? When should she start thinking about hiring one?

Mary: Once the book is in the design phase or out of copy editing an author should have a frank discussion with their publisher to determine what the publisher is asking of the author. Perhaps this has already occurred and the publisher has been clear on what they can and cannot do – if a publisher says we can publish your book but we can’t market it or we only do limited marketing,  then the author should start shopping for a publicist right away.

Andy: And what do you do that a publishers publicity department won’t do?

Mary: I am able to start with sending out advance reading copies to the industry media, the selected trade media, bloggers, helping the author to set up a Facebook page, to get started on Twitter and to consult on the layout and content of a webpage.  I will set up events. I do all of the media follow-up and I will shout out the book to booksellers when I can.

Andy: Describe a typical marketing plan that you would devise for a client.

Mary: Oddly, this is a tough question, Andy. There is hardly ever a typical scenario and it would depend on whether it is the first book by the author and whether it is  fiction or non-fiction.  I would encourage anyone who is shopping for a  a publicist to talk to me about what might be  appropriate for their book; their timeline; their budget; and whether or not they have the time to travel to spread the word on their book.

Let’s consider the following thumbnail sketch of a  marketing plan.  After reading the book, I would devise a list of most appropriate reviewers; if there were an advertising budget, I would  suggest  the best potential venues…. I am mostly not in favor of paid ads but sometimes they  make good sense. I would add special market possibilities (sales outside the book business), depending on what hooks the book’s story line presents; and then I would come up with a geographically savvy and budget conscious approach for the author. After mailing the advance readers copies,  I would do timely follow-up and start to work on a one-to-one basis with media and bloggers for author interviews. As we got closer to pub date I would start outreach to radio producers and television. I would be reaching out to libraries around the country for ALL COMMUNITY READING programs and I also work closely with reading groups for readings and potential author participation. Depending on the time of year, there are Book Festivals  that can be approached for reading and panel inclusion participation, so this can also be added to the list of possibilities.

Andy: How hard is it getting media attention these days?

Mary: It depends.  If we adhere to the schedules that reviewers and feature writers need , then we have a fair chance of receiving attention.  These days, there are more books for a reviewer to consider, for fewer pages of review space – so a publicist has to be savvy about the rules and deadlines.

Andy: What is the most effective media for book promotion?

Mary: I think  radio.  There is magic in the words, “I heard about it on NPR.”  Certain blogs carry enormous weight but I am also smitten with book review pages in major metropolitan newspapers; and glossy magazines, of course. And I’m very partial to PENNIE’S PICKS.  Pennie  Clark  Ianniciello is the book buyer for Costco and she shouts out an interesting title every month or so. That sticker on a book carries a lot of weight, as does Oprah’s Book Club…. I think everyone is happy that’s back.

Andy: What about Internet marketing? Do you do that as well? Describe it for us.

Mary: I work with a number of bloggers who have solid sites that are exclusively shouting out books and they are powerful.. But this is not an either –  or situation, you need the full power of traditional and newer media in all forms to create a strong platform for your book.

Andy: And here is the $64,000 question. How much can an author expect to pay for your services? Can you give us a ballpark estimate and tell us what it buys?

Mary: I try to work with an author’s  budget and I believe I charge fairly for my services. Generally I ask for a six-month minimum agreement and my fees range from $1,000 to $1500 per month depending on how full-scale a program is needed or wanted. This is a personal discussion with each client, of course. This buys an active place on the desk, in all or as many pertinent media conversations as I have in a day, week, month and as many of situations as described above, from making lists, sending books, follow-up, to setting up events, conferencing on websites, etc.

Andy: Mary, thank you so much. Almost every author I have worked with complains that his publisher didn’t do enough for him. Sounds like authors have some options out there.

Mary:  Yes. Absolutely. Thanks for talking with me, Andy!

Eunuchs at an Orgy: Authors’ on Literary Critics

July 14, 2012

“Critics are like Eunuchs at an Orgy.” – origins unknown

 Writers don’t take kindly to criticism.  After all why should they be different from any of us?  For me there is something exquisite about reading author responses to reviews. The anger and the pettiness seem to inspire  masterful wit and style (at best) or  (even better) clownish buffoonery unworthy of  figures of  great cultural gravitas.

