Friday, August 31, 2007

Say Hi to Tim Stretton

Dateline Jakarta Indonesia, the Hotel Aryaduta.

I recently made the e-mail acquaintance of one of the latest additions to the Macmillan New Writing family. His name is Tim Stretton, his fantasy novel A Dog of the North is due out from MNW in July 2008, and there is already some interesting buzz about about the book. But I'll let Tim tell you about that when he enters the blogosphere.

Though I haven't yet read Tim's stuff, the fact that he idolizes Jack Vance, one of the most idiosyncratic and underestimated fantasy writers, bodes well. (Though Tim thinks the Lyonesse trilogy is Vance's best work, while I'd have to vote for the inexplicable, interlinked, self-referential tales of The Dying Earth. I suppose we can disagree about this without coming to blows...once I calm down. Especially as Tim seems to be something of a Vance scholar, and I'm not.)

Tim can be found at his website Acquired Taste, and will be joining the MNW group blog once it launches.

PS. "Hubungan" is Bahasa for "web hyperlink." I know this because Blogger has chosen to display everything to me in the local language and I can't get it to stop. Oh, well. Selamat Jalan!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Dialoge Tags and Mechanics, III


I believe that the word ‘asked’ is just as invisible as ‘said,’ and prefer it for dialogue tags involving questions. But the minimalists insist you can get by quite nicely without it, and they seem to do so.

Blish even inveighed against ‘asked’ as redundant. After all, if a piece of dialogue ends in question mark, isn’t it obvious that it was asked? My only response is that it sounds wrong to my inner ear: “Excuse me, sir, can I say a question?” We don’t say questions and we don’t ask statements, and I find, “What are you doing?” he said to be a tiny bit jarring. (But I find it wholly transparent alongside, say, he queried or he interrogated.)


In the hands of a comedic writer, the frisson of dissonance between the expected and what is delivered can be amusing. In a sense, this is metafiction, which only acquires its meaning relative to the existing body of fiction. The use of said-substitutes in this fashion is seen most obviously in catchy titles, such as William Noble’s book on writing, “Shut up,” He Explained, or Lynda Obst’s Hollywood primer, “Hello,” He Lied.

Some writers, especially in parody or satire, will use this kind of dissonance in the text (“Go to hell,” he noted). And some comic writers have characters ‘spluttering’ and ‘babbling’ in the verbal equivalent of a Three Stooges skit. But many of our most talented writers of comic fiction—Christopher Moore, for example—stick to ‘said’ almost exclusively, and let the humor of the dialogue itself carry the story.

As with everything else related to comedy, the only test is to see if people laugh…and if they stay involved. Jazzing around with language expectations can be funny, but it can also knock people right out of the story. As a technique, it’s much like Woody Allen addressing the camera in Annie Hall. If it works, fine, but it carries risks.


A good argument can be made for verbs that literally describe how dialogue is voiced. “Whispered,” “shouted,” or even “murmured” might have their place. After all, these are not metaphorical or judgmental in nature: everyone would agree with little dissent whether or not someone had ‘shouted.’

Unlike ‘said’ or ‘asked,’ these verbs do call a certain amount of attention to themselves. But getting around them, when they are important to the story, can be as distracting as including them. ‘He lowered his voice. “Slip me the keys…”’ works well enough, but it’s hard to find a way of saying ‘shouted’ without using the word itself or a synonym. (‘He raised his voice’ doesn’t really imply ‘shouted.’)

If these sorts of verbs were the only ones that appeared in dialogue tags as substitutes for ‘said,’ there wouldn’t be much of a problem. If they draw some attention to themselves, fine—it adds to the emphasis of how the thing is uttered.

Unfortunately, many folks take this as an invitation to be creative, and seize on less obvious terms, such as “grated” or “blared.” This leads on to even more questionable means of vocalization, such as “gritted,” “chimed,” or “twittered.” The proliferation of such verbs becomes so automatic for some writers they are unable to understand that what they propose isn’t even possible:

“You’d better not try that, buddy-boy,” he hissed.

(C’mon, try hissing that, without a sibilant in sight.)

“I don’t care who you are or where you are going!” she snapped.

(I find it hard to snap anything that has more than a few syllables, and it helps if it has some pretty sharp consonants.)

“So, that’s just tough luck for everybody,” he snorted.

(I have trouble making any snort articulate, but even were I more talented in this regard, that is one l-o-o-o-o-ong snort.)

This leads on to other improbabilities, including the very common forms of laughter (or chuckling, or chortling, or giggling).

“Well, we sure can’t figure out what to do!” he laughed.

