Cross-Writing: Gender Bending Through Fiction

 

I read a good book lately, and it got me thinking, as good books tend to do. The book was RESTLESS, by British novelist William Boyd, and it’s about two women, a mother and her grown daughter. The mother had a secret history as a spy in World War II, which she reveals to her daughter through journal entries. The story unfolds through their alternating points of view.

At some point, it occurred to me that these two fully realized female characters, and their voices, were created by a man. Nothing in the novel tipped me off; no false note ever sounded. This male writer   had successfully channeled two perfectly convincing women. And what struck me about this feat is that it was both unexceptional and magical.

Unexceptional in that most good writers do it all the time. They have to; a writer who can write from the perspective of only one sex is badly handicapped. Not every attempt succeeds, even among the great. Hemingway wrote one of the most laughable female characters I’ve ever read. Of course, he also created Lady Brett Ashley, offsetting that other failure, but not even she got her own POV.  On the other end of the scale, romance novelists have a tendency to create male characters who would never survive outside the rarified pages of romance novels. Nevertheless, creating convincing characters of the opposite sex is one of the tricks of the trade, so common as to pass unnoticed most of the time; ii’s the rule rather than the exception.

Yet it’s also magical, if you think about it, this gender alchemy. Fiction writers constantly project themselves into characters different from themselves, one might argue; what’s so special about this difference? I would answer that gender is the first identifier, the most basic differential. Its primacy is revealed in the language. When we describe ourselves as “a white Jewish male” or a “conservative Southern woman,” gender is the noun, while the other descriptions are adjectives. “The other half” means the opposite sex. Countless tomes have been written explaining men to women and women to men. “Write what you know,” writers are constantly told; but who among us, apart from transsexuals, really knows what it’s like to inhabit the world as the opposite sex?

So how do fiction writers pull it off?  To create any character, you have to get inside him: walk in his shoes, see through his eyes. This is true whether or not the writer uses that character’s POV. As writers we draw not only on our own experience, but also on observation and imagination. Thus the ability to create convincing characters of any gender, let alone the opposite one, is not something we’re born with. Rather, if my experience is typical, it’s learned incrementally.

Like most writers, I started out writing from the POV of a character of my own gender. That sufficed for the first book, but not the second, CAFÉ NEVO, which required a wider palette and multiple POV’s. That was a long time and many books ago, but I still remember the exhilaration and trepidation of those initial forays into the Other.

I started out, as I did with every character, with the things we had in common.  One of my male POV characters was a writer, so right away I knew understood some things about him. That character was also a parent, and not a monstrous one; that is, he loved his son. His method of expressing it might be different, but love is love. All the basic, deep emotions are felt by both sexes, and that is a lot of similarity to work with.

But then I also had to think about the differences between my male and female characters, insofar as those differences were gender-based. Every character is an individual, but gender is a big part of who we are. I’m not going to start cataloguing those differences or figure out the relative roles of nature and nurture; suffice it to say that a writer who fails to take these differences into account is unlikely to create convincing characters of the opposite sex. So, too, a writer who fails to take the commonalities into account. In A FAREWELL TO ARMS, Hemingway seems to regard women as an altogether different species from men; his Catherine Barkley is, in my opinion, a mere plot device meant to showcase the travails of the real,  i.e. male protagonist. (Sorry to keep busting on Papa, especially as he was kind enough to blurb my upcoming book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, but I’m still smarting from that ludicrous childbirth/death scene in the end of that book, which could have been written for Downton Abbey. Not that I don’t love Downton Abbey, but still.}

Any writer who wants to grow needs to write credible characters of both sexes. But forget “needs to;” the primary reason for doing it (and for writing in general) is that it’s huge fun. Writing enables us to transcend all sorts of boundaries. I will never be a man; that direct experience is denied me in this lifetime. But I can inhabit my male characters, and through them I can shoulder my way through the world; experience male friendship; get into fights; size up a woman and calculate my chances; feel a father’s love and widower’s agony;  fall in love as a boy and look back on it wistfully as an old man. Cross-writing’s a bit like cross-dressing, but writers go deeper, donning bodies and souls instead of just clothes. And just as real-life experience feeds fiction, so does fiction enrich real life.

cross-dressing

I’m interested in other writers’ experiences in this area. Do you write viewpoint characters of the opposite sex? How do you take their gender into account, if at all, and what have you learned through your adventures in cross-writing?

 

“Too Much Body Language,” She Said, Frowning.

There’s a secret to getting a first novel published, and it has nothing to do with platform, connections, or the ebb and flow of publishing’s tides. Not that those things don’t matter. They do matter as secondary factors, but only if a prior condition is met: the novel itself needs to be irresistible.

I’ll give you an example from my years as a literary agent. I once received a manuscript that by every reasonable standard should have been rejected at first glance. Not only was the ms. full of handwritten corrections, it was actually printed on the back of previously used paper. Someone who couldn’t be bothered to submit a clean copy was unlikely to have written anything I could sell. I glanced at the first sentence, just to confirm my expectations. Then I read the next line, and the next. The voice was strong and authoritative, the voice of a writer who knows he’s got a story to tell and the chops to tell it.  I took the manuscript home with me and finished it that night. It was an extraordinarily entertaining Western about a Jewish peddler whose quest for the lost tribe of Israel takes him into Indian country: a sort of Jewish “Little Big Man.” It wasn’t perfect, but the story was like nothing I’d read before, the characters were fully realized and fascinating, and the scenes were wonderfully crafted. I called the writer the next day and offered representation.

