Monday, July 06, 2009

Amazon Names Best Books for the First Half of 2009

(From Publishers Marketplace)

Not waiting for the end-of-year list season, Amazon is highlight an eclectic selection of their "best books of far." The Top 10 overall comprise:

Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Fordlandia by Greg Grandin
The City & The City by China Mieville
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
The Gamble by Thomas Ricks
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
and even Starbucks pick Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad, and one-time Borders "make book" The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Separate lists offer top tens for fiction, nonfiction, children's and "hidden gems." And each list appends 5 forthcoming fall favorites, including:


Evil at Heart by Chelsea Cain
Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan
American on Purpose by Craig Ferguson
Hope for Animals and Their World by Jane Goodall
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser
The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons

Best of 2009 so far

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Backspace November conference


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sales resource for self-published writers

I can't vouch for this service, but it is new, and it is free--which means that if you have a self-published book, you have little to lose. Basically the site is a database that gathers information on your book and its sales record. The idea is that traditional publishers seeking to buy the rights to a "proven" title (i.e., they don't need to invest as much money in creating a buzz) can search the database, find your book, and make an offer to you for the rights.

From their website:

The Publetariat Vault provides a new kind of service to self-published authors: the opportunity to get your indie book in front of the publishers and producers who are seeking proven books for low-risk acquisitions. Publishers can:

  • Find independent literary material that is already proven in the marketplace

  • See actual sales data, and know if the work already has traction

  • See reader reviews from bookseller sites, reader communities like Goodreads, blogs and elsewhere

  • Search by genre, topic, keyword, recommended reading level and more to find the kind of content you want to acquire

  • See author platform pieces, buzz, publicity and more, and know if the author will be an active partner in promotion
  • Thursday, June 04, 2009

    Write pathetically

    When I think about writing, I usually think about it in terms of the hale Aristotelian triad of pathos-logos-ethos (I blogged about this a little while ago). In other words, writing that works well appeals to your audience’s hearts, minds, and sensibility. When we care about a character, that means the writer has done a good job with writing pathos into the scene. Which means that the most exciting battle scene in the world will never be a good one if every character in it remains anonymous.

    This also means that the most important element in the opening pages of a novel is not really action, then, but character. A character gives meaning to the actions on the page. For instance, how much do we care about a child throwing a tantrum in the cereal aisle? How much more do we care if that scene is told from the mother’s point of view, when the tantrum is interspersed with someone telling her that she’s a crappy mom? As always, it depends on the writing, but the second situation would compel me to read on at least a bit further. I’d want to know how the mother responded, both to the tantrum and the criticism.

    This is why good action scenes begin with attention to people–to point of view, character, and the who-what-how-and-why of a given person’s response to a situation. So I guess you could say that good writing is pathethic writing.

    Monday, June 01, 2009

    What I learned at the conference will help you: Part I

    I already knew, but had to learn again, that agents are humans. They are humans with overtaxed brains who get anywhere from 50 to 700 queries per week, who buy iPhones so that they can read your letter in subway on their way home, after spending 10-12 hours on everything else that agents have to do.

    Therefore, if you plan to find an agent rather than self-publish your work, your query letter better sing. You already know that. You'd also better research the agent on and, so that you can find someone who is right for your work, and mention their work in your letter. Don't take shortcuts here, any more than you would stick any old key in the ignition of your car. Only one key is a useful fit.

    • Actually read the books you mention in the letter. One agent said she received a query from a writer that referenced a book that was not due to be released until next spring. Oops.
    • Follow the query formula: start with a concise opening that contains title, genre (i.e., where your book would be shelved at the store), and word count. Follow with a three-paragraph pitch that covers character, problem, and story question. Conclude with a bio.
    • "Lead with your best," said Jennifer DeChiara. If your work has won awards or been published in The New Yorker, go ahead and put it in the first line.
    • Proofread. Every last period should be perfect.
    • Use the agent's name in the salutation, and spell it correctly.
    • E-query a slew of agents at once and put them all in the "To" field. Agents know one another, and will ignore your letter but exchange amused e-mails among themselves all day.
    • Requery an agent, even if you have revised (unless the agent specifically invites you to in his or her rejection letter). Jenny Bent was the only agent who confessed to having a short term memory about these things.
    • Send cover art for your book with the letter, even if you are a graphic designer.
    • Tell any kind of lie or exaggeration in any shape or form in your letter. As Colleen Lindsay said, "We will Google the heck out of you." If you get caught in a lie, you're out.
    • Ignore submission guidelines.
    The conference was fascinating, and I will post again in the coming days about how to make your publicity efforts sing, how the old stigma on self-publishing has finally worn off, what changes will improve your query and first manuscript pages the most, and more.

    Sunday, March 22, 2009

    200 words the English language can do without...

    ...according to the UK's Local Government Association. I don't see these in literary writing, but I see them all the time in e-mails, and hear otherwise bright people use them when they feel the need to sound more type-A. Next time you hear "going forward" and "facilitate" and "outcome" coming out of your mouth, brush your teeth and say ten Hail George Orwells.