 For those who are connoisseurs of the literary contretemps, I recommend reading the letters in The New York Review of Books. You will uncover a universe of expressions that will serve you well in your own modest efforts at literary feuding.  Here are just a few treasures [along with my own deconstructions of their meaning]:


  •          “outrageously inaccurate”  [a hair splitting difference of opinion on a subject that no one else understands  or cares about]
  •           “rhetoric” [the writing style of the reviewer in question, usually as opposed to the reasoned arguments of the writer]
  •          “petrified academicism” [a favorite of mine, a characterization usually made by a petrified academic writer  about   a petrified academic reviewer]
  •          “crude” [the reviewer’s method of analysis, as opposed to the “subtle dialectics” of the writer]
  •          “mendacity” [a pompous way of saying that the reviewer is a liar, but with the implication that the flaw is deeply imbedded in his character.]
  •         “clique” [friends of the reviewer who have publicly defended the review]
  •        “heartwarming to hear” [Sarcasm. Usually said when the writer takes out of context a short phrase by the reviewer to make the reviewer seem foolish]
  •          “the reviewer surely knows…” [said when the writer patronizingly points out a particularly egregious mistake of the reviewer indicating that the reviewer knows very little about what he is reviewing]
  •          “shocking” [a very common and overused  characterization about things rarely shocking,  that always calls to mind the Claude Raines character in Casablanca]
  •          “unholy alliance” [people who usually disagree about most things but are united in their revulsion of the author’s writing]


I love this stuff!  Here are a few more of my favorites:

“I have your review in front of me and soon it will be behind me” – George Bernard Shaw

 Possibly the greatest put down ever of a reviewer (critical of Shaw’s play, no doubt). Magnificent double entendre. Unforgettable understatement.

 “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank.” – Liberace

 Another classic that has become a cliché. Probably more honest than Shaw about the mental state of  the aggrieved artist.

Liberace was pretty blunt. But leave it to the inimitable Ayelet Waldman to bring out the universal humanity in a writer’s outrage at an unfair review of Michael Chabon’s [Ayelet’s husband] book:

 “To the fucking MORON Amazon reviewers giving Awesome Man 1 star [because] ‘It would be good for, like, a 2 year old’  — IT WAS WRITTEN FOR LITTLE KIDS”

 Getting back to The New York Review of Books, I find it puzzling why writers would ever respond to these reviews, given the fact that the NYR always gives the reviewer the final word. And the reviewer  almost always answers  with a tone of bored world-weary superiority at the overwrought, and implied, unbecoming comments of the writer.

 So I too  will give the reviewer the final word:

 “Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good. ” – Samuel Johnson






Writers on Writing – My Favorite Quotes

July 9, 2012

I’m going to share some of my favorite quotes about writing. I know  it’s a little presumptuous on my part. I’m not a writer, unless you count this blog as writing.  But as an agent, I find myself doing a lot of editing. Publishers don’t have time to imagine how to make an imperfect manuscript perfect. So part of my job is to make sure it’s  pretty perfect before  it lands on their desk. That means I have to edit. And in order to edit, I have to think about writing that’s  good and writing that’s bad.  Telling the difference is pretty easy. I can usually do that on the first page. But  understanding why good writing is good and bad writing is bad, I  think that could take a lifetime.

I have a philosophy about editing. I like to come to  a manuscript with a “beginner’s mind.”  That’s a concept in Zen Buddhism that means  one should approach a subject with no preconceptions, techniques, or methods. In his book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shuryu Suzuki describes it perfectly.  “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”  So when I start to edit a manuscript, I try to put myself in the role of  the simple reader who is, after all, the only person that really matters. Writers aren’t always in the best position to understand the reader. I’d like to believe that I can help them out.

