Friday, March 30, 2007

Don't Judge a Cover by its Book

I recall Grumpy Old Bookman remarking with some asperity a while back that a jacket and title ought to damn well give you some idea what the book is about. As discussed in my last post, the title Smite the Waters seems to fall a little short in that department--and I was always hard-pressed to say what possible jacket design would give a clear sense of the book.

Have you seen those crowded, late-60s/early-70s, paperback-original, James-Bond-wannabe covers (usually rather badly drawn)? You know, the ones with some smug after-shave-ad guy in wraparound sunglasses leaning on his sports car with his arms crossed but with a silencer-equipped pistol in one hand, and an overvoluptuous girl in a bikini somewhere, and a variety of weapons scattered about, and a rocket launch in the background, and maybe a little fistfight off to one side and a passionate embrace off to the other, and usually at least one more unlikely item--typically a palm tree or a Chinese dragon or a prowling lion--to suggest the setting?

My novel doesn't have the smug guy or the sports car or bikinis or rocket launches or dragons or lions (though there is indeed a certain amount of violence and even some sex, and if I recall there is the trunk of a dead palm tree.) Unfortunately, there is certainly no single image that would state what the book is "about", and any attempt to convey content in a literal sense would run the risk of--well, see previous paragraph. If I'd had to design my own cover, it would be a mess.

Will Atkins long ago invited me to toss in any ideas I had on this topic, but the best I could do was mumble about how 'something involving water' might be nice. (Well, it was in an e-mail, so the mumbling was with my fingertips, but you know what I mean, don't you?)

Will recently let me have a look at the proposed jacket design. It's still in the development stages--and now I guess it will have a different title slapped down across the jacket art--so I suppose I can't show it yet, and I won't try to describe it except to say it's stunning. (And worked in glorious harmony with the title, I might add.) I've had it up on my screen as the background for some time, and I keep sneaking little glimpses. Nice. (And they've even put my name on it.)

Does it meet the challenge of saying what the book is about? Not directly, though the images draw on the book. Metaphorically, however, I think the design nailed the book with great precision. The novel is a noir piece, much of which nonetheless takes place in harsh sunlight. The designer managed to come up with something that is dark, and also blindingly bright. And wet, too.

But now we have another problem--will our new title suit the great jacket art?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Smite's Been Smitten. They Smote It. I'm Smat.

Well, we’re almost done with copyediting Smite the Waters, and the process was a breeze. The copyeditor caught some things that definitely needed fixing (most notably someone taking a seat when he was already sitting!), but it’s all been fairly straightforward for me.

It is probably less so for the poor copyeditor. In Michael Stephen Fuch’s The Manuscript (one of the MNW launch titles), the decision was taken to leave the book in American orthography and formatting. In the case of Smite, the spelling and formatting will be changed to British practice (or do I mean practise?) except for certain idiomatic usages. This has to be a fiddly, maddening job, since it isn’t as simple as converting everything in sight from American to British. I’m grateful that it isn’t my job, and someday I’ll buy that copyeditor a drink. Or a whole bottle.

But one minor hitch has emerged. We’re rethinking the title. I like Smite. (Sounds like a slogan—maybe we could hand out I Like Smite buttons?) Will likes Smite. But some of the folks who actually have to sell the darn thing believe that the title doesn’t give much of a clue what the book is about. I have to admit they have a point (and freely grant that they know vastly more about the topic of selling books than I do).

If the title goes, I'll miss it. The phrase has a grand, if puzzling, King Jamesey feel to it, and the words have that simple Anglo-Saxon force that makes me feel one of Hrothgar's minions has swung his meaty arm over my shoulder in a companionable way. And the title might in fact suggest the nature of the story to some--but those who immediately exclaim, "Ah, Exodus 7:20!" are probably not our core audience. DH Lawrence already worked the same ground for the title (and a rather coy title indeed, but those were different times) of his novel Aaron's Rod, but if I add up all the Biblical Fundamentalists and Lawrence scholars who will immediately catch my point, I don't find a big crowd...and I don't find that many thriller readers amongst them. So, I can readily accept the need for a change. But to what?

For a time, my pal David Thayer used An Aztec in Central Park as the working title for every novel he wrote, until the day that title inspired him to include an Aztec character in one of his New York crime novels, and the working title became a permanent title. I’m not sure what Mr. Thayer uses now that Aztec is taken.

I, unfortunately, use the ever-popular Untitled as my working title, so I don’t have any fallback to Smite. Will and I came up with a couple of workable possibilities, but it turns out that both of them have been used. Indeed, our front-runner alternative has been used by a novel coming out about two weeks before mine.

Serendipitously, Roger Morris just handed out a link in his latest post to a pair of essays by Barry Eisler (over on MJ Rose's busy site). Eisler has a wonderful discussion of titles, the first essay focusing on titles with automatic resonance (those that stir an intuitive understanding of what the book is about), and the second on titles with acquired resonance (those that are iconic, and just right, but only become meaningful once you have read the book. Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 would be good examples of acquired resonance--when you first encounter them, you ask what they could possibly mean. I'm afraid Smite the Waters is in that class as well.)

Eisler makes a good case that booksellers lean toward automatic resonance, because it's a sort of sales handle embedded in the book. Acquired resonance is less appealing, especially given that many people in the decision loop will not have read the book themselves. He notes that Dennis Lehane wrote several books titled with automatic resonance before he published Mystic River--and by that point, Lehane's name was enough to sell books.

