Elements of Style (or lack thereof)

By Midge Raymond,

I got such a kick out of this blog about the language and style choices of Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code. It’s a very amusing look at precisely what is wrong with the writing in the book — things that for karmic reasons I don’t like to point out myself (but am very glad someone else has).

Remember this: almost as much can be learned by looking at bad writing (i.e., what not to do) as by reading all the great stuff. The trick, of course, is knowing the difference.



The Debate Continues…

By Midge Raymond,

San Francisco Chronicle book editor Oscar Villalon wrote a fantastic article on the seemingly neverending debate on truth (or lack thereof) in nonfiction. Inspired by a recent article in The New Republic calling David Sedaris to task for sprinkling bits of fiction into his “nonfiction” essays (rather ironic, if you think about the Stephen Glass debacle, but that’s another story), Villalon questions why we readers put up with fictionalized versions of memoir that insist on being represented as nonfiction. It’s a question well worth asking — and worth answering — and yet all that seems to happen is that writers keep fictionalizing their nonfiction and continue calling it nonfiction.

Villalon brings up the point that nonfiction sells better than fiction, as well as the even better point that it’s a whole lot easier if a writer allows him- or herself to make up events or details rather than toil away to make a piece work using the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But this only takes away from those wonderful nonfiction writers (Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Mark Kramer, Tracy Kidder, to name a few) whose words you can count on to be not only true but meticulously so.

When I’m in class talking about memoir or creative nonfiction, I make a huge point of emphasizing the importance of truth, down to the tiniest detail. (My students sometimes look at me as if to say, “Duh.”) But clearly some of our most prolific writers are not getting the idea. As Villalon points out, Sedaris told The New Republic that Angela’s Ashes could’ve been fiction and he’d have liked it just as much — yet isn’t some of the beauty and horror of it due to the fact that it’s a true story? Villalon also notes that Augusten Burroughs’ new book comes with a disclaimer stating that his nonfiction book is not entirely true — so why label it nonfiction at all?

Villalon writes, “Fiction is a lie that tells the truth.” And ultimately, he believes, “there’s no excuse for calling a work containing chunks of fiction nonfiction…No excuse, none.” If only every writer — and reader — believed the same thing.



Adult v. Young Adult

By Midge Raymond,

I’ve noticed in our Metro classes a lot of interest in writing young adult fiction — and those of you who are working on such projects will enjoy this Wall Street Journal article (subscription required), “Teen Books Are Hot Sellers, But Formula Isn’t Simple.”

The story details Emmy-winning television writer Larry Doyle’s quest to find a home for his novel, which his agent pitched to editors of both adult and young adult books. With bookstore sales declining, publishers are looking at the young adult market as a potential to increase overall sales. However, while the teenage audience is easy to reach, thanks in large part to their love of the Internet, choosing whether and how to label a book for adults or young adults remains a challenge.

The WSJ reports that Doyle’s book was ultimately sold as an adult title, a choice the author says he’s happy with. After all, it’s easier to get teens to read adult books than vice versa (the article points to examples such as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep). But for those who do want to target the young adult market, remember these two words: Harry Potter.



The Neverending Book Tour

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s New York Times has an interesting feature on the pre-publication book tour and its effectiveness in book sales, particularly for first-time authors.

The industry credits Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic, with the invention of the pre-publication book tour when his company published “Cold Mountain,” preceded by a pre-publication tour that likely had a lot to do with the book becoming a best-seller. And now, as this article explains, many publishers, especially the more independent presses, are hoping to generate the same buzz for new authors.

The Times quotes weary British author Steven Hall, recently in the U.S. for a pre-pub tour for his novel, The Raw Shark Texts, as saying, “You take a writer, the kind of person who wants to sit on his own for three years at a time, and then make them go to a bunch of dinner parties.” But as every author knows, writing today is as much about selling as it is about telling good story.



It’s Never Too Late

By Midge Raymond,

For any of you who may feel as though you’re too old to become a successul writer, check out this AP story about a man who began writing his first book at age 93 and now, at age 96, is a published author.

Harry Bernstein’s memoir, The Invisible Wall, about his childhood in northern England, grew out of the loneliness he encountered after the death of his wife. As he says in the article, “You know when you get into your 90s like I am, there’s nowhere else to think except the past. There’s no future to think about. There’s very little present…So you think of the past.”