Now on to my favorite quotes:

  • “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
  • “I don’t understand anything about the ballet; all I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses.”
  •  “Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.”
  • “One should not put a loaded rifle onto the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

– above quotes by Anton Chekhov

“Show, don’t tell” has become a cliché.  But it is also fundamental. Not quite a law of nature. Great writers can break the rules. I think these wise words by Chekhov say it better than all the articles you read  on this subject in Writer’s Digest. Actually the quote about the ballet doesn’t really address this concept, but I liked it so much I decided to include it. And it’s only a little bit of a stretch to say that the stink of the ballerinas tells – no, excuse me – shows you a lot about their art.

  • ” The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” –Stephen King
  • “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.” –Mark Twain
  • “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”  – Elmore Leonard
  • “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…he admonished gravely.” – Elmore Leonard
  • “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” –Elmore Leonard

When I was in New York last month for the book convention, I had dinner with Susan Sutliff Brown, freelance editor, Joyce scholar, and friend.  At some point in the evening, Susan stated pontifically that good writers of literary fiction don’t use adjectives and adverbs. I was astonished.  Of course, we all look down on  Tom Swifties, those ungainly adverbial tags used by the novice writer. (“Let’s get to the rocket ship, Tom said swiftly.”) But banishing adverbs and adjectives altogether? Unimaginable, even in an alternative  universe designed by Raymond Carver. Susan’s pronouncement ruined my reading for several weeks. Rather than getting lost in a good book, I poured over  texts counting modifiers.  But now I must admit that Susan was on the right track. Again, it’s all about “show, don’t tell.” Excessive use of adjectives and especially adverbs is a sign of lazy writing. Check it out yourself. (Now, I hope  this hasn’t ruined your experience of reading for the next few weeks.)

  • “Avoid prologues.” – Elmore Leonard

Editors believe  how you handle or mishandle “backstory” is a marker for your ability as a writer. Back in the 19th century when people had more time, you could get away with spending the first 50 pages, say, setting setting up the story. If you don’t believe me, check out Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. Jean Valjean doesn’t even come on stage until page 55. You can’t do that today. Backstory needs to be insinuated into the narrative, obliquely,  as it unfolds. And it’s devilishly hard to do. Prologues are the lazy man’s way of getting all the crap out and onto the page, so that the you can proceed to roll out the plot without any messy explanatory back tracking. Book editors call this an “info dump”.

You see prologues a lot in movies. And it makes sense.  Screenplays are much more compressed than novels.  A typical screenplay has about 20,000 words. A very short novel will have 70,000. A movie doesn’t have time to allow a backstory to subtly unfold and bore an audience. But you can’t do  that in fiction. Well, that’s not entirely true.  Looking for graceless, awkward, lazy, and inelegant management of backstory? I recommend The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown.

But on the other hand –

  • “Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.” –  Rose Tremain
  •  “Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.”

– Rose Tremain

Don’t laugh when I say that learning how to write  is a lot like learning how to play golf. There is a very profitable  industry out there of golf tip books, magazines,  and videos by the super stars. Millions of words written on how to execute the perfect swing or how to make your drive fade. But mastering this information won’t make you Tiger Woods. Similarly with writing, the great novelists are a practical group, always willing to give and receive tips. Here’s some quotes I like:

  • “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” – Elmore Leonard
  • “The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer
  • “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.” –  Baltasar Gracián
  • “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” – Agatha Christie
  • Try to be accurate about stuff. ” – Anne Enright

Ok. So the golf comparison is pretty sucky. And you might just perceive in these quotes a tone of  post-modern self-reflective irony that one would not likely hear at the British Open. But there is something about these sentiments that make me feel pretty good, like these writers are  experiencing the same struggles as we mortals. Compare this to:

  • “If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.” –  Anais Nin
  • “To withdraw myself from myself has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all.”  – Lord Byron
  • “I am a man, and alive…. For this reason I am a novelist. And being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.” – D.H. Lawrence

No offense to the great Lord Byron and these other fine writers, but their characterizations of themselves as writers strike me as gaseous nonsense.