So, Will and I are off in search of automatic resonance. At least now I know what I'm searching for.

I think the best title anyone ever came up with is attached to Jincy Willett’s hilarious novel Winner of the National Book Award. But she already used that trick. Sigh.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

"Dacrygelosis" is a useful word

You are dacrygelotic when you swing rapidly between laughing and crying, or do both at the same time. Fiction Bitch has put me into that condition through a pair of posts which are, sadly, all-too-relevant to us here.

Her first post discusses a hydra of a problem--getting first novels published, following up the first with a second, first novels pushing existing midlist authors out of the game (not least because of unearned advances), and little problems like photogenicity. No summary I give can do justice to the post. Check it out.

She follows up with a post on the topic of looks and publicity, with some links to fascinating articles. One claims, for example, that the deck is no stacked against established novelists in favor of first-timers. (You folks trying to get your first book published didn't realize you were the lucky ones, did you?) This segues into a discussion of photoshopping dead authors--Jane Austen just had a makeover--and then comes to the dacrygelosis-inducing revelation: Apparently a UK reality TV show is planned where new writers are discovered by having them pitch to judges. Appearances count, one suspects.

I'm almost (but not quite) charmed by the idea that TV producers in the UK believe that novels would be of enough interest to the TV audience to draw in viewers. Over here, you'd have a better chance of selling a show where people competed to make the best three-minute sculpture from a wad of cheing gum. So, although I'm amazed that Britain's culture is deemed sufficiently literate to support such a show, it's also probably the single stupidest idea I've ever heard.

It's the logical consequence of the query letter/pitch mentality that some agents have brought to publishing. Who cares if the person can write? In fact, let's judge novels entirely on how well we like the authors when they talk about their book.

Now, I'm one of the lucky ones in this scenario, since I'm devastatingly handsome, and, like Sean Connery, only look better with age. But I'm still a little concerned I might not be ready for prime time...

That settles it. I'm off to the plastic surgeon.

Charles Lambert Hits the Big Time

The O. Henry Prize Stories is arguably the most prestigious collection of short stories published in the United States each year (though the selection of stories is drawn from a global pool). They focus on stories that, in O. Henry tradition, twist in your hands, exposing a surprising side before the end. Being included therein is the equivalent of arriving in literary Valhalla and having the hosts of the dead heroes rise up to applaud you. As we say in California, it's, y'know, like a totally big deal. The jurors are invariably a fascinating mix--Dave Eggers, Francine Prose, Ann Patchett, and Richard Russo are just a sampling.

This year's jurors included the redoubtable Charles D'Ambrosio, the legendary Ursula K Le Guin, and the quirky (but renowned) Lily Tuck. Some of the writers they selected for the forthcoming 2007 edition (out in May) are The Usual Suspects: William Trevor. Alice Munro. Susan Straight. Writers who are universally acknowledged as masters of the form. Okay, what's new?

What's new is that scattered amongst those names (well, actually, the second in the list as the credits run) is a story entitled "The Scent of Cinnamon" by some guy named "Charles Lambert." Yes, that Charles Lambert. The guy who drops comments here every so often. The fellow whose link is posted over in the sidebar of this blog.

Hats off, I say. That is so unspeakably cool it makes me dizzy.

Is it Good News Week around here, or has someone secretly adjusted my meds?

Monday, March 26, 2007

When Good Things Happen to Good People

My friend and writing pal Rufi Cole is all of 21 (her mother Kimberly is a great writer too, but that's another story), and already has a great prose style. Or perhaps I ought to say ‘styles’, since in one mood she’ll be full of startling images and icily precise sentences ala Nabokov, and in another she’ll be focused on bizarre philosophical conceits as though Borges has dropped in for a chat. More recently, though, she has forged a style that is all her own, and has been ninja-kicking her way through her first novel.

As you might have gathered, she’s more than a bit on the precocious side. She finished college almost a year ago at New York’s famous New School (philosophy, English, that sort of stuff). During her year out of school, she’s been waiting tables and writing like a fiend—and applying to a half-dozen of the best MFA writing programs.

Now, I have mixed feelings about the MFA. (I’ll post some other time on education and writing. Not sure if that’s a threat or promise.) I admit some unique voices have emerged from MFA programs over the years—John Irving (Iowa) and Michael Chabon (University of California at Irvine), for example—but I think MFA programs have their drawbacks as well. In general, I think they tend to inculcate preciousness at all levels, and rather than encouraging adventurous styles, they tend to produce very polished, very smooth, homogenous, bland, workshoppy prose. Most tend to steer writers away from anything that smacks of genre, storytelling, or powerful topics.

Rufi, however, is about as easy to steer as a train, so I wasn’t worried that any MFA program could hurt her much. What worried me was that she would be too original for them—too young, too distinctive in style, and too bold in subject matter. Though she was an ideal MFA candidate in principle, I’ve served on various admissions committees in academia, and I was all-too-aware that tall nails tend to get hammered down in that ugly little process. Add to this the fact that getting into a good MFA program is about as easy as getting your first novel published, and is often quite political (with the handful of spaces available already allocated to a few folks with inside tracks), and I was concerned that she might be in for a long series of rejections. (On the other hand, I told myself secretly that a long series of rejections isn’t the worst thing to prepare someone for a writing career, so the downside wasn’t huge.)