But now he has quite a lot of future to think about. A Random House editor in London picked up his book and couldn’t put it down, and now, in addition to being published in England and Sweden, it will be released in Germany, Italy, Finland, and Norway. Bernstein is already at work on a second book, slated to be published in the U.S. by Ballantine.

I think all writers can learn a little from Bernstein’s wisdom. He reports that he writes when inspired rather than forcing deadlines, and he also says, “I’m not satisfied until I finish what I start. And I will not be satisfied until I start something new.”



Speaking of…

By Midge Raymond,

…Lionel Shriver and the Orange Prize: just to follow up on my last post, check out today’s New York Times feature on Lionel Shriver…and you can also check out this year’s Orange Prize nominees, which have just been announced.



Inspiration for Us All

By Midge Raymond,

I’m very happy to see that Lionel Shriver’s new book, The Post-Birthday World, is now on bookshelves and and receiving rave reviews.

But the literary life hasn’t always been this smooth for Shriver — after a long 20 years and no fewer than six novels, she told the BBC she was about to give up on writing when she won the 2005 Orange Prize for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of those books I always recommend to anyone who will listen — for its language, story, and the fearless way Shriver tackles our society’s biggest taboos. But I also recommend it to writers for inspiration. The manuscript was rejected first by Shriver’s own agent, then by 20 more — and after that was rejected by 30 publishers. But Shriver persisted (in an interview with the BBC, she talks about the unpopular subject matter of the book), and the book was eventually published by Counterpoint in 2003. “One of the things that is salutary about the publishing history of this book is that it’s a real word-of-mouth book,” Shriver told the BBC. “It was readers who got me here. Single, individual readers who bought the book and told their friends.”

Writers often ask me whether they should write for an audience or for themselves. My answer has always been that they should write for themselves first, and consider audience later. But perhaps writers shouldn’t concern themselves with audience at all, and stay focused on their stories, their characters, and their messages instead. Lionel Shriver has proven that sometimes it’s the audience that needs to catch up with the writer — and that it’s well worth the wait.



Books from Bellevue

By Midge Raymond,

The New York Times ran a story last week on the Bellevue Literary Press, which will publish its first title next month. The article calls attention to Bellevue Hospital’s former reputation as a psych ward for the “criminally deranged,” which indeed sounds tough to overcome. Yet neither authors nor publishers seem worried about the past.

Bellevue Literary Press grew out of the success of the Bellevue Literary Review, founded in 2000 and described by the Washington Post as “a journal of humanity and human experience — a well-regarded magazine featuring fiction, nonfiction and poetry by Bellevue’s doctors and well-established writers.”

Yet, like most small presses, Bellevue Literary Press is all about the love, not the money. Financed by private donors, the imprint’s first four titles are medical or scientific books written for a general audience, and editorial director Erika Goldman told the Times that authors would be paid advances in the $5,000 range, adding, “We’re in it for love and art.”

Which sounds perfectly sane to me.



Writers among the News

By Midge Raymond,

Continuing a wonderful trend of publishing literary work among hard news and features, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is starting a writers-in-residence program in which it will publish new, unpublished work by some of the Northwest’s best-known authors.

The program launches next Friday with National Book Award winner Pete Dexter. A list of all twelve authors — including Sherman Alexie, Tom Robbins, and Ann Rule — and their bios is on the P-I web site.

Post-Intelligencer managing editor David McCumber ran a similar program when he was at the San Francisco Examiner, and the P-I joins other newspapers — including the New York Times and LA Times, which publish fiction in their Sunday magazines, and the Washington Post, whose Chapter One publishes the first chapters of new books — in highlighting literary work. Let’s hope this trend continues to grow and to bring more authors to larger audiences.



Behind the Big Prizes

By Midge Raymond,

Lemn Sissay‘s article in today’s Guardian revealed rather shocking news about literary prizes (the big ones), pointing out that the nominees are not simply authors whose books their publishers admire but authors whose publishing contracts guarantee them prize nominations. And if this weren’t enough, Sissay also notes that this isn’t exactly breaking news. The article quotes Francis Bickmore, an editor at Canongate Books, as saying, “It’s standard for the big hitters and big prizes” (though Bickmore adds that he isn’t aware that Canongate has any such contracts). At any rate, this is not good news for writers who don’t realize that these prizes are something to negotiate before their books come out.

