The American Short Story

By Midge Raymond,

In today’s New York Times Book Review, Stephen King writes that while the American short story may still be alive, it is most certainly not well.

As editor for the 2007 edition of The Best American Short Stories, King read hundreds of stories, finding that while some were very good, and some even great, most seemed to have been written for a shrinking audience of editors and teachers rather than for “real readers.” He writes, “And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next … It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.”

He includes a sadly funny scene describing his attempt to find literary magazines at his local bookstore, where he is on the ground looking at the very lowest shelves, hoping “the young woman looking at Modern Bride won’t think I’m trying to look up her skirt.”

It’s a sad and distrubing essay, mostly because he’s exactly right about the state of the audience for short stories. But I also found it inspiring, and on these points, I think he’s exactly right, too: “I look for stories that care about my feelings as well as my intellect … What I want to start with is something that comes at me full-bore, like a big, hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky. I want the ancient pleasure that probably goes back to the cave: to be blown clean out of myself for a while, as violently as a fighter pilot who pushes the eject button in his F-111. I certainly don’t want some fraidy-cat’s writing school imitation of Faulkner, or some stream-of-consciousness about what Bob Dylan once called ‘the true meaning of a pear.'”

King writes of the short story’s status, “Current condition stable, but apt to deteriorate in the years ahead.” This is where I hope he’s wrong.



Bothered by bad “punctuation”?

By Midge Raymond,

I just came across a hiliarious blog about unnecessary quotation marks on signs and other printed matter. In a way, I admire it (someone else gets as irritated as I do by bad punctuation!), and on the other hand, it’s a little frightening (no one should care this much about bad punctuation, including me).

But it’s pretty funny … and it makes clear that the owners of these signs should be concerned about more than bad punctuation. Does anyone really want to eat at a restaurant whose sign reads Open Upstairs for “Lunch” and “Dinner”? And who’s going to take seriously a sign that reads The Use, Possession and Sale of Drugs in Mexico Is Prohibited by “Law”?

If in the course of your lives you see any signs that warrant ridicule on this blog, you can photograph them and make submissions of your own. (Just in case reading the blog alone isn’t enough procrastination for us writers.)



Good-bye (or goodbye?) to the Hyphen

By Midge Raymond,

For all you Anglophile wordsmiths out there, check out this Reuters arcticle about the disappearance of hyphens from 16,000 words in the new Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

The editor of the Shorter OED, Angus Stevenson, says that the hyphen has become “messy looking” and “old-fashioned” — but actually, looks played a rather small role; the staff omitted said hyphens only after “exhaustive research.” Most hyphens were dropped from compound nouns, though Stevenson does concede that they found many instances in which hyphens are still necessary.

Formerly hyphenated words were either split into two or combined into one (in most cases, what most American writers and editors are already used to). A few examples:

fig-leaf = fig leaf

ice-cream = ice cream

test-tube = test tube

water-bed = water bed

bumble-bee = bumblebee

cry-baby = crybaby

low-life = lowlife



Writers, Be Aware

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s San Diego Union-Tribune features a story about the perils of self-publishing, this time focusing on a local publisher, Ed Johnson, whose second company has just collapsed after taking thousands of dollars from hopeful writers.

This story offers some good insight into vanity presses, toward which many writers are increasingly turning in their efforts to get published. While Johnson told the U-T that he simply went out of business, the article quotes a former employee of Johnson’s company, who said that to Johnson, the authors were “just a source of income,” and that she was instructed to tell authors who called that he was “on the other side of the building” to make it seem as if he ran a large publishing business. In reality, the “publishing house” was a one-room office in a converted motel.

Unfortunately, the stories of these would-be authors are not unusual: In these cases, they paid from $2,500 to $5,700 and never received the books they envisioned, let alone the publicity and marketing they expected. One customer did receive one copy of a “finished book” — in a spiral binder. Most received nothing at all.

The article quotes Victoria Strauss of the excellent resource Writer Beware, which aims to educate writers about the “enormous shadow industry of scammers and amateurs who prey on aspiring writers, who divert people from the real publishing industry into this shadow world of vanity publishing and fee-charging agents.”

This article is a must-read for any writer thinking about self-publishing, but writers should also keep in mind that self-publishing doesn’t have to be the nightmare that this story portrays. Publishing one’s own book can be a good choice for those with a platform and marketing savvy, those who can afford the investment, and those who realize that self-publishing is simply a matter of printing. Writers who want editing, design, publicity, distribution, and book reviews (not to mention an advance and royalties) need to find an agent and go the traditional route.



Jane Austen’s Recent Rejections

By Midge Raymond,

An AFP story offers some interesting insight into the publishing industry: The head of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, David Lassman, sent slightly disguised versions of several Jane Austen novels to eighteen editors. Not only was he rejected by all of them, but only one publisher recognized Austen’s work (in a submission that included the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice).