I wish I could string this out into an exciting story, with setbacks and struggles, but instead the school at the top of her list, the University of Virginia (Ann Beattie, John Casey, and Rita Dove teach there), accepted her before the others have even replied—and not only accepted her, but offered her full tuition and a living stipend. (She's had another acceptance today. This is getting ridiculous, and has a really poor narrative through-line. Don't expect this to be the next white-knuckle film script.)

Any writer can tell you that life isn’t fair. It ain't. But every so often, for no perceptible reason, life gets it exactly right.

That name again is Rufi Cole. Keep your eyes open for it. Her first book can’t be all that far off.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

It's Roger Morris Month in the USA

I'm sure most of my cohorts are aware that March is National Brain Injury Awareness Month, Workplace Eye Health and Safety Month, and, of course, National Nutrition Month. But few are aware that it's National Roger Morris Publication Month. Taking Comfort was published here early in March, and his newest tome, The Gentle Axe, hit the streets here a couple of days ago.

That's me, Rene-Magritte-style, with my elegant hardback copy (and our dwarf lemon tree, just to give it some California cred).

And how is distribution? I'd rate it as very good, though my first experience today made me doubtful. The Huntington Beach Barnes & Noble shelves seemed untouched by Roger's book, so I asked at the info desk. I made the mistake of asking under the name "Roger Morris" rather than evil twin "RN", and all the computer found were about a thousand nonfiction books by some historian. So I asked for Gentle Axe, but she entered it as Gentle Acts...and so on.

Once we got through the low comedy phase, the computer insisted they had a number of copies...but they couldn't find them, no, not in Literature and Fiction, not in Mystery, not in New Arrivals. (The woman who was assisting me finally decided they simply hadn't been unpacked and brought out of the back room yet.)

On the other hand, at Borders Costa Mesa we strolled in and immediately found four copies sitting on the shelf in Mystery, flanked by David Morrell and John Mortimer (and one of those damned "Cat Who Did Something Or Another" books. A Cat Who Cookbook, if you please).

Half-crazed with success, we went across the street to the Costa Mesa Barnes & Noble (which is all of two miles from the Huntington Beach Barnes & Noble). No dice--and they didn't have it at all. "Not every place has it," the clerk told me as he scanned his computer screen, "they only have copies at Huntington Beach and Irvine and Aliso Viejo and Orange and Tustin and Fullerton and Long Beach." Which amounts to seven of the ten stores within 15 miles of my house, which I would call not too shabby.

I did a quick check of other Borders on my computer (Borders is civilized enough to let you check their inventory online), and of the six Borders stores I checked, five had copies.

So, within 15 miles of my house, I'd estimate there are at least 50 hardcover copies of Roger's book on the shelves. Penguin must have done a bang-up job of selling it, as neither Borders nor B&N are normally welcoming to unknown authors.

I guess I ought to mention that Alan Furst gave the book a glowing quote on the back. A fair percentage of Furst's readers are enthusiastic to the point of religiosity, so that quote alone is bound to sell more than a few copies.

So, congratulations to Roger. I'd rate this as a breakout of significant proportions!

Monday, March 19, 2007

No More Girl On Demand?

Alas and alack. Woe we are. The fabulous Girl On Demand, the self-named POD-dy Mouth, has left the blogosphere.

For over two years she prowled the world of POD novels, searching to see if anything decent was being self-published--and, by God, she found some good books (and wrote up reviews for, I would guess around a hundred). She even instituted The Needle Award (hint: think haystack) for the best books she found.

In the process of digging through POD Land, she looked at thousands of books and manuscripts (though she actually kept track of the number of times she didn't make it through the first page, paragraph, or sentence).

Though one might suspect a case of burnout, in her farewell post G-O-D says that she established the blog as a way of publicizing good POD books to readers, but instead found the traffic increasingly consisted of writers trying to flog their goods.

First Grumpy Old Bookman semi-retires, and now Girl On Demand quits. Someone needs to do an article on Blog Burnout...

Sunday, March 18, 2007

You Ought to Have Your Head Examined, Part II

I promised (or threatened) to have more to say on this topic. Here 'tis.

Idiot Savant

Novelist John Lescroart says that to get through the first-draft stages of a book, he has to put on his ‘genius hat’ and believe that everything he’s writing is brilliant, that his prose is imperishable and the novel at hand will be not only the best book he’s ever written, but perhaps the best book anyone’s ever written.

At a party the night before the publication of Main Street, Sinclair Lewis was introduced to HL Mencken and George Jean Nathan, and informed them, with drunken imperiousness, that he was “the best writer in this here goddamn country.” Hey, if you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?

Lescroart of the 'genius hat' goes on to say that after he finishes his first draft, he puts on his ‘idiot hat,’ and reads his own works with the deeply held belief that the writer is an utter moron. The words are wrong, the scenes are flat, the plot turns are ridiculous. The best book ever written turn out to be the worst ever typed out. (Luckily, Lescroart observes, it’s just a draft, so once you have noted everything that is stupid about the work, you can sit down and fix it.)

At the other end of the spectrum from Sinclair Lewis’s bravado, on the day before the publication of The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins: “I am overcome with fear and forebodings…In fact, all my confidence is gone.”

Some, like Lescroart, zip through the first draft with wicked enthusiasm and save our critical arrows for the rewrite. Others (I fall into this category) have a continual tug of war going as we move down the page, flipping back and forth from writer to editor in a wracking state of tension. Some have both the creator and the scoffer shouting in their ears at the same time, resulting in paralysis on the page.

Moderation gets you nowhere. However you handle the problem, both of these personalities need free rein if you are to write anything readable. And that's crazy.