What would that sound like? Weh-heh-heh-hell, wee-hee-hee shoo-hoo-hoor can’t fig-hih-hig-yoor ou what to doo-hoo-hoo-hoo? If someone is breaking up with laughter during their sentence, so that it comes out in fits and starts and is barely comprehensible, then describe it (if it’s important); but don’t baldly state a transcription of what the person said, and then tell the reader that the person ‘laughed’ it.

The ultimate impossibilities come when we reach verbs that are gestures and have nothing to do with vocalization at all:

“I don’t care what you do,” he shrugged.

“Please don’t,” he winced.

“I’d like that,” he smiled.

Press your lips tight shut, and then go outside and try shrugging or wincing sentences to passersby. Some writers carry this to point of:

“I’m getting panicky,” he agitated.

“What—what are you doing?” he flustered.

Chortling a sentence is almost impossible. Smiling, shrugging, or flustering one is just plain nonsensical.

I use said for statements, asked for questions, and on rare occasions I will use whispered, shouted or yelled, as these are very literal verbs that are not implied by said. (And I admit to a snapped in my forthcoming novel, but I wrung my hands over it, not only when I wrote it, but during the final edit. So shoot me.)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Dialogue Tags and Mechanics, II

(From Cecil Street in beautiful downtown Singapore...)

The quickest way to recognize a newbie fiction writer is to glance at their dialogue and eye it on a strictly mechanical basis. Unlike rules of grammar, which good fiction often breaks to excellent effect, the way dialogue is presented on the page is a highly stylized convention, and one that is supposed to be invisible. Indeed, the common means of presenting dialogue is just one of a few legitimate possibilities. For example, there's the em-dash, preferred by Alan Paton in Cry, the Beloved Country and by James Joyce in Ulysses:

—That’s right, Father Cowley said. The reverend Mr. Love. He’s a minister in the country somewhere.

Or, in more recent times, the nothing-in-particular used by Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian:

Neighbors, said the Reverend, he couldnt stay out of these here hell, hell, hellholes right here in Nagodoches. I said to him, said: You goin to take the son of God in there with ye?

Of course, there are moments when there is nothing like McCarthy to make me appreciate the punctuation conventions of standard fiction; sometimes the ‘said’ of one McCarthy speaker is reported inside the ‘said’ of another, followed by an additional ‘he said’ from the original speaker, until the reader must stop and try to draw a chart of the pronouns. Umm, he who? (This, combined with the lack of apostrophes in contractions, sometimes makes McCarthy’s prose seem just the teensiest bit affected.)

The simplest and least ambiguous way to present dialogue is within quotation marks: “I’m going to climb over, even if you can’t.” (Or, in the UK, ‘I’m going to climb over, even if you can’t.’ Much as I adore our Cousins Across the Water, the weirdness of the way the apostrophes pair up in ‘I’m…can’t.’--which throws a peculiar emphasis on 'I' and 't.'--makes me prefer the more cluttered US usage. I somehow doubt that my opinion is going to change current practices, though.)

The problem, of course, is that dialogue often must be attributed (as in both Joyce and McCarthy above) to avoid confusion. Often the simplest way to do this is to present the dialogue in a paragraph where the speaker is the focus. At random, I have grabbed the fiction nearest to my elbow, a collection of short stories by Andre Dubus III:

Vinnie’s eyes were still wet. He looked like he was about to shout something, but then he looked back down at his feet. “I said somebody knows, that’s all.”

Handling everything with ‘business’ would quickly turn cumbersome. So dialogue tags are needed, and used even by celebrated literary writers like, say, Annie Proulx:

“Job,” Buddy said.

The problem for many writers seems to lie in the convention that the dialogue and the tag are tied together with a comma. There is no difference (except in rhythm and emphasis) between Proulx’s line above and:

Buddy said, “Job.”

In both cases, this is a formulation that runs Buddy Verbed X. Buddy hit John. Buddy threw a tantrum. Buddy swam the English Channel. But is this case—the case where the verb that Buddy engaged in was ‘said’—we offset the words he recited with a comma and a pair of quotation marks.

Note that this is not the only way of handling what Buddy said. In narrative summary, we could write:

Buddy said he was tired and thought he’d just go home and sleep.

The comma-and-quotation structure means that what Buddy said is being cited in literal form:

Buddy said, “I’m tired, I think I’ll just go home and sleep.”

This seems straightforward. And, it would still make sense if we wrote:

Buddy whispered, “I’m tired, I think I’ll just go home and sleep.”

Or even:

Buddy proclaimed, “I’m tired, I think I’ll just go home and sleep.”

Yes, it still makes sense…but, ‘saying’ is neutral. ‘Whispering’ is a literal description. ‘Proclaiming’ moves from description to a judgment on someone’s part—though at least it is still a form of speech.