In an industry that agrees on very little, there’s near unanimity on the best route to breaking into print. In a recent interview with Viking editor Tara Singh, I asked, “What’s the most important thing writers can do to help themselves get published?” This was her response:

I think the most important thing a writer can do is to write a really good book. This may not be a very helpful answer, but it really is the most important thing. Have others read your work, go to writers workshops, put it away and come back to it if you need to, but make it good.

Beyond that, I do think that publishers are paying much more attention to whether or not an author has an online presence. Is he or she active on facebook? Does he or she have thousands of twitter followers? That said, most writers won’t have that and I think that if you spend your time worrying about creating an amazing online presence rather than writing a really good book, you’d be spending your time poorly.”

So all I have to do is write an irresistible book, you may be thinking. Brilliant. And just how do I do that? But please note that I said irresistible, not perfect. No book ever emerges perfectly formed, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. It’s a process, and good writers are grateful for the input of good editors. So you don’t have to write a perfect book, which I hope is reassuring, just an irresistible one. What makes a book irresistible is, for me, a combination of things: an original story; interesting characters who jump off the page; and the mastery of craft required to do that story justice.

Writers are expected to master that craft on their own dime, not the publisher’s. For that reason, I’m inaugurating an occasional series of craft tips for fiction writers, many drawn from the writing courses I teach online at Next Level Workshops. These are  not intended as proclamations from on high or any sort of writing orthodoxy, but rather as distillations of lessons I’ve learned over 30 years as a writer, literary agent and editor. I hope you find them useful.

LESSON ONE: BEATS VS. DEADBEATS

A beat, for the purpose of this discussion, is everything in a passage of dialogue except the spoken words and speaker attribution (he said, she asked, etc.) That would include bits of description, interior monologue, action,  and the nonverbal parts of conversations, aka body language.

Dialogue needs occasional beats for rhythm and to bring in other dimensions of the scene. How many beats a writer uses is a matter of personal style. Stretches of straight dialogue can be useful to allow readers to really hear the characters’ voices in their heads without constant interruption. But if you overdo it, you impoverish the scene, you take away its physicality.  The effect for the reader is like listening to a TV with no picture.

A deadbeat is a beat that brings nothing to the party, or at most a measly can of beer. If a beat doesn’t contribute something meaningful to the scene, beyond what the dialogue itself conveys,  find a beat that will.

It’s my contention that most—not all, but most—descriptions of body language fall into the category of deadbeats. They’re the fallback beat, the first ones most writers resort to. And to some extent they’re necessary; without them, we’d miss some nuances, especially when the characters’ expression or body language contradicts what they’re saying. The trouble arises when writers overuse or misuse them as a means of telling what the character feels in the guise of showing.  Like weeds, deadbeats tend to crowd out beats that would actually enhance the garden.

It’s easiest to show with an example. Here’s a short passage in three variations.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said.

“Suit yourself,” she said.

The lines of dialogue are evocative, but it’s not clear how the speakers mean them or what’s going on underneath the words. Suppose you, as the writer, want to keep the dialogue but add to it. If you’ve fallen into the habit of reaching first for body language, your next version might read like this.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said, frowning.

She waved an airy hand. “Suit yourself.”

More information is conveyed, to be sure, but at a price. You’re now basically telling the reader how the characters feel, instead of letting them feel it themselves.  And you’re not adding a lot. We already know the male speaker is unhappy, so “frowning” is a deadbeat. Her “airy wave” is a bit better, but her line itself is already dismissive. Another deadbeat, this one bearing a measly can of beer.

So you cross out those lines and reach further afield for an image that will illuminate, and you come up with a third variation.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said.

She kept her eyes on her magazine, though she wasn’t turning any pages. The room was silent but for the faint, mournful whistle of a freight train.

“Suit yourself,” she said at last.

 

That mournful train whistle conveys a sense of melancholy, and the mention of a train suggests a crossroad. The woman’s pretense of reading shows the disconnect between two people who seem once to have been connected. Suddenly these spare lines of dialogue are imbued with a sense of parting and finality; and readers will feel it.

Capisce?

This piece was adapted from one of my online Next Level  workshop “Revising Fiction.” I will be offering “Revising Fiction”  starting August 13, 2015. Eight writers max, very intensive. (See testimonials) Applicants are asked to submit a writing sample. For more information, email me  at next.level.workshop@gmail.com

Films About Writers: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

 

Sorry to be late with this post. I spent the last few days recuperating from a movie I saw over the weekend. The Words is about a writer who plagiarizes the work of another writer, gains fame and fortune, and is then confronted by the real author. It should have been a good story, if not a particularly cinematic one. Instead, it was a particularly egregious offender in a long line of terrible movies about writers.

 

Part of the problem is surely that it is so difficult to make anything dramatic of the writer’s process. If you were to set up a WebCam in front of my computer, here’s what you would see: Writer stares at screen for 20 min.; writer types a sentence; writer stares at screen. Repeat.  Not exactly the stuff of scintillating cinema. Moviemakers, and readers in general, tend to mistake the product for the process. The most exciting book in the world is written in the same sedentary fashion as the most tedious.