    Tuesday, March 17, 2009

    Beware of spam

    APB to writers: I just got this bit of spam in my inbox today. No, Dr. Michael J. Duckett is not interested in your book. I know, because wherever he got my business e-mail address, it had nothing to do with my personal writing. Save yourself time and money, and just hit DELETE.


    Dear Author: [Flag #1, impersonal solicitation]

    We are interested to speak with you about the possibility of publishing or distributing your book.

    Only a select number of authors are called upon [Flag #2, publishers don't solicit authors in such a vague way] each year to submit their work for Hyper Publishing Company's consideration. Your book has been recently brought to our attention and we would like to open a discussion for publication or distribution of this work.

    Please click here for submission guidelines or go directly to our website and click on the Submission link.

    You have ten days to complete the submission package and mail to our office. [Flag #3 with fireworks, an "Act now!" offer.]

    We look forward to receiving your submission package and communicating with you in the near future.

    Sincerely Yours,
    Dr. Michael J. Duckett
    President/CEO [Flag #4, this is a businessman asking you. Not an editor or an agent. He's probably the CFO, board president, secretary, janitor, and pizza boy, too.]
    Hyper Publishing Company

    Top 10 errors you can fix in your own manuscript in 10 minutes or less...

    ...and not make your editor regret drinking that third cup of coffee, because her nerves are getting seriously frayed.

    Microsoft Word's find-and-replace feature is a writer's friend. Find it under the Edit menu, as "Replace..." or just hit Control-F and click on the "Replace" tab. At the bottom of the window you'll see a button to expand the window and view advanced features, which will help you make global changes with one click of the mouse.

    Searching for these top 10 errors will save me time (and therefore, you money) as I edit your manuscript for publication or review by a literary agent.

    1. Misplaced periods and commas around dialogue. EXAMPLE: ...third cup of coffee". OR ...third cup of coffee",

    2. Unnecessarily capitalizing dialogue tags. EXAMPLE ...third cup of coffee," She said.

    3. You only need one space between sentences. Yep, it's true. Believe me, or else believe the Chicago Manual of Style.

    4. Don't use hyphens instead of dashes. EXAMPLE: I wonder- and it's pure speculation... OR: I wonder - and it's pure speculation... The correct dash is an em-dash—and it looks like that. You'll find it under the "special characters" menu in the "replace" menu.

    5. Rampant ellipses. An ellipsis is three dots only. It is a punctuation mark used only to indicate an incomplete sentence, not to indicate a pause, and certainly not to mark the length a pause by the number of dots. EXAMPLE: She paused... and said... OR She paused for a really long time............ and said...

    6. Common misspellings. EXAMPLE: waive instead of wave, pubic instead of public, lead instead of led (past tense of to lead). Or whatever your own favorite misspellings are.

    7. Its vs. it's. EXAMPLE: Its mine. OR Wash it's fur. Both of these examples are wrong. It's is a contraction of it is, and if you take two seconds and mentally substitute it is in your sentence, you will know which one to use. Run a search on both, and double-check.

    8. Other common usage errors. EXAMPLE: everyday instead of every day (everyday is an adjective only, like "my everyday shoes"), for awhile instead of for a while, peeked instead of piqued (you peek with your eyes, feel piqued when you're tired, and have your interest piqued).

    9. Double periods and commas. EXAMPLE: He told me.. OR Slowly,, he told me.

    10. Wild card. If you've been writing long enough to finish a draft of something, you know what errors you make. Always double check for missing words and your own favorite misspellings before sending out the draft.

    You'll always miss something. That's human. But be a professional and make a reasonable attempt to send a clean draft.

    Sunday, February 22, 2009

    Writers Conference in May

    I just registered for the Backspace Writers Conference on May 28-30 in New York City, and especially look forward to its intensive pitch and query workshops. At the helm are top literary agents and publicists, and I can't wait to bring all that knowledge home to my clients.

    Not least of all I hope to find a home for my own manuscript. If you're a writer with a polished book, there is no better place to meet agents, editors, and authors. The pros go to cons to meet new talent. Understandably, that attitude is a far sight more receptive than what the weekly stack of queries gets.

    Conferences are expensive, but a deal for what you get--even if you don't go home with a contract (or a hangover).

    Tuesday, January 27, 2009

    How to plot a novel

    Part of my job is helping writers find plot; the other part of it is creating one myself. Since finishing my own novel this year I have had many conversations about choosing and building plots that work, and while I claim no absolutes, I thought some readers of this blog might find the bare bones of this conversation helpful.

    1. Start with story arc. Aristotle says you need a beginning, middle, and end. He even gives us a helpful arc to visualize the escalation of events through those three phases to a climax. (And if you are wondering what the little boxes are, we'll cover that in Step 5.)