The biggest problem of all is that, carried away with alternative verbs, the writer soon begins to believe that any verb can be slipped into the syntactical slot reserved for ‘said.’ Consider:

“I’m tired, I think I’ll just go home and sleep,” he blushed.

No. No no no no no…Umm, did I mention, "No?" ‘Blushing’ is a reaction of the skin. Though it may be eloquent in its own way, it is not a form of ‘saying.’ When one encounters a problem like this, it is hard to see where the fault originates. Is it that the mechanics of dialogue are so confusing to some writers that they can’t see the difference between the foregoing and the legitimate construction:

“I’m tired, I think I’ll just go home and sleep.” He blushed.

which is made up of two independent sentences? Or is it the idea that, once you’ve used the verb ‘said’ in such a way, and then allowed ‘whispered,’ and then ‘proclaimed,’ that whatever verb you like may be attached as a tag? Back in 1962, novelist James Blish (hiding behind his critical William Atheling, Jr. pseudonym) thought it was the latter, and that once technique started down that slippery slope, there was nothing to prevent someone from writing:

“Good morning,” he pole-vaulted.

If ‘said’ covers all cases, then why is anything else ever used? Or, to put it another way, why all the pole-vaulting? There are several reasons, some good and some bad. And I promise to run my mouth on the topic in my next post.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Dialogue Tags and Mechanics, I

I'm typing this out just before I head off to the Far East (which, from where I sit, really ought to be called the Far West, but I guess Greenwich is still the center of the world) for a week of work.

I will keep dropping the occasional post, but I'm afraid that this will be a series of pedantic notes I've been working on about dialogue tags and dialogue mechanics. And who asked me? No one, really. It's more of a manifesto explaining why I handle dialogue the way I do. To whom am I explaining it? Myself, mostly, I'd guess.

Some of you may wish to tune out for a while. If you stick around, please keep in mind that these are just my rules for me, and don't get offended by my polemical tone. And let me make it clear: I have cheerfully read any number of books that violate the precepts I lay out here. A strong story and an otherwise-powerful style can carry me straight past dialogue tags I'd never consider using myself. (But, on other occasions, I stub my toe on dialogue tags in things I read.)

Feel free to post telling me how wrong I am on this topic. Many writers I know have already informed me how wrong I am about all this...

Legend has it that long ago, when pulp magazines still roamed the earth, writers could order—from small ads stashed in back, next to offers for sea-monkeys and X-ray glasses—little books that offered lists of alternatives to the boring verb “said.” Reading most stories written in those days, it is easy to believe that most writers had a “Said Book,” as they were known, beside their typewriters. Why “say” a word when your character could “hiss,” “sneer,” “ejaculate,” or “taunt” it instead?

Oddly enough, the decades when “Said-Bookism” was in its ascendancy were also the decades when Hemingway’s stripped-down dialogue style gained critical approval, and the aesthetics of writing shifted. Even Fitzgerald, not that long before, could write in Gatsby, “argued Lucille skeptically;” but as obscure verbs and hand-waving adverbs came to the fore in the pulps of the 1940s, Wolcott Gibbs at the New Yorker sent round a memo that read, “Word ‘said’ is O.K. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting ‘grunted,’ ‘snorted,’ etc., are waste motion and offend the pure in heart.”

Indeed. And, for me, at least, most—not quite all—of the verbs that can stand in for ‘said,’ not only offend, they also sensibly diminish my pleasure in reading by drawing my attention to the author’s involvement in the mechanics of dialogue.

Now, in narrative summary, I don't mind reading that a speaker snarled at his audience. It's a nice, descriptive word. But in "You'd better stop messing with my dialogue tags," Bob snarled I find myself focused on the word snarled rather than what Bob said. I turn over in my head why the writer picked that word. I try to snarl the dialogue under my breath. I search my memory for words that might stand in for snarled. I wonder how the dialogue could be written to sound snarlier without the tag. If I were given a pop quiz--What was that last sentence about?--I'd say, "Snarling!"

‘Said,’ it is often asserted, is an invisible word, much like the articles ‘a’ and ‘the.’ Do readers ever notice that a writer uses ‘the’ too often? The truly pure in heart—including Gibbs, one would assume—can go forever without a speech verb other than ‘said.’ You can read reams of minimalist fiction, such as Raymond Carver, without encountering a speech verb apart from ‘said.’ But the same goes for Elmore Leonard, whom many might label as neo-pulp. I don’t recall anyone ever describing the dialogue of either writer as monotonous, despite the endless repetition of that verb; instead, both are considered to be masters of dialogue.