As a judge for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for Fiction, Sissay was unaware that this sort of agreement exists and believes most other prize judges are as well. Though literary agents, too, are in on the secret (“It’s a way of guaranteeing press coverage,” literary agent Emily Hayward told Sissay), most writers are probably not. It may make writers who didn’t make the short lists feel a little better — or not — but it will definitely have them thinking twice about their next contract.



Embracing Bad Writing

By Midge Raymond,

Last week in a workshop, I asked writers to make a list of excuses they use not to write. (These were long and very creative.) Then I read them a passage from Natalie Goldberg‘s Writing Down the Bones and posed her question: “Why Do I Write?” (They later compared their two lists, discovering that the lists of excuses were longer than the lists of reasons they write.)

It was deja vu all over again when I read Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, in which the playwright Greg Kotis begins an article on writing with a “short list” of excuses he has to avoid writing (“do the dishes; do laundry; do the Internet (Playbill.com, the Drudge Report); read the paper; install shelves; help my kids with their homework; follow the Red Sox; go to the gym; listen to podcasts (“This American Life,” “Meet the Press”); call my friends to talk about not writing; write lists”). His essay also quotes many of Goldberg’s words of wisdom from Writing Down the Bones.

Kotis’s point, though, offers insight into why our lists of excuses to write are longer than our reasons to write: perhaps we worry too much about writing bad stuff. Kotis, therefore, writes about “embrac[ing] the badness,” concluding that “the exhilaration of abandoning the effort to write well — sort of like the fun in destroying a sandcastle you’ve just made — leads to the desired oblivion. Eventually, the writing stops being strictly bad. It starts keeping to its own rhythms and rules and finally begins to feel sort of OK.”

He’s right; we need to get rid of our self-editors, at least initially, so we can find the “creative voice” that Goldberg writes about. And sometimes it feels even better than OK.



“American Idol” for Writers

By Midge Raymond,

It looks as if Simon & Schuster isn’t giving up its plan to publish an unknown writer — today’s New York Times features a story about a contest on Gather.com (a social networking site described as “MySpace for adults”) in which unpublished novelists can enter by submitting a full-length manuscript. The first chapters will be posted and voted upon by the members of the site, then a second round will follow with the top twenty second chapters, and so on until a winner is chosen by a judging panel.

The good news about the First Chapters Writing Competition is that, unlike the Sobol Award, this contest is free to enter, from now until the March 15 deadline. (See below for posts on the expensive Sobol Award, the winner of which Simon & Schuster was to publish until the contest was cancelled this week.) More good news is that the winner (if one is chosen) will receive a $5,000 prize, a standard publishing contract with Simon & Schuster, and promotion and distribution by Borders (subject to all the fine print, of course).

The fine print posted at the site is not unlike other contests, requiring that manuscripts be unpublished, original works not under consideration elsewhere, and that authors agree upon entering to sign their rights over to Simon & Schuster. Of course, it includes this caveat: “In the event that less than 200 Submissions meeting the minimum standard criteria of the Competition are timely received by Gather, Simon & Schuster reserves the right to not award the publishing prize.”

Because the contest is free to enter, this competition will likely have fewer problems than the Sobol in attracting manuscripts. What’s unusual is that until the manuscripts are whittled down to the top five, the voting will be based upon the first three chapters only. While there are always exceptions, most publishers do not purchase books based on only three chapters. Hence another caveat: “If the Panel determines that there are no Submissions of publishable quality from the Round 4 finalists, Simon & Schuster reserves the right to review all Submissions from Round 3 (i.e. the 10 semifinalists) to determine the Grand Prize winner.” The rules don’t indicate what happens if none of the semifinalists’ books are “of publishable quality.”

In addition, there are bound to be additional questions from writers, among them what constitutes “book length” as well as “commercial fiction,” both listed in the guidelines without further explanation. And because it’s using the “community” voting system, which brings to mind images of a writer’s friends and family casting vote after vote, the contest has already announced that “Gather will monitor the Competition for irregular voting patterns and fraud, and will disqualify votes and entrants if, in the Sponsor’s sole judgment, we determine that the integrity or fairness of the Competition has been, or could be, compromised.”

Though unconventional, this contest does take into account what makes a book sell: readers. And by asking readers to vote, the publisher is assuming that the most popular book will win, and hence will sell in book form. It’ll be interesting to see how this new model is embraced by writers, readers, and the publishing industry alike.