To be continued……

Looking for Respect (and Swag) at BEA

June 8, 2012

Leslie at the “old” BEA

I just got back from New York City where I was attending Book Expo America (BEA), the annual convention and trade show of book publishing. What happened? Let me just put it this way. In 2007, the last year I attended as a bookseller, I was invited to over 50 parties and dinners at the toniest New York venues. The following year, my first as an agent, I was invited to…let me try to remember.uh. I believe it was zero including even the party that was being hosted by one of my best friends in bookselling. It was an indignity, but one  that taught me a heartbreaking lesson about the fickleness of fame. It calls to mind  T.S. Eliot’s unforgettable line: “The only wisdom we can hope to achieve is the wisdom of humility.”

I returned home feeling pretty depressed. After a few months, Leslie told me that it was time to get over it, stop moping, buck up,  and start being a good father again to Hayley. I didn’t go back to BEA for three years. But finally, my self-respect restored, I decided to return.

There was reason to be hopeful. Before the convention, I contacted Bob Miller,  of Workman Publishers. Not only did he most enthusiastically agree to meet with me,  he even invited me to the Workman cocktail party at their offices on Varick Street. It seemed like a sign, an indicator,  that my status in this business was starting to look up. I kept waiting for the mail to come every day, even standing on the porch looking  for the postman. But as I sifted through the daily harvest of letters, I began to realize that there would be no other invitations forthcoming.

When I got to BEA, I walked up and down the numbered aisles around the convention floor at Javits Center thinking that my old friends in publishing, people I had known for 30 years, would come up and stick an embossed invitation into my breast pocket, give me a little pat, and tell me that they hoped I could come to their  intimate  private dinner at The Four Seasons in honor their author who had recently won the National Book Award for Fiction. But no. Sometimes they said hi. Sometimes they said: “We’re really sorry you aren’t still at Moe’s.”

On the second day of the convention, I was walking out of the hall and encountered an old friend in bookselling. I told her that I was feeling a little down because I had nothing to do that night. She raised her eyebrows and motioned for me to come with her over to a darkened niche adjacent to the men’s room. She told me that she had pinched an extra ticket to the Publishers Group West Party being given that night and could give it to me if I promised not to say a word about  where I had gotten it. I just shook my head and told her that this old bookseller still had a little pride left in his heart.

We walked back to the front entrance and ran into another bookseller, an old friend who had served with me on the American Booksellers Association Board of Directors. She asked me if I would be attending the Knopf dinner for David Remnick of The New Yorker. Looking down at the floor, trying to hide my shame, I told her, “No. I had not been invited.” She looked at me with a kind of smirk on her face, and said only, “Pity”, before turning away and leaving the hall.

As I walked down the aisles,  the images of the great moments at BEA  seemed to fade in and out of my thoughts  like specters of times past,  better times for book publishers and booksellers alike, times when we could let go of our phony elitist literary pretentions and   indulge our  secret longings for all things crass and  tasteless.


The Bodice Ripper

I remembered the years that the Harlequin booth was the most splendiferous at the show. Harlequin is  the downmarket  publisher of racksize paperbacks of women’s romance. We used to call them “bodice rippers.”  At the booth  there was always a bit actress dressed to look like Scarlett O’hara reclining next to a man, probably a “b” list model,  with bulging biceps, a shining saber at his side and a patch over his eye.

My favorite moment was in 1982. I was walking down the aisle of university press booths and saw another day actor dressed in overalls and a John Deere cap, dragging a live hog on a leash down the aisle. I believe  they were trying to promote a book being published by Oxford University Press, a quantitative economic analysis  of the emerging agribusiness economy in America’s heartland..

And the swag back then was something else. This year the only handout I saw was at the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt booth,  a book bag promoting the new edition of  Tolkien’s Hobbit, tied in to the movie release this December. The fabric was cheap, the workmanship shabby. (I noticed a “made in Bengladesh” label attached to the inner lining.)   You would have never seen that kind of  Schmattah  being given away in the 80s. When  I tried to grab one for Hayley, the smiley face greeter at the booth gave me a dark and threatening look and growled, “Sorry. Booksellers only.”

I remembered the best freebee I ever got at BEA. I was sharing a cab with the CEO of one of the major houses.  They were  heavily promoting a new thriller for the fall called, Jig. Larry, the CEO,  pulled a watch out of his pocket and handed it to me.  It was oversized. The face was black with huge white letters J,I,G. It was a real treasure. Later I proudly showed it to my friend. She commented rather archly that I might not be making the right fashion statement wearing an accessory with an ugly racist epithet scrawled across it. The Jig watch is now gone along with so many other treasures of my past.