Clearly a writer can get by with no more than "said", or can inhabit the other extreme (called "Elegant Variation" by its acolytes), and never use the same dialogue verb twice. There are an infinity of places one can draw the line between these two positions. As I'll explain, I draw mine closer to the said-only school, but use a few other verbs as well.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

It's Alive! My Creature...Lives!

Woo-hoo! (Dancing round the room.) They're beautiful! (Holding book on high, gazing up at it.) Stunning! Fantastic! And, mine, all mine! It's my-- (Dances backwards over cliff and falls into river of fire...) --Pre-c-i-o-u-s-s-s-s-s-s!

Sorry, sorry. Don't you hate those Gollum moments?

Actually, the books came about midday, and I posted two of them off to folks who may write reviews. Since then I've just admired them. From various angles. In various lighting schemes. Haven't really had the courage to read any of it yet, though I did glance through to see if anything was obviously printed upside down, or if sections of The Da Vinci Code had insinuated themselves. (So far, everything right-side up, and no DVC.) And I read the paired epigraphs, which are pretty damn good. (But, then, those two are from the Book of Exodus and WB Yeats, respectively. Reliable sources.)

The visual impact of the cover doesn't really come across in photos. From the start, both Will and Sophie have used the word "stunning," and I can't come up with a better one. The cover art is peculiarly luminescent, and I once again thank heavens that I wasn't put in charge of design, or we'd have something far more pedestrian.

What is so bizarre is the blatant multiplicity of it all. I mean, sure--I knew in principle that they intended to print more than one copy. But seeing a stack of them, even a modest stack, brings it all home. This is a book. One that might be picked up and read--oh please pray god--by total strangers. Not to mention how nicely it sits atop the whole MNW pile...

Shock and Awe is fatter than I expected. (Why am I surprised? I do have a tendency to go on and on.) Indeed, I might have been alarmed were it not for the fact that I was preceded by Annabel Dore's The Great North Road, which is a regular Moby Dick of a book.

And there I am, atop the stack of Macmillan New Writing books. Not there for long, of course, as LC Tyler and then Faye L Booth will be piled on top of me soon. But, still, what a stack. (Sorry if your book doesn't show to better advantage. Shiny little guys, aren't they?)

I'm #23 in the line-up. Which, according to the late-Victorian numerologist Cheiro, is "A very fortunate number. It indicates success, help from superiors and protection from those in high places. A most fortunate number in dealing with future events." (LC Tyler and Faye Booth, take note: 24 and 25 are pretty spiffy numbers, too.)

Okay. Sweet. But I'm avoiding confusion by not paying attention to the Wikipedia entry on the topic. Or to the Jim Carrey movie, which I haven't seen. So please don't disabuse me of my wild romantic notions. For the moment, I'm pretty happy.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Coming Soon to an Airport Near You

Editor Will Atkins has sent me an e-mail with some wonderful news. It seems that they've decided to follow up next month's MNW publication of Shock and Awe with a Pan paperback edition come September 2008. They're talking about an "A Format" paperback, which, if my mm to inches conversion is right, means mass-market paperback, and I couldn't be more thrilled.

Now, it isn't just the possibility of more readers that makes this exciting for me. It's that, in my twisted view of the universe, paperbacks have a certain credibility that hardbacks lack. I know that's crazy, and that many writers who started out in paperback originals fought their way upstream for years to achieve hardback publication. And I know critics are loath to review anything but hardbacks, and certainly don't give even a glance to mass-market paper. But still...

When I was a kid growing up in Redlands, California, the Orange Capital of the World, real bookstores were a great rarity. The single store in my home town sold nothing but paperbacks, and not many of those. The racks at Sage's, the largest grocery store, provided serious competition. So there were, in my limited worldview, two kinds of books: Library Books, which had hard covers, and Real Books, which came in paperback for something less than a dollar. I read both voraciously, but the exciting stuff was all happening in the paperback racks.

The other thing that has me jazzed is the Pan imprint, which was the UK paperback imprint of my pre-adolescent idol, Ian Fleming (who replaced my previous idol, Edgar Allan Poe. Fickle, ain't I?) Macmillan, of course, was Fleming's hardback publisher.

I bought my Bond from Signet, but every so often, one way or another (usually in a comic-book store in LA, where people traded such things), us Yanks caught a glimpse of the gorgeously lurid Pan covers (see left), compared them with our Signet covers (see right) and felt a bit left out. (Okay, the US edition features black lingerie, too. If you have a magnifying glass.)