So Why Aren’t We Locked Up?

Many writers have been. The trick is to, insofar as possible, stay crazy on the page, but behave as though you are sane the rest of the day.

James Joyce had noticed similarities between the bizarre statements of his schizophrenic daughter Lucia and the ‘night language’ he was creating for Finnegans Wake, and he asked Carl Jung if perhaps Lucia wasn’t mad at all, but simply drawing from the same wellspring.

Jung acknowledged the connection, but explained that Joyce was diving, while Lucia was drowning.

Just make sure you come up for air every so often.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

You Ought to Have Your Head Examined, Part I

Writers aren’t exactly people…they’re a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald

Writers aren’t noted for their mental stability. The more productive ones tend to be manic-depressives (excuse me, the PC term is ‘suffer from bipolar syndrome), while the less productive ones tend to be plain old unhyphenated depressives.

Remember the HAL 9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which gradually went mad because it had been given conflicting instructions? Writers are in much the same situation (except that no one has figured out how to unplug us).

Insanity and Rejection

You recall that old saying that insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results? I think it was writer Ralph Keyes who first noted that doing the same thing over and over again was a basic requirement of a writer’s career.

Consider the simple matter of sending an unsolicited story to magazines for publication. Have you ever heard a writer suggest you send the story once, and give up if they don’t take it? No, the advice is always to keep trying, keep on sending it—I believe the proverb claims the number of times you hear ‘no’ doesn’t matter when you only need one ‘yes.’

In submitting stories to magazines, novels to editors, or manuscripts to agents, every famous writer will tell you to expect rejection after rejection: the proof of your character as a writer is your willingness to keep on going.

In other words, character is shown by keeping on doing the same thing while expecting different results. In other words, insanity is your most valuable character trait. Wonderful.

Write Your Passion, But Don’t Get Self-Indulgent About It

Write what you deeply care about! Write what interests you! Write whatever is fun for you! Follow your bliss! This page is the first page of the rest of your book…

Sure. But while you’re at it, remember at all times that the reader is the most important element in everything you do. Just because you are vitally interested in all those details doesn’t mean anyone else will care. Can’t you cut this by 50%? Why is that scene/chapter/character even there? Yeah, that digression is cute and probably the best thing you ever wrote, but how can you possibly justify leaving it in?

It’s all about you and what you care about. Except that it isn’t; it’s all about somebody you haven’t even met.

The Most Important Thing in the World is Only a Book

Thomas Carlyle declared, “Genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains.” Genius may imply that capacity, but I’m not so sure the capacity for taking infinite pains necessarily implies genius. (Think of all those ship-in-a-bottle types.)

I am certain of this, though: unless you think what you're writing is mighty important, you will not take great pains with it. Writing a novel—even a mediocre novel, heck, even a bad novel—is arduous, and no one can do all that detailed work without believing they are achieving something of worth. Possibly even Art, with the capital A. As Faulkner had it, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: The Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.”

But get a grip. It’s just a book. Don’t be obsessed about it. Your success as a human being doesn’t depend on this book. Your self-esteem shouldn’t depend on this book. Your friends, your family, your pets, your health, your volunteer work, your potted plants—all of these are more important than some made-up story the world never even asked you to write.

Keep it in perspective. It’s only a book. Now go write it as though your life depended on it.

It Isn't Just Me (I hope)

I've got another double-bind or two I want to rant about, but I'll save that for the next post. I suspect every writer is familiar with the schizo problems I've described--and I bet they could even expand my list. Because it isn't just me. It isn't.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Bookshops, Amazon, and all that

The ever-delightful Fiction Bitch has a disquieting post about the continuing closure of bookshops in the UK. And this time it isn't the old song about indie bookstores heading south; it is about the closure of 30 Waterstone's stores, and the retrenchment of others into a much more commercial profile. (FB suggests this may in fact expand the niche of indies.)

A Waterstone's spokesperson blames Amazon and the supermarkets. Possibly that's the problem in the UK, but we face a very different problem in Southern California.

Orange County, where I reside, has a population of about 3 million people. I don't think we have a single, general indie bookstore.

Before my bookselling neighbors start writing in to correct me, let me emphasize the word 'general' in the preceding sentence. We have some good specialty shops--a few mystery stores, a couple of SF/Fantasy shops, some naval/marine shops, and probably more Christian bookstores than there are Christians. (My favorite from the phone book is 'House of Bibles'. Fill in the blank: "people who live in Bible houses shouldn't throw.......?" Parties? Matches?) And there are some truly outstanding used-book stores.

But what we have in abundance are chain stores. Within 30 miles of where I sit typing this, there are 19 Barnes & Noble superstores, 14 Borders superstores (and 6 Borders Express stores), and a handful of others (mostly B.Dalton and Waldenbooks, which are owned by--surprise!--Barnes & Noble and Borders, respectively).

Oh, there's some great indie bookstores up in Pasadena and Hollywood--the giant Vroman's and the eclectic Skylight, to name just a couple--but I'm separated from them by approximately 6 million people and a drive of 1.5-2.5 hours.

Since Borders and Barnes & Noble keep most new books on their shelves about as long as a supermarket keeps a head of lettuce in the produce bin, your chances of finding anything you want in these stores are slim indeed--unless what you want is the latest John Grisham. Barnes and Noble is particularly bad about handling books from small presses, and their corporate headquarters must approve stocking books from any publisher, even if the local store wants to sell a title. (Some successful indie presses are still locked out of B&N.)