This says a lot about the editors who are the gatekeepers to modern literature. Among the major publishers to which these manuscripts were sent was Penguin, whose response, according to the article, was that the submission “seems like a really original and interesting read.”

Alex Bowler of Jonathan Cape, the only editor who caught on, responded, “I suggest you reach for your copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ which I’d guess lives in close proximity to your typewriter, and make sure that your opening pages don’t too closely mimic that book’s opening.”

It’s a depressing story, but if there’s some hope in it, it’s the knowledge that even Jane Austen would have a tough time getting published today (a Penguin spokesperson told AFP that the thinly disguised Pride and Prejudice manuscript “would not have been read”). Which brings me back to the same old lesson: Don’t give up.



What’s in a Font?

By Midge Raymond,

I just came across an article in Slate featuring a few good authors and their favorite fonts, which, interestingly, is something that they’ve really put some thought into.

The featured writers express an overwhelming fondness for Courier (thanks to memories of childhood and writing on typewriters). Of the writers listed here, none uses my own font of choice (Times New Roman), though Anne Fadiman writes “in an aggressively foursquare version of Times Roman” and Maile Malloy uses Times for “the look of honesty about it, no stretching or stuffing of page lengths.”

I have to admit that this little piece has made me think more about fonts than I (or any writer) should. We simply need to write. As Andrew Vachss (who uses Courier, by the way) points out, “the writing has to stand (or not) on its own.”



Library Thing

By Midge Raymond,

For those of you book lovers who want to see what others are reading — and to share your own virtual libraries as well — check out Library Thing, where you can list or “shelve” your favorite books, start a blog, read and post reviews — and basically immerse yourself among other book lovers in titles cagalogued from Amazon, the Library of Congress, and 70 other world libraries.

Begun in May of last year, Library Thing joins the growing list of networking sites that connect people based on the books they love. You can hold up to 200 books in your library at no cost, and paid memberships are $10 a year, $25 for life.

Plus, Library Thing is working with Random House to offer free galleys in exchange for reviews from members (with plans to expand to other publishers in the fall), another step toward what many publishers are now trying as a way to promote books through “real” readers in addition to traditional book reviewers.



Two More American Idols

By Midge Raymond,

Gather.com has just announced the winners of its First Chapters writing competition, which I wrote about back in January, in which readers vote on the first, second, and third chapters of an unpublished novel — to many, a strange and unconventional way both to run a contest and acquire a book. But now it has produced results: a winner and a runner-up, both unagented and unpublished writers who now have both cash and contracts.

It’s fun to see that the contest succeeded, with 2,676 submissions and the awarding of not just one but two contracts. According to the press release, inner Terry Shaw’s novel, The Way Life Should Be, is a mystery about a modern-day newspaper editor who investigates his best friend’s death in coastal Maine, and runner-up Geoffrey Edward’s novel, Fire Bell in the Night, is a historical thriller set in the antebellum south. The books, to be published this year by Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint, are set to receive addional publicity from Borders.

It’ll be very interesting to see where this new trend leads and how it changes publishing. but most of all, the contest should restore hope for writers who may be daunted by the seemingly impenetrable publishing industry.



Farewell to Miss Snark

By Midge Raymond,

We were out of town for a week and missed the big news of Miss Snark‘s retirement. Anyone who has read her blog knows that this is terribly sad news … the only good news (aside from the fact that she is alive, well, and retiring only her blog) is that she will maintain the archives for anyone looking for information about agenting and publishing, as well as gin and George Clooney. On behalf of Metro Writing and all writers, we thank her for all that she’s done to demystify a very confusing industry in a most human way.

For fans, there’s a lovely tribute to Miss Snark on YouTube. Enjoy.



“A Million Little Refunds”

By Midge Raymond,

James Frey and his publisher, Random House, agreed to refund up to $2.35 million to readers who felt misled by Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces (see today’s LA Times), in response to several lawsuits filed by readers.

This might be more comforting if it weren’t for the fact that both author and publisher continue to deny any wrongdoing, despite the fact that Frey admitted to both inventing and embellishing aspects of his “memoir.”

Still, it’s a start, and though it’s always a pain to return things, I hope readers do so out of principle. If you are one of these defrauded readers, you have until October 1 to file for a refund — visit the Random House web site for full details.



The Mystery of Publishing

By Midge Raymond,

The New York Times has published a story in its business section about the mystery of what makes a best-selling book (the answer: no one knows).

The article offers a great look at how the publishing industry works (rather, at the miracle that it works at all). Publishers never really know when or how a book might become a best-seller, or why a huge advance and publicity blitz sometimes doesn’t pay off — and they show why it’s impractical do to the marketing research that might give them a few clues.