Sobol Award Cancelled

By Midge Raymond,

The much-disputed Sobol Award, which I wrote about back in September, has now been cancelled for lack of entries, according to the award’s web site.

The contest, inviting writers to submit novels with a hefty $85 fee, promised a $100,000 award to the winner, plus “representation” by the Sobol Literary Agency, a brand-new entity apparently founded for the sole purpose of administering this contest (it has no clients and is not a member of AAR). The award did not include publication until a division of Simon & Shuster offered to publish the top three winning manuscripts.

This, along with a few high-profile judges, gave the contest some legitimacy — but the fact that this award did not receive enough submissions to sustain itself (even after extending the deadline) brings up some interesting questions. Perhaps writers, always vulnerable to publishing scams that are still rampant in the industry, are becoming more savvy. Perhaps the increasing ease and lower costs of self-publishing have reduced the need for a writer to go the traditional publishing route.

The contest, which hoped to draw 50,000 submissions, had received only 1,000 manuscripts by December. And the contest rules stipulate that “in the event less than 2,000 entries meeting the minimum standard criteria of the Contest are timely received by Sponsor, Simon & Schuster reserves the right to not award any publication prize.” This caveat, as well as the writer’s requirement to sign on with the yet unproven Sobol Agency, might have been among the many reasons writers did not respond as enthusiastically as the contest’s administrators hoped.

We may never know whether this contest would have turned out to be a good one, but the way it has ended certainly speaks volumes. The good news is that writers have lost nothing but their time, and the cost of paper and postage; the Sobel Award has promised to refund all entry fees. And, thanks to the contest’s outspoken industry critics, the even better news is that the contest’s failure might indicate that writers are feeling more confidence in their own work. The fact that this contest couldn’t continue seems to show that rather than forking over hefty reading fees, writers are willing to wait for their right to representation that reflects the industry’s ethical standards.



Ship Lit

By Midge Raymond,

Authors and publishers have found yet another way to create buzz for their books … the New York Times ran a story yesterday on literary cruises, one of the newer trends in bookselling. The cruise featured is called “Book It to Bermuda,” which leaves out of Boston and entails five days at sea with popular authors. Rough seas aside (one presenter had to give her talk sitting down, due to high waves), both authors and readers — and especially publishers — are optimistic about the idea of books at sea.

Readers, of course, reported enjoying the authors as well as hanging out with others with similar literary interests. The authors’ experience was “special”; the story quoted one writer who was approached by fans in the bathroom and at the spa. And the book distributors reported good news on sales: authors sell books on the ship and have also seen increased sales after a cruise, thanks to travelers’ word of mouth.

The article notes that a typical Ship Lit cruise passenger is “older and female,” which creates a good match for such books as romances, as well as health and fitness books — but if the trend continues, we may see a wider variety of authors and themes. If you are in the market for a cruise, a literary cruise might be worth looking into — especially if you’re an author with a book to promote and you respond well to Dramamine. Bon voyage!



This Is It

By Midge Raymond,

In today’s LA Times Book Review, California’s poet laureate, Al Young, offers up his New Year’s resolutions. Among them is to remind himself that This Is It, that “this melting moment is it, is all you’ve got.” Young plans to remind himself by writing the words on a sticky note and putting it on the bathroom mirror so that, as he says to himself, “morning or night, when you glance or gaze at yourself, you’ll know the score.”

“This Is It” sums up so many things about resolutions, as well as life in general, and I found his other resolutions inspiring as well. Among them are to write three pages a day of his novel (pointing out that even a page a day adds up to 365 pages by year’s end), memorize one poem a week, write by hand, and speak less and listen more.

I’m normally not the type to make New Year’s resolutions (I used to, but after years of forgetting or breaking them, I gave up) — but more and more I’m beginning to think that it’s a good idea for all writers to make them. In classes I’m always encouraging writers to establish goals for their work, whether it’s finishing a novel or sending a short story to an editor. Establishing and revising one’s writing goals would, ideally, happen more than once a year, but we all have to start somewhere.

So tonight (or tomorrow, or at least sometime before 2008), think about what you want to accomplish with your writing. Try to focus on what you can control (i.e., “finish my novel” vs. “become rich and famous”). Picture where you are a year from today. And then make it happen.

Happy New Year!