Amazon may seem like a monster to many bookstore managers, but down here in SoCal the online booksellers are the only thing that makes it possible to buy a wide selection; and they are the only route to finding books from the midlist, which is where most good novels live. is another grand resource, and Powell's has the added advantage of being a wonderful brick-and-mortar store as well. Powell's mighty City of Books in downtown Portland, Oregon, is one of the nation's great indie bookstores, dealing both new and used (and both are available online as well).

Don't get me wrong--I love bookstores, and browsing online will never match the wonder of wandering through aisles of books. But if I had to choose between a world of Amazon only or Barnes & Noble only, I'd choose Amazon in a flash.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Great Reviews for Garrood and McGilloway

You could hear a gasp (well, an e-gasp) from the cyber-lit community about a month ago when Grumpy Old Bookman announced his retirement. In truth, he didn't announce his total retirement, but rather stated he would be posting less frequently. His legion of readers reacted as the faithful might have if the Pope remarked he might still drop through church every so often, but that it shouldn't be expected as a regular thing anymore.

Grumpy has been true to his word: he hasn't stopped posting, but he's been averaging about one per week, which means there have only been four posts since his change of policy.

Shortly before his shocking declaration, GOB reviewed MNW writer Frances Garrood's recent novel Dead Ernest (which, incidentally, just arrived in my mailbox). I won't attempt to summarize the review--you should go read it for yourself--but I was surprised at the extent of his praise. Grumpy isn't normally Mr. Effusive, especially about books centered on domestic matters and slanted toward a female audience, so his unreserved admiration for the book is doubly astonishing. Makes me want to stop typing and go start reading.

As I said, there have only been four posts from Grumpy in the past four weeks, but the fourth is a review of MNW writer Brian McGilloway's forthcoming mystery novel Borderlands. The review of Borderlands begins in a rather more circumspect tone, discussing the fact that MNW seems to be treating the book as the first in an important series, and questioning whether this is the right decision. After some delay (he has written suspense novels himself, so he knows how to let us dangle a bit), Grumpy then goes on to answer his own question in the affirmative--it's a good book and a promising setup.

The rest of the review follows the same pattern: some observations on how hard it is to make a book of this sort work, and then compliments to McGilloway for having cleared the hurdle. As he begins to wrap up, he adds, "I found this quite gripping -- and that is not a word that I use lightly." Indeed it isn't. Grumpy knows his way around the literary world in general, but he knows crime and suspense fiction intimately, and he isn't easily pleased.

Congratulations to both Frances and Brian for coaxing great reviews out of the Grumpy Old Hermit. (And thanks to Grumpy for not vanishing from the scene entirely.)

Monday, March 12, 2007

Atlanta Nights: A Writer's Anti-Textbook (A Vine-Ripened Review)

If there’s any basic rule in the creative process, it’s this: the things you try that don’t work will always show you what does work.

—Frank Santillo

In general, I think bad books are best ignored; I enjoy recommending books, not assailing them. But today I realized I could have my cake and eat it too by recommending a bad book—the inimitable Atlanta Nights.

Once upon a time, there was a POD publishing company named PublishAmerica. (In fact, there still is.) If you haven’t heard of PublishAmerica and the Atlanta Nights flap, Wikipedia’s article is a nice summary. A group of about 40 writers, collaborating under the name Travis Tea, set out to write the worst novel ever written, and PublishAmerica accepted it (though the company reneged on the deal when the hoax was announced). Luckily for the world, Travis Tea made this masterpiece available through POD press

It’s easy to glance through Atlanta Nights, wince a few times, laugh a few times, and toss it aside. There are so many deliberate mistakes right on the surface—gross errors in grammar, characters changing their names and hair color and even race on the same page, misspellings, inexplicable shifts in tense, and baffling arrays of pronouns—that most readers miss the deep level of craft that went into the book’s creation. Finding exactly the wrong turn of phrase is nearly as hard as finding the right one:

The corners of Callie’s mouth drooped like saggy breasts. “Why not?” she interrogated.

She urgently meandered down the marmoreal

In many cases, the similes and metaphors are so arrestingly arbitrary and clumsy, one doesn’t even notice that the sentence makes no sense or has lapsed into poetry (squinting cars?):

Squinting into the late afternoon sun, the cars reflected the red-tinged light off windshields and bumpers and mirrors and doorknobs like a pack of bicyclists caught in a searchlight late at night on a deserted road.

Some of the more wonderful passages are far too long to quote, as they involve incompetent flashbacks, interior monologues confused with present action, and shifts in point of view that are impossible to follow. Atlanta Nights could be used as a textbook for a seminar in fiction technique, but picking apart even a single chapter could take up several class sessions. Even short and straightforward action sequences would be a chore to repair:
..........Then his eyes were suddenly trapped like wolves in jaw traps. One single detail from the newspaper article seized him by the throat and squeezed like a noose around his neck. It was the date and time of the
accident. 4:03 P.M, on July 20th!
aaaaa"No! It can’t be!’ Bruce shouted the words. He stood up from his chair. The Siamese neighbor’s cat jumped in terror…

If you choose to read Atlanta Nights, set aside some time, as it makes Being and Nothingness read like a beach book. It has a permanent place on my bookshelf (between Donna Tartt and Walter Tevis, as it turns out), because there is, thankfully, no other novel quite like it.

The world is full of bad books written by amateurs. But why settle for the merely regrettable? Atlanta Nights is a bad book written by experts.