Naturally, filmmakers need to spice it up. Teeth are gnashed, hair is ripped out at the roots, grooves are worn in old wooden floors. Shakespeare In Love was one of those: an otherwise estimable film that couldn’t resist tarting up the writing process with histrionics, as if the plays were written not in ink but in blood. The Words featured an early montage of such melodramatic agonies of creation. I smirked, but with a sinking sensation. Next came the scene in which a publisher summons the writer, praises his book to the skies, and then declines to publish it. I nearly choked on my popcorn. As if!  Filmmakers go to immense pains to make every detail of their police and CIA procedurals as realistic as possible. Why, then, is it okay to write such a ludicrous scenes about the writer’s life? No publisher ever calls a writer in to reject his work in person. It is done through intermediaries: his agent, if he has one, or an e-mail, or simply through no reply. When I saw that scene, I knew I was in trouble. The film also had difficulty differentiating between the roles of publishers and literary agents, very basic stuff. And when it quoted from the miraculous purloined book in question, the prose was so flat and boring (think Hemingwayesque, if Hemingway had had a tin ear instead of perfect pitch) that the whole premise of the story was undermined.

According to the movies, lots of writers are psychotic. It seems to be a professional hazard. See Meryl Streep as the romance novelist from hell in She Devil. Johnny Depp develops a split personality in Secret Window, while in As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson suffers from multiple psychological problems. Writers are always being pursued by characters from their own books (especially if the book in question was written by Stephen King) or vengeful fans (ditto). You’d never see writers in films as they are in real life: working stiffs with kids in school and mortgages to pay.

Still, every once in a while, a film gets it gloriously right. I loved Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,  the story of Dorothy Parker, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and the Algonquin Round Table: the writers’ Camelot brought to life. Capote was a brilliant movie about a writer who falls in love with his subject but sacrifices him for a better ending to his book. I felt it says something true about writers. And who could forget the Coen brothers’ hallucinatory Barton Fink? John Goodman as Satan is perfect, and so is John Turturro as the aspiring screenwriter who vacillates in a very writerly way between hubris and terror.

How about you? What are the best and worst movies you’ve seen about writers?

Can Writing Be Taught?

My last post about the bloodsuckers who prey on writers stirred up some interesting discussions on writers’ forums that I frequent. One writer, Cammy May Hunnicutt, agreed that paid reviews and submission services exploit naive writers and provide no real benefit, but she questioned my assertion that the one thing worth paying for is education, learning the craft.  “People,” she wrote, “are dying to think they can spend some money and become ‘good’ writers.  Not really so.”

This is an interesting statement; and based on 15 or so years of teaching fiction writing, I have to agree with it, if by “good” we mean extraordinary, publishable. To get to that level,  there has to be some natural ability in the mix. But talent isn’t everything; it isn’t even enough. Writers need craft, too. We don’t make it all up from scratch each time we start a story. We learn stuff and build on what we’ve learned to do more, the same as in any art. Just as painters need to master perspective, so must writers master point of view. Just as musicians must learn structure to write fugues, so must writers  learn to structure their stories for maximum effect. These techniques can be taught to any reasonably literate, motivated person, so I believe that nearly everyone can learn to write better; and that is something most writers aspire to.

But Cammy, bless her, was not convinced. “‘[You say] ‘You can’t learn to be good, but can learn to be better.’  Let me ask you how much that counts for.  You see writers who are really sweet and don’t get published, others who write junk and make millions.  If I can use athletics as a metaphor, I’ve seen the workshops and camps and coaching.  And being ‘better’ is seldom good enough at the level that the average person can access.  I don’t see it as an investment that will return, but a money drain.”

Cammy asks tough questions, but fair ones. It’s true that all the training in the world isn’t going to get a mediocre hoopster onto the Knicks. Writers who study with me are strongly motivated—they have to be, to participate in my strenuous workshops—and over the years, quite a few have gone on to publish.  I take enormous pleasure and pride in  their success–but they are a minority. The hard truth is, many of my students will never publish unless they self-publish. The bar to trade publication is extremely high, and even for the most talented, there are numerous obstacles along the way. So what is the point of writing classes for those who won’t achieve that? Could teaching itself be exploitative?

I don’t believe it. People deserve a chance to strive for their goal, however difficult it may be. Besides, you can’t always tell who will and who won’t end up getting published. I’ve been surprised more than once. Sometimes a genre gets really hot and the bar is lowered a bit as publishers scramble for material, so that agents and editors may be willing to take on a manuscript that needs more work than they’d normally invest. Other times I’ve seen students who start out with major deficits learn really, really quickly—just soaking things up because they’re ready for them. (See Mika’s story.)Where a writer starts isn’t necessarily an indication of where she’ll end up.

Some of my students are going to end up self-publishing their work–a statistical certainty these days. In those cases too, I think they’re doing a good thing for themselves and their books and their eventual readers if they learn all they can about the craft of writing. Doesn’t have to be through classes, either. A detailed critique by an editor or writer with serious chops (scroll down on this page for a list of things to look for in a writing teacher and editor) can be an eye-opener, serving not only to improve the work in question but to provide the writer with tools they can apply to everything they write thereafter.  If that’s not in the budget, there are excellent books on writing available, and libraries where they can be had for free.

To me it seems self-evident that writers, like painters and musicians, need to master the tools of their trade; but, as Cammy was brave enough to point out, I have a vested interest in believing this. So let me ask the writers among you to weigh in with your thoughts and experience on Cammy’s challenging question: Can writing be taught?

 

My purpose here is not to tout my classes; in fact, I’m taking a hiatus from teaching and editing for the next 4-5  months to work on a book. If, however, you are interested in taking one of my workshops when I resume, the best way to get in is to get on my emailing list, which you can do by emailing me at www.nextlevelworkshops dot com.

The Birth of a Novel

 

To a writer, the most terrifying sight in the world is a blank piece of paper. A journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step, according to the Chinese philosopher, but as long as the direction is known, the first step is obvious. A novel begins with a single sentence—but what sentence? The possibilities are infinite; the choice alone can paralyze.