Soon I hit smug and snotty-nosed puberty and decided Ian Fleming wasn't the greatest writer who ever lived after all, since Sartre and Camus and JMG Le Clezio were vying for that honor. (Though my taste was later vindicated when Sartre announced, to the everlasting horror of the French intelligensia, that he was a Fleming fan. Ha! Take that! [Then again, they like Jerry Lewis over there, too...])

Over the years, I've ended up with a lot of Pan paperbacks on my shelves, most of them (the books, not the shelves) snagged in airports. Some--the Tom Sharpe novels, for example, which are virtually unobtainable in the US--are treasured possessions. (I make animal sounds in the back of my throat when visitors pick them up and thumb through them. At least until said visitors start giggling. Then I forgive them.)

My point (I had one, it was here beside me just moments ago) is that I know, as a Serious Novelist, that hardback publication is what matters. And those MNW hardbacks, sewn in signatures with the ribbon bookmarks and all, are Library Books of the first order. And I'm pretty damn pleased about them.

But I'd be less than frank if I didn't admit that there's a ten-year-old inside me that's thrilled to distraction by the paperback. Now that's a real book. And as I walk around, I'm humming Paperback Writer...

'Cause I'm jazzed. As they say Across the Water, chuffed. Or, as they say here in California, I'm like, totally, whoa--!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Book Every Writer Needs to Keep Nearby

The picture above is entitled Rejection #1, one of the wonderful and peculiar wire sculptures done by the prolific Terry Border at his blog Bent Objects. (Well worth a visit. Some of his stuff is beautiful; some, like his McDonald's Monster, are a little horrific. There is also an "Immature Adults Only" version at Really Bent Objects.)

Rejection #1 seemed like the ideal illustration for this post about Pushcart's Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections (for Amazon UK link go here). Bill Henderson--the founder of Pushcart Press--had the idea of collecting excerpts from particularly nasty or wrongheaded reviews, giving special attention to those that look jaw-droppingly absurd in retrospect. His partner in crime, Andre Bernard, decided to find the best in rejections. Initially published as three volumes, they have been combined into a single book that is indispensible for any writer trying to maintain their sanity, optimism. or sense of humor.

The classic rejection, of course, is the San Francisco Examiner's rejection of an article by Rudyard Kipling: "This isn't a kindergarten for amateur writers. I'm sorry, Mr Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language." That's in this volume, but there is so much more.


Wuthering Heights: Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Bronte) are magnified a thousandfold, and the only consolation we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.

Alice in Wonderland: We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, overwrought story.

The Great Gatsby: A little slack, a little soft, more than a little artificial, The Great Gatsby falls into the class of negligible novels.

Fear of Flying: This crappy novel, misusing vulgarity to the point where it becomes purely foolish...represents everything that is to be loathed in American fiction today.


(Some of these are addressed to the author or agent, but others are internal memos Bernard retrieved from the vaults of publishing houses.)

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: You can have Le Carre--he hasn't got any future.

Lolita: It will not sell, and will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation...I am most disturbed by the fact that the author has asked that this be published. I can see no possible cause could be served by its publication now. I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.

The Fountainhead: I wish there were an audience for a book of this kind. But there isn't. It won't sell.

Ironweed: I like William Kennedy, but not enough. He's a very good writer, something no one needs to tell you or him, and his characters are terrific. I cannot explain turning this down.

Catch-22: It is always possible that a reader who goes in for this zany-epigram stuff will think it is a work of genius, and of course he may be right. But from your long publishing experience you will know that it is less disastrous to turn down a work of genius than to turn down talented mediocrities.


That's only a small sampling of the delights in Henderson and Bernard's great compilation. See now why every writer needs this book? You may be scorned, you may be rejected...but you're in august company.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Expat Lit

The redoubtable Neil "Ratatouille" Ayers dropped a note on the Comment trail steering me to this Times Online article about folks who can't get published in their home country. I knew about John Knowles, James Purdy, and Carol O'Connell going to the UK to get published, but I didn't realize there were very successful writers on both sides of the pond who continue to be published everywhere except in their home country.

It turns out not to be a one-way street, either; there are Brits who are only popular in the US, or France, and one Russian who lives and publishes in France but has been dead weight back in Russia.

In the consulting business, they say that how much respect you are accorded during a speech is directly proportional to the miles you traveled to give the talk. I guess there's something similar at work here.

So, if you have trouble getting pubbed at home, go far foreign. It might be just what you need. (Or so says David "Big in Curacao" Isaak.)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Slush and the Numbers Racket, Part II

Some folks don’t like the term ‘slush.’ I don’t find it all that unattractive, perhaps because I’m a fan of the Patrick O’Brian novels, where ‘slush’—the fat that floats off dried and salted meats as they are steeped and boiled to make them edible—is a valued commodity: used as the key ingredient in puddings, employed as a lubricant for gears, and desired by sailors as something to eat with crumbled biscuit.