— T. Nielsen Hayden

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Nervousness Never Ends

A few nights ago we went to an odd but entertaining affair at Disney Hall. Film composer John Williams conducted a selection of Bernard Hermann's film scores (from Citizen Kane, Devil and Daniel Webster, Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, and Taxi Driver), and then, after intermission, from his own (Sugarland Express, Jaws, ET, Indiana Jones, Schindler's List). The two sections were hosted by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg respectively, and they introduced each piece.

We had fantastic seats--second row in a sold-out hall. (I bought our tix about ten seconds after they went on sale to LA Philharmonic patrons. They sold out before they went on sale to the general public. First come, first served--rare in LA, where there's usually some sort of VIP preference on offer. Though not usually on offer to me.)

John Williams was marvelous as always, conducting with good humor, and Bing Wang was her usual spectacular self in the violin solo from Schindler's List. My only complaint--and I do have one--is that Williams once again ignored the spooky little Ark leitmotif from Raiders, which is my favorite piece of his music.

Scorsese and Spielberg were quite charming, and both had incisive comments about the role of music in the movies. But what was most interesting was that Scorsese and Spielberg both seemed more than a little nervous--especially Scorsese, despite being Man of the Year in Hollywood after his recent Oscar wins.

I found this bizarre until I worked out that they weren't talking to their usual Hollywood crowd. They were talking to a classical music crowd. And they were trying to say the right things to honor Williams and Hermann, and it was a little bit outside of their normal sphere, so they weren't that sure of themselves.

It made me like both of them. And isn't it noce to know that anxiety can still be a factor even when you're at the top of your game?

Thursday, March 8, 2007

How Do You Do That Thing You Do? Matt Curran Part III

Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of a writer. It's like making wallpaper for the Sistine Chapel.

--Kurt Vonnegut

Matt has posted the last installment of his thoughts on the writing process over on his blog, and this time it's mainly about how to keep at it. "The discipline thing," as George Bush, Sr. would have put it. (Whatever causes his son's inability to speak in coherent English is apparently genetic.)

The discipline thing is probably the main thing in writing, as Vonnegut hints above. Getting a novel published tends to be difficult, but the number-one reason I've found that writers can't get their novels published is because they don't finish them. (Which is a good thing, as the world is already swamped in unpublished manuscripts. Imagine if everybody completed what they started.)

Like all productive writers, Matt has developed techniques for keeping his butt in his chair and keeping the world at bay. He uses music--not only does it shut out the world, but the headphones act as a warning signal to Those Who Would Intrude. I'm not sure how many writers do this, but novelists as different as Stephen King (heavy metal) and Carolyn See (Van Morrison, Chet Baker) have both mentioned music as a way of creating a space to work within. (I can't write to music, though I dearly wish I could; it interferes with the rhythm of my thought, and my thought is typically only firing on three cylinders to begin with.)

I suspect that fending off distractions is a problem for all writers. But Matt brings up a problem I've never seen diagnosed before--the distraction of new story ideas. Though I can't recall seeing this problem mentioned before, I'd bet most of us have been confronted with it. In the depths of a novel, suddenly ideas for other stories crop up. Other, better stories. Stories that would be far more fun to write. Stories that are smarter, bigger, slicker, both more marketable and yet more significant...

Robert Benchley said that anyone can do any amount of work, if it's not the work they're supposed to be doing at the time. This might be why some writers are so productive when they are cribbing writing time from work and family, but fall silent when at last they are financially successful enough to write full time and it becomes a job. Stolen time, like stolen fruit, tastes far sweeter.

So, write with the feeling that you're getting away with something. Maybe we are.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The US Publishing Industry Shoots Itself in the Foot--Repeatedly (Advances, Part IV)

Jump to Part I, to Part II, or to Part III

The topic of advances has come up on this blog before. Without a doubt, big advances sometimes pay off for the publisher—Special Topics in Calamity Physics, for example, seems to be doing quite well.

But all is not so well in a number of other cases. Holt paid debut novelist Jed Rubenfeld $800,000 for The Interpretation of Murder, gave away 10,000 advance-review copies, conducted a major publicity blitz, and did a first printing of 185,000 copies. The book was published almost six months ago, and, at last report, had moved about 26,000 copies. I calculate that Mr. Rubenfeld’s unearned portion of the $800,000 is roughly $732,400.

Gordon Dahlquist’s much-hyped Glass Books of the Dream Eaters was acquired by Bantam as part of a two-book deal for two million dollars. That’s—let’s say it again— $2,000,000. 120,000 copies were printed; so far, over almost seven months, sales have amounted to about 21,000 copies, which means so far the earned royalties are, say, about $55,000 of that $2 million.

Charles Frazier’s second novel Thirteen Moons (following his bestseller Cold Mountain) leveraged the author an $8 million advance from Random House (in an apparent attempt to live up to their name). Eight million dollars. That’s the highest advance ever paid for a novel. After almost five months of sales, the number of copies sold is 250-300,000, which would be an outstanding sales record had the first printing not run to 500,000 copies. Publisher’s Weekly estimates that to earn out the advance will take sales of a million copies in hardback plus two million copies in paperback.

Not all bad bets are accompanied by trumpeting of the advances paid. Random House (them again?) won’t say what they paid Mark Haddon (of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) for his second novel, but they printed 200,000 hardbacks, and, in six months, have moved about 44,000. In a similar vein, see HarperCollins, who printed up 150,000 copies of Vikram Seth’s Two Lives, and moved about 20,000 in four months (though Book Scan figures claim only around 6,000 have been sold).