That was a long time ago, a different time. A time when bookselling meant something. It was a time when I used to stand next to the new title table at the front of Cody’s greeting my customers. I remember once an elderly woman came up to me and said, “Mr. Ross, your taste in books has always been unerring. What do you recommend that I purchase today?”

I turned and scrutinized the tall stacks of new titles, the best sellers on the front table, and gingerly picked up one. I turned back  and handed it to the woman. “Try reading this  one.  I think you will find it quite satisfying. People are talking about it a lot this season.  It’s called, Jig.”

An Interview with Alan Rinzler and Myself

October 31, 2011

Author Meghan Ward has a fantastic blog about writing called Writerland. Recently she did an interview with myself and my friend (and legendary editor) Alan Rinzler. I’ve interviewed Alan on my blog before. It’s a long interview. So feel free to turn it off  if Alan or I seem too full of ourselves.

Meghan’s blog is very good though and I urge you all to take a look at it. Right now she is doing a survey on what kind of advances authors are getting for their published books. So if you are willing to share that information, check  it out….. And don’t lie!

Mary Mackey on Writing Poetry and Fiction

October 10, 2011

Mary Mackey  is a novelist, a poet, and a teacher. We interviewed her last year in this blog upon publication of her historical novel, The Widow’s War. Mary’s new book of poems, Sugar Zone, is being published this October by Marsh Hawk Press. Her poetry has been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, and Marge Piercy to name but a few. She is the author of 13 novels and her work has been translated into twelve languages.

Mary will be giving readings  of Sugar Zone throughout the month of October in the Bay area and New York.

I thought it would be a lot of fun to talk to Mary and compare the creative experiences of writing poetry and fiction.

Andy: Mary, let’s start by talking about a poem in your new poetry collection Sugar Zone. Here it is:

The Kama Sutra of Kindness: Position Number 5

in the flame
of a single candle     entire cities
are appearing
and disappearing

my hands tremble on you
my fingers pass through you
your tongue tastes like apples
your flesh is fog

above our roof     the jealous moon
has torn a hole in the sky

Could you tell us a little bit what went  through your mind when you were composing this poem?

Mary: This is a love poem, the fifth in a series about the spiritual dimensions of passion. For thousands of years, poets have been writing about how passion can seize us, pull us out of ourselves, and unite us not only with another person but with the Divine. As I wrote this poem, I had a vision of lovers creating a moment where time stopped for so long that entire cities could appear and disappear in the flickering of a candle.

Andy: In plain English, what are you saying here?

Mary: That’s a hard question. When you put a poem into plain English, it’s no longer a poem, but let me try: I’m saying that passion combined with love is one of the paths to the Divine. I’m not the first poet to say this. Saint John of the Cross, one of the most important mystical philosophers in Christian history, wrote passionate love poems to God.

Andy: This is a gorgeous poem.  I think I had to read it out loud several times to really appreciate it. But having read your fiction, I’m a little surprised that this has come out of the same mind as the person who wrote The Widow’s War. That novel was also beautifully written but it was an adventure, a popular novel. It would make a good  big budget movie. Are you a literary schizophrenic?

Mary: No, I’m not even all that unusual. Marge Piercy, whose work I admire greatly, has been writing both novels and poetry for over 40 years. I’ve been writing poetry since I was 11. For the first 15 years of my literary career, I was known primarily as a poet. Poems and novels come out of different parts of my brain.

Andy: Other than Marge Piercy, who are some other poets you admire who also write fiction?

Mary: Thomas Hardy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Michael Ondaatje, Ishmael Reed, and Paul Auster, are some of my other favorite poet-novelists.

Andy: Your novels have been on The New York Times bestseller list. Your last novel The Widow’s War made The San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list. All told, your novels have sold well over a million and a half copies.  So why did you choose to write the poems in Sugar Zone instead of writing another novel? Are you nuts?