As I understand it, Macmillan New Writing has received about 7,000 submissions so far, and has published or plans to publish in the neighborhood of 30 of these—about one-half of one percent. (The numbers are easy to quibble about: at least two of the MNW books were preselected from the “long list” of the Richard and Judy competition; and at least a few books scheduled are second novels from authors already published by MNW, so they represent new books but not new, over-the-transom manuscripts.) Depending on how you fiddle them, the numbers suggest about three to five out of every thousand manuscripts over the transom are accepted.

MNW is in a unique position. There are, of course, other imprints that still accept over-the-transom submissions, but MNW is the only imprint that relies exclusively on the slush pile of unpublished novelists for its initial supply of material. It can’t really be viewed as the slush pile in this case, since it is the only pile.

In my previous post, I described how MacAdam/Cage could toss half the novels they received over the transom simply because they were in the wrong category. Obviously MNW can’t do this, since they accept submissions in all genres. This means the pile stays higher longer—but, looked at the other way round, it means that there are also more possibilities in the pile. Few imprints can state their requirements as simply as, “We’re looking for good novels.”

The fact that MNW asks for full, finished novels also adds another hurdle. At least in the US, there are a distressing number of nutjobs who believe that their idea for the story is so irresistable that they need not complete their novel before shopping it around--hell, they don't even need to be able to write with any competency! So they send in a hastily prepared fifty pages--the first fifty pages they ever wrote--and a cover letter (usually announcing that their book is the next Da Vinci Code), assuming that the publishers will be so excited they will buy the unfinished manuscript and even hire a ghostwriter to do 'the technical stuff.' For these folks, needing a full manuscript to submit is more like a mountain range than a 'hurdle'.

Not only are the pickings richer for MNW, but the imprint also has a rare freedom in that it was never expected to be a money-spinner. I’m sure money is always welcome, but the fact that MNW started as a break-even proposition means that the imprint can afford to take risks with novels that don’t fit neatly into marketing categories, or books that hybridize or straddle genres.
With this richer field to draw upon, how many books does MNW find that are publishable? Mike Barnard, in Transparent Imprint, says

I have often been asked how many I think could have been published if we had a free rein…I can probably best answer it by admitting that there were at least a dozen novels I would have published if I had not already had enough material in hand for the period we were working through.

In other words, the number of additional titles he would have liked to have published (about twelve) was only slightly less than the number they did publish (fourteen). Had they published all twenty-six, the acceptance rate would still have been well below one percent. Barnard goes on to add

Like all editors, I am asked whether I think we might have missed any gems that could have become bestsellers. That is an easy question to answer: yes, of course…[W]e all have good days and bad days. We all suffer from colds, headaches, hangovers, distractions of one sort or another. It is probable that something really good has slipped through the net.

Even if we allow for those possible omissions, however, it seems unlikely that adding them to the totals would mean that more than one percent of the manuscripts received were 'desirable' by MNW criteria.

Macmillan’s experiment has demonstrated that there are good novels out there going unpublished. But the numbers also suggest there isn’t a tidal wave of good novels out there waiting to inundate the market. Even with Macmillan’s open system and ability to take risks, only a few of each thousand are considered publishable.

These may seem like dismal numbers, and I suppose they are. Facing the market today, the unpublished novelist is told to find a good ‘hook,’ to stay ahead of market trends, to be prepared to rewrite from an adult novel to YA as needed, to practice laying out a logline, to have an elevator pitch ready at all times, to pay for workshops on writing a killer query letter, to attend conferences and hunt agents somehow without appearing to be a stalker, that physical appearance matters, that you’re better off with a platform even for fiction…It's all politics, we're told, and there are a million things you need to do to give yourself that extra 'edge'.

There's no obvious extra 'edge' to be brought to the slush pile as managed by MNW, and some may find this frightening. Yet it's also liberating, as it puts the whole problem solidly back in your lap. It isn't how you cut your hair, or how well-rehearsed your pitch is, or how you look in a sundress, or whether you can schmooze with Binky Urban. It all comes down to that one hard thing, but the only thing over which you have real control: Write the best book you can.

I presume (or hope) that's why we wanted to write in the first place, so I guess that can be counted as good news.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Slush and the Numbers Racket, Part I

Editor Pat Walsh (see earlier post on his book) claims that at presses where both slush and agented submissions are read, the slush gets short shrift. (Try saying that last bit aloud several times.) In addition to his dictum that bad manuscripts diminish the chances of the good ones in the pile (“One fresh clam will not undo the ills of a platter of bad ones”), he also claims that even when a gem is found in the slush, it is treated with little respect.