And the sentence matters. Ursula Le Guin once said that first sentences are doors to worlds; it follows that each sentence is the door to a different world. The best ones, I think, awaken readers’ curiosity and make them immediately want to know more. The best lines also convey a sense of the novel’s world and of the voice that will be their guide to it. Here are a few of my favorite opening lines: see if you don’t get a pretty good sense of what worlds they open into…and a lot else besides.

“She had slept naked all her life, and no one knew it.”–Eileen Jensen

“True!-nervous-very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! But why will you say that I am mad?” –E.A. Poe

“There once was a boy by the name of Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”– C.S. Lewis.

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”–James Cain

“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.”–Daphne Du Maurier

“Helen Brent had the best-looking legs at the inquest.”–James Gunn

“They were walking along the river path, away from the city, and as far as they knew they were alone.”– Pat Barker

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”–Kafka

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”–Nabakov

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”–Jane Austen

When I still taught fiction writing in brick-and-mortar colleges,  there was an exercise I often used to take the terror out of that blank sheet of paper. I challenged students to write three intriguing sentences: each one the first line to a story they had no intention of writing. I wanted to help free their imaginations by taking away the weight of the endeavor. Since they would never have to follow up on anything in that first sentence, it could be as wild as they wanted. Very often, students ended up writing at least one of those stories. Pulling a sentence out of thin air is actually a means of pulling something out of one’s own unconscious, and the results can be compelling.

One day, while I was waiting for my class to complete this exercise, I filled in the time by doing it myself. This is the first sentence I wrote:

“Even though she’d asked for it, Sam Pollack could not help feeling guilty the day he killed his wife.”

The line seemed to come out of nowhere. I had no idea who Sam Pollack was or why he had just killed his wife. Saying that he “could not help feeling guilty” implied that for some reason he shouldn’t have felt guilty or normally wouldn’t have felt guilty, which was certainly odd. And the ambiguity of his wife having “asked for it” also intrigued me; did it mean she deserved it or she requested it?

I was powerfully curious, but there was no one to ask. The only way to find out was to write the story, a notion I resisted. Starting a novel, which typically takes me several years to complete, isn’t something I undertake lightly. It seemed almost frivolous to base one on a line that just popped into my head. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and over time, other ideas and embryonic characters attached themselves to it.

In the olden days, when writers still did book tours, there was one question that invariably came up in every Q and A: “Where do your ideas come from?” I used to say that they came from a mail-order idea service, but that was a lie. The truth is, story ideas are all around, like pollen in the air. The trick is picking one that can successfully cross-pollinate with an inner obsession, because it takes more than one strand of DNA to grow a novel.

I liked the line I’d written in class. It hung around, but it didn’t implant until it combined with a character who’d been lurking in the back of my mind and a setting I’d been wanting to explore. When that happened, I suddenly had a viable embryo, which grew into a novel called Rowing in Eden.

What are some of your favorite opening lines, either read or written?

 

A few notes: ROWING IN EDEN has just been reissued by Simon & Schuster in paperback and ebook. You can read a sample or order a copy via Amazon or B&N.

I teach fiction writing for Writers Digest University and in my own online school of writing, the Next Level Workshop. The workshops are small (eight students max), intense and, by my students’ accounts, effective. The next workshop will be  Revising Fiction, to be offered late in 2012. The best way of getting into any of my workshops is by getting on my e-mailing list, because when classes open for registration, the first announcement goes to those people. If you’d like to learn more or get on that list, please contact me.

Next week I have an interview with Mika Ashley Hollinger, an extraordinary writer whose first novel, 20 years in the making, was just published to great acclaim by Random House. Also coming soon: interviews with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon; e-book pioneer and publisher, Richard Curtis; and literary agent Catherine Drayton of Inkwell Management. Sign up for RSS feed or e-mail notification if you’d like to be sure of catching those.

Gail Hochman Interview, Part 2

Have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes in a literary agency? There’s not a lot of transparency in the business. Most agents erect high walls to protect themselves from constant interruption and to preserve their ability to actually do the work they’re hired to do. Many of the busiest agencies don’t even have websites. Clients have open channels of communication with their agents, but aspiring authors in search of an agent will never even get to speak to one until and unless an agent decides to offer representation. If none does, the writer may never even get a response to his query; and if he does, it’s usually a form rejection letter, very brief, with no real explanation.

What are literary agents looking for? Are they even reading the reams of submissions they receive? What makes them sit up and take notice, and what makes them stop reading? Today, in the second half of my interview with Gail Hochman, the veteran literary agent answers these questions and more. Gail speaks for herself alone, of course, and every agent is different. But she is one of the savviest agents I know, and one of the frankest. Gail is the president of Brandt & Hochman Literary Agency and longtime president of the Association of Authors Representatives (AAR.) Her clients include Scott Turow, Michael Cunningham, Julia Glass, Bob Shacochis, Ursula Hegi…and me.  You can read the first half of the interview here.

Barbara: What does a query letter have to do and be, to convince you to ask for pages?  

Gail: Good credits, maybe a connection to a contact or client or writer we respect; a good, succinct pitch of a novel that seems to have a “hook;” not an annoying personality or pushiness. A letter that is interesting to read means the writer might have something interesting in his ms.

How important is it for a fiction writer to have a platform?  

To me not at all, unless it is a nonfiction project that demands this kind of platform.

What credits do you consider worth mentioning in a query letter, apart from publishing credits? For example: membership in RWA or like organizations, writing groups, contests won, previous self-published work, college degree?

I think publishing credits, educational achievements, any awards, any interesting other career the writer may have or passionate hobby that is relevant and interesting. If the person sounds interesting and reasonable and the story sounds good, I might well ask to read.