I’m not claiming these aren’t good books (as it turns out, I haven’t read a single one of them. I dislike having things shoved at me.) Nor am I claiming the publishers can't break even on one or two of these, via paperbacks or rights sales—though it does look to me as though the five deals quoted above might amount to a collective loss of, oh, maybe six or seven million dollars? Maybe more? (Remember that the investment wasn't just in the advances, but in huge print runs and expensive publicity campaigns.) But these figures do raise some interesting issues.

First, when publishers and agents contend that fiction is a tough business these days, don’t they ever ask themselves precisely why it is so tough? Might it have something to do with the immense risks of spending too much money upfront?

Second, why is there never any blowback for the agent? An author whose overpriced book tanks will have a hard time moving into the front row again, but how is it that editors continue to do business with agents who convince them to pay ridiculous prices for books? I know, I know, it’s an uncertain business—but a broker who convinces clients to buy stocks that crash soon finds that no one will deal with him. What magic spell prevents agents from being blackballed?

Third, for those who believe that publicity sells books and that a big push is what determines bestsellerdom and profits—take a look at the situation described here. The publishing houses were solidly behind every one of these novels, and the public responded with a resounding yawn.

I’m not complaining about people earning money. If Mr. Frazier earns $8 million, that's between him and the Internal Revenue Service. But giving him $8 million in the hopes that his book might make money for the company is not just absurd but unnecessary. He would have written the book for $4 million, or $2 million, or, probably, like most authors do (and like Mr. Frazier did with Cold Mountain) for no guarantees whatsoever.

Here's my theory: The editors calling the shots at the big US publishing houses are all in the pay of the US television industry. TV tried to kill the printed word for decades, with a great deal of success, but there was always a diehard core of readers who refused to be defeated. Finally the TV execs have come up with a plan--if the industry refuses to die, it must be induced to commit suicide.

Paranoid, you say? Perhaps. But it's the only theory I can find that's consistent with the facts.

Jump to Part I, to Part II, or to Part III

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Second-Novel Blues

Lately a number of writers have been muttering about the trials of so-called Sophomore Slump—the problem of writing the dread Second Novel. Cate Sweeney has posted on the topic over on her blog, and invited comments.

I’m not the right person to ask (but when has that ever kept my mouth shut?), since my first novel (Things Unseen) didn’t get published…partly because I didn’t try very hard to get an agent (I thought of it as a practice novel) and partly because I was well into my second novel, Tomorrowville, which—despite many admiring but puzzled comments—was rejected by every agent in the solar system. (I was told by several that they had briefly taken up the agenting profession for the sole purpose of rejecting my book, and that they were happy they could now retire with the satisfaction of a job well done.)

You may recall the faux-inspirational story Michael Palin, the Lord of Swamp Castle, tells in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“…then that castle burned down, fell over, and sank into the swamp…”). Swamp Castle stood on the third try, but my third novel, A Map of the Edge, was sent back to me by a number of agents who said they’d love to see a rewrite. Well, I’d love to see a rewrite, too, but it hasn’t happened yet (more on this in another post). Smite the Waters is my fourth book, and while it was being shopped around, I wrote a fifth book, Earthly Vessels, which is sitting and cooling down enough for me to do a structural revision.

So, I’m not sure where I fit in to the Sophomore Slump pattern—I’ve already written my second book, and even written a book beyond my first published book. (Or, rather, written a first draft beyond my first to-be-published book, but you knew what I meant, didn't you?) I have, however, considered the problem that at some point MNW will have the option to look at an additional book of mine. This presents some thorny issues for me, since none of my books fall into the same genre or tone as Smite. I mean, not even close. (Though I have first chapters of a couple of other stories that might be compatible with Smite, so by the time the issue arises the problem might solve itself.)

I know a writer whose first novel won a major prize, was published to a warm critical reception, and then showed rather disappointing sales. She felt under such pressure and up against such frustration in writing her second novel that, somewhere around the middle, she stood up and heaved her printer through the window. (Which would be more impressive if you knew her, as she’s slender, none too tall, and generally not the sort of person you expect to toss the furniture about.)

Don’t leave the theatre yet, as there’s a happy ending. I don’t think she finished that second book. But she did sit down and battle her way through her third novel, an emotionally challenging and structurally difficult book, and she published it and watched as it promptly leapt onto the LA Times Bestseller list and then jumped the pond and sold even better in Europe. Which may show that second books are a bitch, but also shows that your encounter with your second novel tells you little or nothing about your future in writing.

I just wish I could figure out which book is my second novel. Is it, like, the second one I wrote, or is it the one I just finished after Smite...? Or is it whatever I revise next? Or is it just whatever I write next? (Oh, please, tell me it isn’t one I still have to write...)

An Interview Worth Reading: Novelist Keith Dixon

David Thayer has posted his excellent interview with writer Keith Dixon.

Although much of the discussion centers on Dixon's new novel, The Art of Losing, it also ventures into areas we've been discussing (Dixon shares my enthusiasm for shut-your-eyes-and-jump-into-the-water novel planning).