Now, it might seem that finding a gem in the slush would be an opportunity for celebration. Chances are it can be acquired for a very modest advance, be contracted for without conceding many subsidiary rights, and, all-in-all, be published at very little risk. But for an editor to push a slush-pile gem means putting his or her reputation behind the book—behind a book that no one else has recommended. This just isn’t how deals are done. Strange as it may seem, it is safer careerwise to get involved in an expensive bidding war for a book that ends up losing money—after all, how can you be blamed when you bought a book sponsored by an uberagent and fought over by your competitors? You may have been wrong, but so was everyone else…

Walsh gives some other insights into how slush works. He claims that at MacAdam/Cage when they get together to go “slush-diving,” the pile of submissions can be reduced by half just checking to see if it fits one of the categories they publish; they don’t typically publish romance, science fiction, Christian, or New Age fiction. (Though one is tempted to note that their best-known book, The Time-Traveler’s Wife, would have to be described as both science-fiction and romance, and therefore doubly not on their category list.)

So, the list can be cut by 50 percent just through sorting by category. Walsh claims the pile then gets reduced to 10 percent of its original height by reading no more than a page or two for basic competence and interest. MacAdam/Cage receives about 3,000 over-the-transom manuscripts each year; already, with only a superficial look, the pile is reduced to three hundred. These three hundred (which are usually submissions of the first three chapters) are looked at more carefully, and reduced to “a handful.” It is out of these that full manuscripts are requested.

What is perhaps more interesting is that Walsh claims the company receives about a thousand manuscripts a year from agents. MacAdam/Cage typically publishes around 26-29 books annually (they are still growing), so this is a very interesting statistic. Even if MacAdam/Cage published nothing from the slush, this means less than three percent of the submissions they receive on a referred basis are selected. But, looking through their backlist, about twenty percent of their books are additional books from authors they’ve already published.

Subtract books submitted from their current list of authors (and perhaps a tiny contribution from the slush pile), and his figures suggest that, even with an agent submitting your book, MacAdam/Cage has only a two percent chance of taking your debut novel.

Under this arrangement you are far more likely to be accepted if you have an agent; but even with an agent, your chances (two percent is, what, one in fifty?) can’t be described as high.

And, of course, most agents reject 99 percent of the submissions they receive. All in all, looking at the numbers, I couldn’t advise anyone to take up the fiction habit in the expectation of publication.

Lucky for all of us who read, then, that writers aren’t a terribly rational bunch.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

One More Month...

I happened to glance at the calendar on the way to bed and noticed that it's now August 7th. Very early on August 7th, but the 7th nonetheless. Therefore just one month away from the pub date of Shock and Awe--and I'm now so savvy about matters literary that I no longer think a 'pub date' is meeting someone in a bar for a pint of John Courage.

For those who haven't been through the process before, I've got to tell you that the lead-up to publication is rather odd. There's all sorts of hurry and consultation in the editing and copyediting phase, and the book gets sent off to printing in a bit of a rush...

But then? Well, not all that much goes on while the book is at the printers. There's some discussion of publicity plans, etc., but without printed matter in hand, not much really happens. Somewhere out there ink drums are being loaded and presses are spinning, I'm sure, but from this end it feels as though the message has already been stuffed into the bottle, corked up, and flung beyond the line of crashing surf. By now it has drifted so far you aren't sure if you see the glint of sun on glass or on the water. Too late to change the font. Too late to change that unfortunate 'which' clause. Too late to change your mind, your address, your name.

Too Late the Phalarope. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Voyager drifts toward Jupiter, and we can only hope the attitude jets fire properly when we pass into orbit.

Not that passing into orbit will probably amount to much either. Okay, the pub date for the recent Harry Potter was a major event, but I've been around a few others, and little happens that doesn't happen on any other day. Sure, a week or two prior to pub date some of the reviewers sell their Advance Review Copies on Amazon, so you can buy used copies of the book before it's even been published, but on pub date itself all that usually occurs is that some copies may be put out on the shelves. Or not. Sometimes Barnes & Noble doesn't get around to unpacking the shipment.

Show business isn't like this. Even in amateur theatre productions, there is a steady build-up of activity until--ta-da!--Opening Night! Or unknown artists coming up to their first little gallery show are dashing about helping hang paintings or type out obscure captions and attributions, or at least assisting in cutting huge bricks of cheese into cubes and spearing them onto toothpicks.

Or think of all the silly turmoil and rush leading up to a college graduation, culminating in that march across the stage to shake the hand of the Dean. (Of course, after you get off the stage you discover that your diploma folder is empty because you still owe $63.42 in unpaid library fines, but until that point it's a rather excellent build-up.)