    2. Decide on your theme. A professor once pointed out that Aristotle's arc looks like the top of a fish; the fish's back should represent what happens, and its belly should represent theme. Theme is not a synonym for moral. It's more like an open question. It evolves in parallel to the plot, under the surface of the story. The beginning events introduce the idea. The middle tests the idea in multiple ways. The end should demonstrate the idea's truth or falseness.

    3. Get ready for an art project. OK great. Get your materials. Butcher paper, pen, marker, index cards or stickies.

    4. Draw the fish on the butcher paper. Divide it in three and label it, as in the picture. You should have a big empty length of paper that looks like the image in Step 2.

    5. Gather your scenes. If you've been wondering what the little boxes were in the first two pictures, they're your scenes. Whether you're starting the novel from scratch or revising what you already have, you need a way to see what you've got (if you are a visual thinker like me). On your index cards or stickies, write down every scene you have, need, or think you need to show a logical escalation of events. All the events should be relevant to your theme.

    6. Organize your scenes. When you have all your cards, start organizing them along an escalating series of causes and effects. Start thinking about what might fall into a chapter together. Think of chapters as mini-arcs, each with a beginning, middle, and end. Your butcher paper will be covered in cards and very messy, but it will slowly start to look like this.

    7. Expect to think hard. Expect your head to hurt. Expect this to take a few weeks. Be logical and patient, even if you are temperamental and emotional at heart, like me. Trust that when you finish organizing all the cards, you will have planned a whole NOVEL. When you're done, the plot will look like this. (The green stickies are chapter summaries. The blue stickies are the spots I know are still a little problematic, but I'll solve them either while I'm writing the synopsis, or when I am actually writing the novel.)

    8. Synopsis first, novel second. If you're wondering if you read that correctly, you did: Write the synopsis before you write the novel. Translate your work into narrative--about 10 pages double-spaced explaining what happens. You should start to feel the energy of story as you write; related events progress, and in doing so, indicate the theme. It should feel interesting and engaging, like a little story unto itself. Again, take your time. Work on it every day for a week or two. Share it with a trusted reader when you're done, invite his or her questions, and revise for clarity.

    9. Begin. Open a blank Word document. Start writing your novel. Work on it every day.

    Thursday, January 01, 2009

    Writing and books in 2009

    I am cat-sitting for a friend. Today, when the litter box was scooped and the water replaced and the kibble dispensed, as is my wont, I inspected the bookshelf. I am always curious what books people buy and keep. On this particular Ikea BILLY system there were bike maintenance guides, a guide for homeopathic medicine, a guide for feeding your pet a natural diet, and a guide, even, for getting it on--next to a guide for healing a broken heart. The collection reminded me of my penchant, when I am in an especially bleak mood, for Googling "why am i here?" Somewhere among those 330,000,000 hits there ought to be an answer.

    As I scanned the titles, I looked for the novels. Which stories were worth keeping, dog-earing, sharing, re-reading? I have so many fond piles around my office--Alice Munro, Philip Pullman, Ursula Le Guin, Madeleine L'Engle, John Irving--most of which I have not read for years but cannot bear to resell. Most of my friends keep similar piles. But for whatever reason, I discovered that my cat-owning friend buys only nonfiction. How-to books. That makes her a pretty good representative of the average bookbuyer, and the publishing industry's buying trend.

    After all, nonfiction is easier to sell than fiction. You buy it, knowing what you need and what you're getting. Novels, however, ask the reader to make an uncomfortable first step--onto an invisible bridge over a chasm. The bridge crosses into an unknown place, where single words can yawn with mystery. The road leads you through familiar cities that are suddenly strange, and you find yourself wearing a stranger's skin as easily as your own. If you are a publisher, it's difficult to trust a busy, over-scheduled, fatigued, generally worried population of book-buyers to go cavorting around in somebody else's skin at the end of a long day. But there will always be many among them who need a book about plumbing repair, about naturopathy, about bike maintenance, about getting it on.

    Since October, book professionals have seen too much bad news: the firing and departure of senior editors, acquisition freezes, bookstore closures, and a cascade of other losses. This news falls on top of more of the same; a dwindling number of book reviews in newspapers, an industry model that does not encourage writers' creative risk, ingenuity, or long-term success. So. If you are a practical writer, you will now sweep your novel-in-progress off to a corner of your hard drive and start afresh, "writing what you know," literally, and as instructively as possible. Slap "How to" in front of your subject matter, and dash off a proposal to your agent. How expedient of you.

    How depressing. I'll make you a deal. If you keep writing your novel, I will keep working on mine.

    The good news for both of us is: you are. Last year was the busiest year of my editing business, and I read e-mails from clients every day who are finishing novels and beginning new ones, and who can recommend a dozen brilliant novels for me as fast as I can say "Roget's." You all inspire me. You remind me every day that we are human and that good stories feed us, and that good food is abundant. So, in 2009, let's step onto that invisible bridge and do cartwheels on it.

    And on my friend's kitchen counter, where I will leave her key and a welcome-home note this afternoon, I will also leave a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita--the best cat novel I own.