Mary: Probably. No, seriously, I wrote those poems because they came to me with an urgency that told me that right now I would not be happy writing anything else. I have the great luxury of being able to write what I want when I want to write it, not because I’m rich but because I’ve always had a day job. When I was a teenager, I read a lot of biographies of authors, who were forced to write pot boilers to put food on the table. I like regular meals, so I decided to get a Ph.D., become a professor,  write whatever I wanted to write, and teach college students for a living, which I did. This was a good choice because I love teaching.  I think it’s important for writers to do something besides write. You need to get out in the world, experience life to the fullest, have a few Hemingway-like adventures.

Andy: What do you get out of poetry that you don’t get when you write a novel? Certainly not money. You’ve said that. I’m sure your agent couldn’t care less about this part of your writing life. I don’t represent poets. I have a mortgage to pay.

Mary: You’re right about the money. During my first ten years as a writer, I only got paid once for a poem: $1.75. My last book of poetry Breaking The Fever, actually made money thanks to Garrison Keillor who read three of my poems on The Writer’s Almanac, but I couldn’t retire on my poetry income unless I lived like Gandhi. What I get out of writing poetry is joy. When I write a poem, I feel elated, as if I had gotten in touch with some deep, hidden part of myself. I don’t write poems that read like a diary, but there is more of the real me in my poems than in my novels. Writing poetry is my spiritual practice, like meditation. It gets me in touch with my unconscious.

Andy: What’s the difference between writing novel and a poem? Talk about the creative process a little bit.

Mary: Writing a poem is more immediate experience. I write most of my poems out in longhand in one sitting and then start putting them through revisions.  I’ll sometimes revise a poem 20 times before I am happy with it.  Occasionally a poem will come to me without  a word that needs changing. Ideas for novels also come quickly, but the novel itself  takes a long time to write—three years of daily work all done on a computer. Writing a novel is like planning a huge convention: you need to be highly rational and well-organized; you have to work within the limits of plot and character, and you have to think about whether or not your publisher is going to be able to sell your book; because publishers, agents, and booksellers  do indeed have mortgages to pay. But with poetry, anything goes. It’s more like play than work.

Andy: Does the craft of writing poetry bleed over into writing novels? Do good poets make good novelists?

Mary: I like to think my novels are better written because I write poetry. I love language, I’m sensitive to the rhythm of sentences, I’m in touch with the unconscious impulses of my characters. But you also have to resist poetry when you write novels or you will spend three pages ecstatically describing a sunset, neglect the plot, mess up the pace, and bore your readers.

Andy: Mary, it seems to me that in America, poets get no respect. I remember in the Soviet Union where free expression was not permitted, poets were authentic superstars who would draw thousands of people to their readings. That doesn’t really happen  here. It doesn’t happen in the new Russia either. Does poetry thrive on adversity?

Mary: Under an oppressive dictatorship,  poetry often becomes the last stronghold of freedom of speech because dictators underestimate its power to inspire ordinary people to resist oppression. Poetry can be very dangerous.

Andy: How do poets make money as poets?

Mary: Most don’t. The most common way for a poet to survive in America is to teach. Well-known poets are paid to do poetry readings, lecture, and give workshops, mostly at colleges, universities, and at writer’s conferences.  If you write poetry, don’t give up your day job.

Andy: I can’t write a story to save my life. But my clients who write fiction never run out of stories to tell. I assume that it’s a gift from the muse and that I have not been so blessed. Is this true? Is the gift of poetry the same gift or different?

Mary: They are both the same gift expressed in different ways.

Andy: Will you ever write another novel?

Mary: I am working on one right now.  I have more ideas for novels and poems than I’ll ever be able to use in one lifetime.

Literary Agent Blogs

September 22, 2011

I attend a lot of writers’ conferences. Most of the people I meet there, not surprisingly, are looking for agents. You can always find well-attended classes and workshops that have to do with the steps the writer must take to find an agent; subjects  like:  making effective pitches, how to compose  query letters, and how to write non-fiction book proposals.  A lot of the readers of my blog are looking for answers to help them get published. I try to do that, but frequently I seem to indulge myself in rants of one sort or another. I thought it might be nice to talk a bit about some other agent blogs. It’s a good way to get the kind of information you are looking for and to learn a little more about how agents think. There is a  longer  list of agent blogs along with other publishing and writing related blogs at

 Here are some agent blogs that I think  are pretty good and have a lot of substance.