Writing just doesn't work like that. Don Marquis, of Archy and Mehitabel fame, was (among his many other accomplishments) a poet. He noted, "Publishing a book of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for an echo."

It's even odder when said publication is taking place in another country. It becomes rather theoretical, like when your lover is on a long trip: Hmm, 10:30 here, they're 14 hours ahead, so I guess she arrived in Bangkok an hour ago...probably in a taxi by you suppose it's sunny or raining?

On average I suppose a novel makes more noise than a book of verse, but even then it couldn't amount to more than a handful of rose petals. At best.

Still, if you happen to be in these parts a month from now, drive by my house. I'll be out front by the cactus, with my good ear cupped in the direction of Arizona, listening intently.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Shocking News—Americans Not Obese After All

I was in a restaurant the other day, and you could see the television in the bar (hate that) from where I sat. Some basketball team was playing against—big surprise—some other basketball team, but what drew my attention was that all the players seemed to be rather squat. Chunky, in fact?

Was this some new basketball league, with maximum height regulations and minimum weight requirements? No. I soon ascertained that the morons running the bar had installed a widescreen television set, and left it set to widescreen…even though the broadcasts they were running were all in standard, squarish, television format.

After I noticed this, I started paying attention. Yes indeed: in any of the positively nauseating number of places where televisions are publicly displayed, they are all widescreen units (often the thin, expensive, plasma kind), and they are all showing narrowscreen broadcasts in widescreen format. Apparently no one knows how to push the “Normal” button on the console.

So, the citizenry of America isn’t overweight. Some idiot has the country running on “Widescreen.” If someone would just push the “Normal” button on the country, everyone would get taller and slimmer.

(Of course, the whole country would get narrower, I suppose, but I’d argue that it’s too wide as it stands. Let’s push LA and NYC a little closer together.)

Friday, August 3, 2007

Genre Rules the Future?

A short post a while back by Grumpy Old Bookman (good to see he's still blogging with some frequency)routed me to a fascinating and challenging article on the future of publishing. It's a speech, actually, by Michael Shatzkin of The IdeaLogical Company, delivered at the most recent Book Expo America.

I won't attempt to get into the details of his rather eloquent argument, but Shatzkin's main point is that although there are readers who read in a very broad fashion, most readers are obsessed with a particular genre or two. He argues that in the future, publishing will be more targeted toward various kinds of niches, and that general trade publishers will gradually morph into specialty publishers with more clearly identified markets.

As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, "Predictions are dangerous--especially about the future." (Originally said by Niels Bohr.) Still I think there might be something to Mr Shatzkin's forecast.

On my recent visit to London I meandered through the bookstores on Charing Cross Road just to look at MNW books on the shelves (since I'd never encountered them in the wild, so to speak). I found quite an assortment, but the ones I saw in virtually every store were Brian McGilloway's Borderlands, Matt Curran's The Secret War, and Jonathan Drapes' Never Admit to Beige; those were closely followed by Conor Corderoy's Dark Rain and Michael Stephen Fuchs' The Manuscript.

Four of the five novels I list there are 'genre' books, generally stashed away in Mystery/Suspense (Borderlands and The Manuscript) and Science Fiction/Fantasy (Secret War and Dark Rain). And, you know what? After checking into it, I've gathered anecdotal evidence from booksellers (in the US, at least) that they are more likely to let a genre book sit on the shelf in the expectation that it will sell; mainstream books by unknown authors tend to get returned much more quickly.

Mind you, I'm not saying these four aren't good books (and I've read all of them, by the way). I'm just suggesting that bookstores have already moved in the direction Shatzkin is suggesting, and that they have more confidence in the saleability of a book in a category than in general fiction. Shatzkin believes the niches will become even better defined in the future, partly owing to user communities on the web.

[n.b. And how do I explain the persistence of Never Admit to Beige? Yeah, I knew some wiseguy would bring that up. Well, it's a truly hilarious book, and it got a high-profile review, and, ummm, it's just one of those things, okay?]

John Fowles, one of my favorite writers, once said, "My ambition is to write one book in every imaginable genre." Fowles was rather successful using this approach, as is Jane Smiley today, but it's hard to get away with it unless your name is already a recognized brand on its own.

Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, and John Banville have all recently jumped the fence from their lit-fic pasture into the wide-open fields of genre (the first three in science fiction, and Banville in crime fiction). Does this represent an important artistic choice, or a cynical attempt to make some real money...or have they all harbored a secret desire to have some fun, a desire they can indulge now that they're safely famous?