He also reflects on critical/artistic success versus financial success ("I think we all at some time or another face a situation that asks us to compromise our values, and more often than not that situation involves money...") and other aspects of the writers life. Dixon's remarks make an interesting read for anyone involved in this silly business.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

In Which I Play Paul Revere

Yes indeed, the redcoats are coming (though I'm not sure how many lights I ought to put in the window when they are coming by airmail). I mentioned before that The Manuscript had already been available here last month (possibly through some sort of mistake), but the beginning of March lands a whole slew (from the Irish slua, meaning army, host, or throng) of Macmillan New Writing paperbacks in America. Here they are with their Amazon US links; give me a heads-up if I've missed any:

Michael Stephen Fuchs, The Manuscript
Brian Martin, North
Roger Morris, Taking Comfort
Suroopa Mukherjee, Across the Mystic Shore
Hugh Paxton, Homunculus
Cate Sweeney, Selfish Jean
Aliya Whiteley, Three Things About Me

I'm not sure if distribution will extend beyond the web or not, but if you managed to make it to this site I'm sure you know how to use Amazon. And if you dislike Amazon for some reason, let me recommend Powell's as an alternative...

Friday, March 2, 2007

Pandora's Sisters Gets a Website

Following a prolonged period of cybersilence, Michael Stephen Fuchs has unveiled the website for his new MNW novel Pandora's Sisters. (Since he's a pro at that sort of thing, it's naturally a rather flashy--no Macromedia pun intended--site.) Hop over and have a look.

Michael also announces on his blog that this is the official pub date for The Manuscript in the US of A. True enough, but through some quirk of distribution, Barnes & Noble claims they've had the book in their warehouses available for purchase for about a month...

How Do You Do That Thing You Do? Matt, Part II

Matt Curran has posted Part II of his essay on his storybuilding process on his blog.

I don't think I'll be giving away too much if I tell you that his post explains how important Matt believes it is to have a detailed plan and stick to it...except when you don't/can't/shouldn't.

This has been an enjoyable sequence from MFW so far, and there's more to come. I suspect we're keeping him from something important.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

How Do You Do That Thing You Do? Raymond's Method

I've mentioned Raymond Obstfeld (aka Laramie Dunaway; contact your local FBI office for a full list of his writing aliases) before on this page, specifically in connection with his new book written with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Although I naturally invited Ray to contribute to this discussion, he's awfully busy these days, cutting the ribbons at the dedication of major monuments, riding to hounds, and tossing money from the sunroof of his limo to admiring throngs.

Luckily, he has already held forth on this subject in one of his books on writing, Fiction First Aid. (His other book on writing, The Novelist's Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes, continues to do steady business seven years after publication.) Ray has agreed to let me swipe the following from Fiction First Aid as his contribution to this discussion:

Some writers prepare detailed outlines of their novels before they start. They know everything that will happen from the moment the hero pulls out his gun on the first page until he kisses the love interest 358 pages later. For example, when Edgar nominee Robert Irvine once spoke to my writing class about outlining, he brought with him a typical outline that he uses when writing a novel. It was seventy pages long! It included dialogue, character sketches, chapter-by-chapter breakdowns—just about everything but what to eat while writing the book.

On the other hand, when novelist Ross Thomas spoke to my class, he claimed that he never started with an outline, that it took away the thrill of discovery. When his protagonist walked into a room, Ross told us, he wanted to be looking over his shoulder, just as surprised as his character.

I fall somewhere between. I use what I call a slap-dash outline, one that describes only the chapters immediately ahead of me. This allows me to maintain the spontaneity of discovery, yet provides a compass that points me in the general direction I need to go.

When I write my first chapter, I often have no idea what the novel is about. And for the next chapters, I avoid thinking too much about what will happen down the road in the novel. Technically, the beginning of a novel should establish tone, character, and plot. But let’s face reality. The purpose of the novel’s opening chapter is to grab readers by the throat and not let go until they are compelled to find out what happens next. So when I start a novel, I’m thinking only about writing a novel that does that—to me. It must interest me so intensely that I’ll want to write the rest of the novel just to discover what happens next…

Once you’ve written that riveting opening chapter or two, you will need to create some kind of outline. Many writers know the ending of their books before they start writing the first word…Outlines are just road maps to these destinations. For me, the slap-dash outline is road map enough because it encourages my curiosity, which helps me intensify the suspense, yet still lets me know enough about where I’m going not to panic.

[F]or the first third to half of a novel, you can limit your outlining to three or four chapters ahead of where you are. This is enough to keep you from getting stuck, but not enough to kill the freshness or momentum of your writing…

The further along you get in your novel, the more detailed your slap-dash outline will become. For the first half of a book, you might need only a few lines under each chapter heading…However, as the novel becomes more complex, with all the subplots coming together, you may need to write much more under each heading. Also, you may need to outline more than a few chapters in advance. In fact, there will be a definite point, usually two-thirds of the way through, where you’ll have to outline the rest of your novel. Again, you may not stick to the order or even the events you outline, but you’ll at least know the basic elements that need to be in the novel.

The book also includes a reproduction of one of Ray's slap-dash outlines (beneath his comment that "At first glance these notes look like the drug-induced scribblings of someone who claims frequent sightings of UFOs, but they make sense to me.")

Raymond then adds an odd flourish—the After-The-Fact Outline. This outline breaks down the novel into scenes on (shades of Roger Morris) colored index cards. Ray claims this allows him to see the shape of the book better, to note where the tone, length, or pacing of scenes might be repetitive, and consider which scenes might be moved around for maximum effectiveness. Many screenwriters (and Raymond is one himself) lay out their scenes on index cards as a kind of proto-storyboard. In any case, Raymond’s method is an interesting hybrid, with a fairly free-form initial process, followed by a highly organized attack on the finished draft.

Wait until I tell him about Roger's A3 transparency paper. He's gonna love that.