If a writer has self-published previous work that has not sold well, does that hurt the writer’s prospects? What sort of sales figures would get your attention?

I really don’t care about other numbers or self-published books. But I don’t want to be asked to read and represent a self-published book for the commercial marketplace. To me—and this could be short-sighted, but I only have a 24-hour clock—if a book has been self-published, it has been “published.” I want to see new work.

Given the writers already on your list, what makes a first novel stand out enough for you to offer representation?  

Incredible voice, fresh idea, something that tugs at my heartstrings. If it is well written and makes me cry, that is the perfect formula!

What makes you stop reading?

If a book drags or gets redundant; if the pacing is so slow that nothing new happens chapter after chapter; if I lose sight of what I am reading to find out—then I have to stop.  An editor friend said once that he reads till he feels secure he is not going to buy this ms.  My husband put it clearly, some years ago when he saw my incredible  piles of reading.  “What is that book about?  Do you love it? Are you going to make the writer any money? Is it going to make you any money? Can you help the writer? Can the writer help you? No???  Then get it off the desk!”

Apart from the quality of the work itself, what other factors do you weigh in deciding whether to offer representation?

If I have met the writer and he seems helpful and mature; if my clients rave about the writer. If I sense a difficult personality, I may think long and hard before offering representation. But usually the book wins out, if I like it enough and have some good ideas for trying to sell it.

If an agent offers representation, what should writers ask before signing on?

The writer has to make sure that he understands and agrees with what the agent intends to do with the ms.  He also needs to know how the agent will communicate, and that the agent won’t dump the ms. on an assistant.  The author may have to sign an agency agreement, and for me (we don’t have agreements) this is an important moment. He should read and study the agreement and know just what he is getting into. I think the writer needs to know how he can get out of the agreement in a certain amount of time if things don’t go well.  Some contracts say that the agent is the agent of record and will take a commission on this book forever, in any form, in any deal, etc. The author may think hard before signing with that particular agent, might try to change some of the wording if he feels it is necessary. (Some excellent agents may require this; but some under-performing agents could also demand this, and in the latter case the author would not be well served.)  The client must understand what the commission situation is for all sorts of sales, and what other charges may be sent to him for payment.

What do most writers not understand about agents that you wish they did?

We are only people, mere mortals. The more we are in demand, the more we have to read, the more contracts we have to work on. We represent other people as well, and we have scores of people who are not yet clients sending us mss. We want to read your work fast, but there is only so much time in the day.

At times, agent and author disagree. I don’t know that the agent is always right, but there should be a calm way to discuss the situation. An unsold book is a distress to both parties, but there may be a moment when the agent thinks he has sent it out enough, and author may disagree.  Instead of playing the guilt card, both parties should try to find a way to talk through this.

The most important thing that I wish authors knew is that our day-to-day work lives have become incredibly more intense in this current difficult market. We work long hours, we try to make connections.  I feel very close to most of my mss but realize that the author feels even closer, more protective, more pro-active.

What happens when a book doesn’t sell?

There is a point, alas, when an unsold ms. is taking up much more of an agent’s time than it should be, and perhaps at this point the author should take over any submissions to small places.  When the author keeps pushing new small houses to send it to, the agent is in effect being asked to spend more and more time on an unsaleable ms. that will never pay the agent back for any of this time.  It is interesting also to know that sometimes  a tiny press contract is more difficult  to negotiate than a corporate contract, because the buyer is that much more stubborn, unknowing, maybe naïve. They may not do things in the standard way. Since the house is an unknown, we don’t want to let author sign a contract with clauses we’re uncomfortable with, because we don’t know how it would play out if we had a disagreement. And there may be a lawyer behind it all, or a university press board of some sort, so we actually work many more hours on a tiny deal from a tiny place, spending much more time than this contract is worth, because we don’t want the author to sign anything that could hurt him.  And remember, all we can offer in the first place is our time and expertise. When that time and expertise are taken up with work that really does not help anyone very much, it is frustrating . Some agents don’t want to spend the time to work through a self-publishing contract, though that may be something we all have to start doing.   We don’t want to complain to the client, whose work we really do support! It is the invisible use of our time that gets so frustrating—no one has yet invented the 28-hour clock, but that is the Xmas gift I hope to receive someday.

Having been in this industry for a couple of decades, what would you say are the most significant changes you’ve seen as they affect agents and their clients?

Just briefly—the technological revolution has changed everything. The internet as a place to promote and sell books, the digitization which allows for print on demand and self-publishing has opened up a huge new area. Anyone who wants to publish can now publish, can now promote, has a chance to find his own audience.  The big question people seem to ask is do we still need publishers, and I think resoundingly we do. But there are more options, and the conventional houses are harder to crack, and it seems everyone is writing and making multiple submissions, so we are all working longer hours than we ever bargained for, just to keep in place. Then, with all these properties out there in the marketplace, it may seem more difficult to distinguish your own amazing work to the buying public. I think this is a difficult time for an “Emily Dickinson” type of writer, who may be really talented but really retiring.

No doubt; but the upside, as Gail  points out, is that writers now have opportunities and tools they never had before.

Thank you, Gail!

A personal note: I have been blessed with several excellent agents in my career. Gail Hochman took over my representation several years ago and since then has not only sold my new book to Viking/Penguin, but also negotiated the reissuing of my backlist in ebook and paperback. SUSPICION and HINDSIGHT are now available in ebook and paperback; ROWING IN EDEN will be coming out on July 17, 2012. I’m quite proud of those books, and I hope you’ll give them a read. Click here for links to your bookseller of choice: Amazon; B&N; and Indiebound.