 Guide To Literary Agents.    Chuck Sambuchino is the blogmeister of this extremely popular blog for writers sponsored by Writers Digest. His site has lots of interviews and posts of agents talking about their life and work . It also includes guest posts by writers giving tips on how they found their agent. It is one of the most widely read blogs about publishing.

 Nathan Bransford.   Nathan was a literary agent for many years until he left last year for greener pastures in the tech industry. He is still an indefatigable blogger on all matters related to book publishing.  This blog won the best publishing industry blog in 2009.  Check it out.

 Rachelle Gardner.   I love this blog. It has  sound tips and advice.  But a lot of blogs have that.  Rachelle’s personality really shows through. She has warmth and a very encouraging manner.  Rachelle is relatively new to agenting. She started in 2007. She is associated with Wordserve Literary Agency in Denver. She specializes in the Christian market. But at least one Jewish – secularist- humanist- former Berkeley radical agent (me) really likes this blog.  

 Laurie McClean Agent Savant.   Ask the Agent had a great interview with Laurie last year about genre fiction. Laurie specializes in this. In case you didn’t know, “genre fiction” is a term of art for: romance, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and thrillers. She also works in teen fiction. Agent Savant is filled with tips and thoughts about writing and publishing in this genre. When I need information about genre fiction, I always go to Laurie for advice.

 I’d be interested in hearing from you what you think of these agent blogs and if you have others to recommend.




More Misconceptions About Literary Agents

September 7, 2011

Last week we did a blog post on writers’ misconceptions about the literary agents. Here are a few more.

1) I went with the agent who promised me the six figure deal. Most of the agents I know won’t do this, but I still hear about it from writers. It’s pretty hard to predict what kind of publisher advance a project will draw these days. What I can predict is that the advance offers will be a whole lot lower than they were several years ago. It’s important to have an agent whom you can trust. Anyone who employs this kind of enticement is pretty suspect.

2) A good agent can get me a lot more money.  This is a little complicated. An agent can work with you to develop a concept that is more attractive (and valuable) to a publisher and can help you compose a book proposal that will  generate excitement from an acquiring editor. If there is competition for your book from several publishers, an agent can employ some sophisticated  bargaining strategies to help improve a deal offer. And an agent can negotiate contract terms that may address issues affecting future royalties. But if you are in a situation with only a single publisher making an offer, one must assume that the publisher knows in advance how much she is willing to pay for a project. The job of the agent is to find out what that number is. In spite of what they may tell you, agents are not in possession of alchemical powers that will turn lead into gold.  An agent can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

3) A good agent can help me find a prestigious editor. This might or might not be true, but the real misconception is whether or not the writer will be better off with a “prestigious” editor. I believe that the best editor for a project is the editor who understands and believes in that project. This might be the editorial director of a large imprint, but it might also be a young assistant editor hungry for building a list. Recently I spoke to an author whose editor was one of these legendary guys in publishing. The author was unhappy, because he felt the editor didn’t give him the time he needed. I believe that.  I had one client who insisted that I only send his work to the most prestigious editors working at the most prestigious imprints, regardless of whether those editors had any interest in the subject being written about. One of the most common causes for rejection is: “this book doesn’t really fit my list.” A good agent will find you an editor who believes in your book. That is more important than having a superstar.

4) Never work with an inexperienced agent. Since I was an inexperienced agent not too long ago, I fully understand the downside of working with one. There are lots of things in book publishing that a person can only learn from experience. Fortunately I had been in the book business for 35 years when I became an agent and came onto the job knowing quite a bit, but there were still lots of holes in my knowledge. A lot of agents, many in the big agencies, can be pretty young and inexperienced. But this is not always such a bad thing. Some of these agents are pretty sharp and have a good eye for a project. And they are more likely to take a chance on a new writer. In the book business, developing new talent is a thankless but important job and it usually falls to the agents who have not yet built their lists.