All aspiring writers should read this article — both for the inspiration (surprise best-sellers) as well as its dose of reality (all those books that only sell a few copies). Take it from the words of those in the industry: “It’s an accidental profession, most of the time” (William Strachan, editor-in-chief, Carroll & Graf); “It’s guesswork” (Bill Thomas, editor-in-chief, Doubleday Broadway); “People think publishing is a business, but it’s a casino” (unnamed editor, overheard by Curtis Sittenfeld, whose first novel, Prep, became a surprise best-seller).



Another New Medium for Authors

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s Wall St. Journal has a piece on Simon & Schuster’s newest marketing strategy — an Internet book channel, Bookvideos.tv, to be hosted on YouTube and other sites, on which authors will talk for two minutes (“about as long as you can watch something on your desktop before your boss catches you,” says the chief executive of the corporation producing the videos) about their lives, how they became writers, and other such behind-the-scenes topics. The channel will focus on only Simon & Schuster authors, though the company seems open to expanding in whatever direction viewers take the most interest.

The channel will launch next month and has committed to 40 author videos, with featured authors including bestselling authors from Sandra Brown and Mary Higgins Clark to Ursula Hegi and Marianne Wiggins. You can check out the videos here as well as on the Simon & Schuster web site.



Reviewers vs. Bloggers

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s New York Times features an article about the losses of book reviewers at newspapers across the country, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution being the latest casualty (it recently eliminated its book editor position). The LA Times and San Francisco Chronicle have also recently reduced the amount of ink devoted to books … and all you local readers of the Union-Tribune‘s already tiny book section may have noticed that your favorite freelance reviewers aren’t getting as many gigs as they used to.

While I agree that this trend is indeed “yet one more nail in the coffin of literary culture,” I also think blogs are fantastic, and that for writers, these bloggers are our friends — our very good friends. They can get an author quite a bit of mileage for many reasons, among them the fact that many emerging writers don’t get reviewed by major newspapers at all, as well as the fact that bloggers have a reach that goes well beyond those who buy books based on reviews alone. And, as the Times points out, “while authors and publishers may want long and considered responses to their work, sometimes what they most need is attention.”

As disheartening as it is to read about decreasing coverage of the literary arts, this debate is entertaining to read, from blogger Edward Champion, who told the Times that “literary blogs responded to the ‘often stodgy and pretentious tone’ of traditional reviews” to Richard Ford, who, though he’s never read a literary blog, said, “Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership…in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.”

And if you visit Champion’s blog, on which he has posted a photo of a basement in Terre Haute, you’ll see that the debate continues…



Notes from the LA Times Book Festival

By Midge Raymond,

Write what you love. Follow your passions. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

These are among the insights and inspiration at one of the fiction panels at this weekend’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the country’s largest celebration of the written word. The 12th annual festival was held at UCLA and drew upwards of 130,000 word lovers (along with their children and pets).

The advice above comes from Chris Bohjalian and Peter Orner, from the panel Fiction: Jumping Off the Page, which also featured Marianne Wiggins and Gary Shteyngart. What was fun about this panel, for me, was hearing about the processes of these writers: that Wiggins and Orner both write in longhand; that Wiggins takes two to three years to think out a novel but writes only one draft; that Bohjalian writes eight, nine, and ten drafts of each book. It was heartening to learn that even a writer like Bohjalian has written novels he will never publish; that it took Orner twelve years to write his novel The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo; that, in Orner’s words, “first and last sentences are a constant hell.” For writers who make it look easy, it’s comforting to know that for even these authors, writing is anything but.

It was impossible to sit in on all 97 of the panels, of course, but we did our best to visit as many of the 300 exhibitor booths as we could, seeing everything from literary magazines to small presses, as well as testing out the Sony Reader and checking out the new MySpace for literary types: TheYack.com.

Best of all, San Diego Writers, Ink got us there and back on its inaugural trip to the festival, complete with open mic readings and plenty of coffee. Mark your calendars for next year; I already have.



Authors@Google

By Midge Raymond,

At the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this weekend, we stopped by the Google exhibit, which was promoting its Authors@Google series. Over the past year, Google has talked with myriad authors — from Hillary Clinton to Martin Amis — and has posted the videos online. Google interviews authors at its Mountain View headquarters as well as its offices in New York, Santa Monica, Ann Arbor, London, and Dublin. Most interviews are up to an hour long — a nice treat for anyone who doesn’t catch his or her favorite author on the book tour. Best of all, one of the Google reps mentioned that Google will be expanding the program, continuing to interview high-profile writers while reaching out to the small presses as well.

You can check out the series at Google, or visit YouTube for the archives. Enjoy.