 

Interview with Viking Editor Tara Singh

Today I have a huge treat for you: an interview with Ms. Tara Singh, an editor with Viking/Penguin who, I’m delighted to say, is now my editor, having acquired my latest novel for publication in 2013. If you’ve ever wondered what editors are really looking for, what motivates them and how they choose their books, read on. Tara’s intelligence and passion for her work shine through her words.

Tara would like to point out that the opinions expressed below are her own and don’t represent Viking/Penguin.

And so, with no further ado, meet Tara Singh!

 

Tara, would you tell us a little about yourself, your interests, and how you achieved what many people would consider a dream job? What were the steps along the way?

I grew up outside of Chicago, the middle child to an Indian, Sikh father and an Italian/German, Catholic mother. They always stressed that education was the most important thing an individual could get, but they also envisioned my using that education in a very traditional way, i.e. to become a doctor or a lawyer. After a brief stint as an intern at a legal aid society during college, I quickly realized that career wasn’t for me. I thought long and hard about what I loved enough to actually build my life around. The obvious answer was books. I was actually first drawn to being  a literary agent, which I thought was the perfect job.

I interned at the Curtis Brown, Ltd. in New York the summer between my junior and senior years in college. After my senior year, I knew I wanted more life experience and so I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland where I was a bartender and tour guide. Before moving though, I contacted several publishing professionals through my college’s career network to discuss this step and whether it would take me “off course”. I was advised to keep my toe in the literary world and so I found an internship at Jenny Brown Associates, a literary agency in Edinburgh.

I returned to New York a year later, and year wiser. An internship at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates quickly turned into a full-time job, but after a year I couldn’t stop wondering what happened to our books after we sold them. I mean, what happened really. So I began looking for, and was lucky enough to land an editorial job working for Kathryn Court, President & Publisher of Penguin Books, and an excellent mentor. From my first week on the job, she had me edit behind her on books until I began acquiring my own. The rest is history.

What  drew you to publishing? (I’m guessing it’s not the big bucks.)

As I said, books, I decided, were what I wanted to build my life around. I must have read the Anne of Green Gables series five times throughout my childhood and I still try to reread them every five years or so. Anne Shirley, a fictional character, may have been one of the biggest influences on my young life. I know it may sound trite, but I believe that books change people’s lives, even if only for the short while they are reading them. Books can be an escape and a refuge and I believe in the mission of Penguin and of other publishers: to publish the best books that we can, to entertain and to educate.

What do you like best about your job?

My absolute favorite part of my job is that moment, when reading a submission, that I realize that I have something good. And then, the moment after I’ve finished that submission and it delivered. It feels like a gift. A close second are the people. Publishing attracts intelligent and interesting people and editorial is by necessity a social job. Consequently I have been lucky enough to meet many fascinating people, many of whom have become friends.

What do you find most frustrating?

 

The work can sometimes feel never ending. You have to keep reading or else you might miss the next big thing. You have to keep editing because you have to get out your books for the next list, and then the next list, and then the next list. The cyclical nature of publishing can be a comfort because the type of work that you do doesn’t necessarily change that much, but it can also make it feel as though you are constantly racing ahead.

What qualities does a good editor need?

A good editor must be decisive, discerning and a fast reader. He or she must be able to articulate what it is that he loves about a book and to get other people excited about it. Even if you are the best line-by-line editor in the world, it won’t necessarily do you much good unless you can convince sales and marketing and the big bosses that your book is unique and exciting and worth the time and energy that would otherwise be spent on other books.

Have you ever had a writer disagree fundamentally with your edit, or agree with it but be unable to execute? How would you deal with such situations?

I’ve never had a writer disagree fundamentally with my edit. I have, however, had writers disagree with some of my specific situations. When that happens I like to have a conversation with the author to discuss my reasons for suggesting the edit and her reasons for rejecting the edit. Depending on each of our reasons I will either concede the point because it is very important to the author or we will find a compromise. Rarely have I had an author take all of my edits wholesale; there is a lot of give and take.

In the rare cases when a writer really can’t execute what he or she has promised or needs to do, then a book contract can be cancelled. But that is very rare and I think is likely more common with non-fiction, which is bought based on just a proposal. This is why editors dislike when agents submit only partial manuscripts. It is impossible to know, no matter how promising the partial manuscript is, whether or not it will deliver in the end. This is also why editors prefer for the option language in a contract to provide for an entire manuscript. It is very difficult to acquire a book without reading it first!

The submissions you receive come through agents who think they might interest you. What portion of those submissions will result in an offer?

Figure that an editor receives between five and ten submissions a week, that’s somewhere between 250 and 500 submissions a year (not counting a couple of weeks for holidays) and most editors, I would think have between nine and twelve books a year, so that’s between one out of thirty or so submissions and one out of fifty or so submissions.

What makes a novel stand out for you?

A novel in which the author has created dynamic, three-dimensional characters and then makes them interact in interesting and often unexpected ways. Many of the novels that are turned down have great premises, but the characters are flat on the page, which really turns a reader off. I think it’s the characters more than anything that make a novel relatable.

What makes you stop reading?

Typos. If there are multiple typos within the first few pages of a submission, I am much less inclined to read further. Also rants. Thankfully material that comes from agent is usually devoid of these two things, but sometimes you would be surprised. Also as an editor I’m often reading the unagented manuscript of a relative’s friend or the friend of a friend and those are the first things that will make me put it down.

Are you ever swayed by cupcakes?

While I love cupcakes, no, they’ve never changed my mind about whether or not to take on a book. Unfortunately, when acquiring a book there is more at stake than cupcakes. That said, if an author sent me cupcakes after I had acquired his/her book that might make me want to work even harder for him/her. I think that authors may sometimes forget that their editor is also their number one advocate in the house and that we are on the same team. Being nice and cooperative can go a long way towards influencing your editor to go the extra mile for you.

How important to you in taking on a new fiction writer is the writer’s “platform?

A platform is always enormously helpful. If a writer has a platform, it also usually means that he or she has been honing his craft for years and submitting short stories places, networking with other writers and is often therefore producing better work. That isn’t always the case, but it is true enough that when reading the bio on a submission I will take it more seriously if the author has been published in a few small places and/or otherwise proven that he is working on his craft.

Are there particular genres or subgenres that you currently seek out or avoid?

I wouldn’t say that I am ever avoiding certain genres. If a book is good, I will always want to publish it. If it has an excellent plot and incredible characters, I’ll find a way to make the genre work. I do sometimes look for certain types of books. As a young editor I am trying to acquire across a broad range of genres rather than limiting myself. Right now I am really looking for some good narrative or prescriptive nonfiction.

If a writer self-published previous work and didn’t sell thousands of copies, would that factor into your decision about a new novel that you liked? What sort of sales figures would impress you?

If the new novel was really good, it wouldn’t matter that much to me. I think being self-published and not selling a lot of books matters less, actually, than being published by a publisher, particularly one of the big six, and then not selling a lot of books. I think if a self-published book had sold twenty thousand copies I would be impressed.

What are the most important things writers can do to help themselves get published?

I think the most important thing a writer can do is to write a really good book. This may not be a very helpful answer, but it really is the most important thing. Have others read your work, go to writers workshops, put it away and come back to it if you need to, but make it good.

Beyond that, I do think that publishers are paying much more attention to whether or not an author has an online presence. Is he or she active on facebook? Does he or she have thousands of twitter followers? That said, most writers won’t have that and I think that if you spend your time worrying about creating an amazing online presence rather than writing a really good book, you’d be spending your time poorly. Without a good book, the great online presence isn’t going to get you anywhere in terms of getting published. If an editor is on the fence about a book, however, and the author has five thousand twitter followers, that could really make a difference. Along the lines of getting a platform, I would also encourage writers to try and get published in literary journals and to get their writing chops, if they can.

Thanks, Tara!

 

So now, dear readers, you’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth. And I hope you’ve noticed that the horse in question is charming, modest and as great a book lover as anyone reading these pages. Next time some self-publishing zealot characterizes mainstream publishers as evil vampires intent on sucking the ink out of writers, send them over here for a corrective.  In fact, I’d be pleased if you’d share this interview with all sorts of writers. Tara says she speaks only for herself, but in my experience she represents precisely the sort of person drawn to this industry.

Questions and comments welcome. Maybe Tara herself will jump in to respond to some—who knows? At worst you get me.

 Coming up soon: interviews with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon and leading literary agent Gail Hochman.  Sign up for email notification or the RSS feed so as not to miss these.

QUERY LETTER DO’S AND DON’T’S

 

Coming soon: interviews with Viking editor Tara Singh, top agent Gail Hochman, and bestselling author Diana Gabaldon. Sign up for the RSS or email feed so you won’t miss these!

 

At a certain point, after you’ve written a novel, edited it, maybe shared it with beta readers, there’s nothing left to do but to seek publication. These days there are two parallel but unequal publishing worlds: mainstream publishing  and self-publishing. My advice to aspiring novelists, explained in an earlier post, is to try for the big leagues first. Since most mainstream novels in the U.S. are sold through literary agents, your first task will be to find an agent to represent you.

Easier said than done, of course. It’s a tortuous process, and one that tests the writer’s reserves of perseverance and self-confidence.  When I was an agent, I took on two or three new clients a year at best, out of hundreds of submissions.  Nowadays, since the advent of e-queries, agents are even more swamped, to the point that many no longer respond even to say “Thanks, but no thanks.” Writers who do receive written rejections rarely get a reason or explanation of where they fell short, so it’s not surprising that many writers feel their work is not even being read or considered.

But it is.

True, there are some agents who’ve closed their lists, and others who accept only referrals from established clients or other professionals, but they are the minority. Most agents are still doing what they’ve always done: searching for that needle in the haystack, a publishable book they’d feel proud to represent. Consider the recent experience of one former student, whose first novel was just published by Random House. When she started searching for an agent, she had no prior publications, no platform, nothing to tempt an agent but a first-rate  novel; and she received offers from four or five excellent agents, all of whom she queried cold. How does that happen, if they’re not reading?

So how do you get an agent? If you look only at the numbers, it’s a daunting task. Agents can only handle so many books, and their first obligation is to existing clients. They might add a new writer or two to their lists, maybe three or four in a good year. What are the odds they’ll  pick yours?

Luckily, it’s not a lottery. Leaving aside celebrities and politicians, publishing is one of the few remaining meritocracies. Yes, agents get thousands of submissions a year…but the vast majority of those are complete non-starters. Unless you’ve read through an agents’ slush pile, you can’t imagine how depressingly bad most of them are. That’s why agents always warn their assistants, (who are the first to cull the slush pile)  to beware of Standards Creep. After reading reams of awful stuff, mediocre work looks great in comparison.

If you’re a good writer, a serious writer who cares about both craft and story, your writing’s going to shine in that haystack.

With a strong query letter and a well-written novel, you propel yourself into the much smaller pool of contenders. The query letter is key. With submissions flooding in, agents must be struck by that first letter or they will go no further. The goal of the query letter is to get agents interested enough to read pages; then it’s up to the work to speak for itself, which is all we can ask.

To that end, here’s a list of do’s and don’t’s based on the decade +  I spent as a literary agent.

DO:
BE BRIEF. A query letter should be one page long, single-spaced. If you have a lot of credentials, maybe a page and a half—no longer. Agents regard the query letter as the first test of the writer’s ability to write economically and effectively. And since they (or their assistants) read hundreds of these a month, they appreciate brevity

GIVE YOUR PUBLISHING CREDITS. Even if they’re far afield from the novel, having been published suggests that at the very least you’re literate, which not all applicants are. If you have none, not to worry: there’s nothing agents love more than discovering great unknown writers.

MENTION YOUR PROFESSION or other life experience only if it’s relevant to the book: if, for example, you’re a lawyer who’s written a courtroom drama, a cop who’s written a gritty crime novel, or a call girl who’s written about politicians she has known.

INCLUDE A SHORT SUMMARY of your story, just a paragraph or two, including genre. If you can write a good hook of one or two sentences, do that. Give readers a sense of where and when your story’s set, what makes your protagonist interesting and novel-worthy, and what great challenge or peril he faces.

GIVE A WORD COUNT. (“Complete at ——— words.”) If your novel’s not complete and edited, you shouldn’t be submitting. One of the most common mistakes of aspiring writers is submitting a draft or two too soon.

TELL WHY YOU’RE SUBMITTING to that particular agent. This is essential, and too few writers do it. The best possible reason, the one that will move you to the top of the pile, is that you’ve been referred to them by a client or publishing professional. If you’re not that lucky, there should be another reason you can cite, because there should be a reason for every agent on your list. (See WRITERS’ RESOURCES for links to help create that list.) . Giving a reason means you’ve done your homework and are unlikely to waste their time.

STRIKE THE RIGHT TONE:  respectful but not obsequious, confident but not boastful, businesslike in that it is short and to the point, but conveying a sense of the person who wrote it.

ENCLOSE AN SASE if querying by snail mail.

INCLUDE THE FIRST FEW PAGES. This is a bit controversial, because not all agents ask for pages and some get huffy if you don’t follow instructions.  But I advise it anyway, because when I was an agent, if a query letter intrigued me, I’d always read a few pages; and if I liked them, I’d ask for the whole manuscript. It’s a matter of striking while the iron’s hot.

 

DON’T:

DON’T PRAISE YOUR OWN WORK, and don’t play the huckster. I can’t tell you how many letters I received as an agent informing me that I’m going to love the enclosed because it’s thrilling, heartwarming, beautifully written, and more commercial than [insert name of bestselling author.] Those letters would be passed around the office for a laugh. I do understand how it happens. Writers are told they need to sell themselves, and many misunderstand that to mean they need to hype themselves and their novel like TV gadget salesmen. More experienced writers understand that the work must speak for itself. The only acceptable comparison to other writers is in terms of the market your novel seeks to address, as in “This book, with its strong female sleuth, will appeal to readers of Sara Paretsky.”

DON’T CALL YOUR NOVEL “LITERARY FICTION.” Its literary quality is for others to judge, and anyway, in publishing lingo, the term is a synonym for “Won’t sell above 5000 copies.” Call it mainstream.

DON’T STALK.  Some writers—not you, of course, but some writers—get obsessed with the hunt. Don’t send cupcakes or haunt the agent’s lobby or trap her in elevators. Don’t jump out at her from behind trees. Until you’re a client,  don’t call her office. Use mail or email.

DON’T ADDRESS YOUR LETTER “Dear Agent.” Anything that looks like a mass mailing will get tossed. (Likewise “Dear Jane” letters: if you don’t know the agent, don’t  call her by her first name until she calls you by yours.)

DON’T MAKE GRAMMATICAL OR SPELLING MISTAKES. If you can’t write a proper letter, agents will assume you can’t write a book, either.

DON’T SUMMARIZE THE WHOLE STORY. Summaries are inherently flat. Four or five sentences is the outermost limit of the average literary agent’s attention span.

DON’T MENTION SELF-PUBLISHED WORK as publishing credits unless you have large, verifiable sales numbers.

DON’T GET EMOTIONAL. Agents don’t need to hear that you’ve always wanted to be a writer or that you spent ten years writing this book and plan to shoot yourself if it doesn’t sell. They probably have enough neurotic clients already.

DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. It’s never pleasant to be turned down, but it comes with the territory. Writing is a tough business; if you’re in it for the long haul, you’ll need to develop thick skin and fanatical perseverance. When you do get turned down, bear in mind that an agent’s decision is based on many factors that are totally beyond both his and your control, including the state of the market. The right fit is also a factor; just as you need an agent who genuinely loves your work, so do agents need writers they can feel passionate about.

There’s also, always, the possibility that your work is not yet where it needs to be. But don’t rush to that conclusion after just a handful of rejections, because that’s only to be expected. Not every book speaks to every reader. There are plenty of other agents out there, and it’s good to remember that they’re as eager to find terrific new writers as writers are to find them.

If, however, you’ve been turned down by dozens of agents, it’s appropriate to consider whether the novel might not need an overhaul. At that point you might benefit from a professional evaluation or a rigorous writing class. I’ve linked to services and courses I offer, but there are many other options open to serious students of writing. Scroll down this page for a list of criteria to consider in choosing an editor or writing teacher.

Please feel free to comment! I’d love to hear about your perspectives on querying and the whole agent search; I also welcome follow-up questions and will expand on these notes at the slightest provocation.