If you don’t read, how do you know?

November 3, 2010

Over the past several months, I’ve been hither, thither, and yon, talking at conferences, giving library seminars, and reading queries, and I’ve noticed some consistencies:

Those who didn’t read
Those who were trying something entirely new

Those who don’t read

A number of the pitches I read and heard sounded unmarketable. So unmarketable that I asked who they felt would read their books. Um…well…head scratchie…

Ok, here’s an easier question, sez me, where does your book fit? Who’s your competition? Um…well…head scratchie…I have no competition because there’s nothing on the market like my book.

Ohhh…the exclamation point speech bubble pops over my head…how much reading have you done? Author’s eyes search the heavens…um, not much.

Pricey goes head bangy. How on earth can you know you have something unless you’re well read in your genre? I’ve heard all kinds of excuses – “I don’t want someone else’s book getting inside my head.” “I don’t have the time.” “Oh, that’s important?”

See, the thing that bugs me about these comments is that the writers aren’t taking their craft seriously. This isn’t an industry where someone decides to write a book and whamm-o, out pops a bestseller.Words come to mind: sacrilegious, hubris, certifiable.

Look at it from our standpoint; are we going to spend thousands on an author who doesn’t take his craft seriously. Sure, there are the odd accidental hits, but of those few, there are tens of thousands of books that aren’t hits. They have to make it the old-fashioned way; by understanding what it takes to be a writer.

And one of those elements to being a writer is understanding the unique qualities of your book. But you can’t know that unless you’ve read your competition. Believe me, at some point, an editor or agent will ask – and won’t you look the green jellybean for stuttering over your tongue?

Read, people! Know your competition and understand how your story fits in nicely with theirs, yet lends a new voice.

Those who were trying something entirely new

Then there are authors I’ve encountered of late who were trying to break new territory. I’m always happy to entertain these writers because they may be on to something quite cool. But what I’ve been seeing are those whose new territories reside on other planets. It’s like trying to blast a new tunnel through a mountain. Without knowing what’s on the other side, you have no idea how much dynamite it’ll take to do the job.

Breaking new territory in a book requires a lot of dynamite because it’s new. No one has done it before, so you need to have a solid foundation – meaning that there needs to be some familiarity to it. Take Stephanie Meyers…we already had vampires and we already had romance. But we didn’t have vampire romance. Voila! She combined two genres that the reading public is already familiar with and made some serious lemonade.

But I’ve been seeing things that I’m not sure the reading public is ready for quite yet because there’s no frame of reference. And even if readers are ready for plumber/alien romance, or vampire botanists, I’m not sure the genre buyers’ loins have been properly girded. In other words, it helps if the story makes sense. I love quirky just as much as the next person, but I’d like there to be a plausible reason for the story to exist.

And this comes from reading and researching your genre. After all, there are only so many rotten beagle secretary stories one can exploit, yanno?

 


Ransom notes

July 7, 2010

Like many others in the publishing industry, I had a good laugh/sphincter pucker when I read the Galleycat article about Tin-House-gate – whereby Tin House has instituted a three month open submission policy, but it comes with a special condition; authors must include a receipt from a bookstore with their query.

It’s all pretty tongue-in-cheek, and the prevailing thought is that authors need to help support the business in which they hope to become a part, and Tin House is holding that ideal for ransom. Buy a book or don’t submit to us.

I laughed because I understand what they’re saying. Sure, many writers buy a ton of books, so you’d think this is insulting. And sure, it is. However, the perspective changes when you’re sitting in the editorial chair reviewing hundreds of queries. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that many writers don’t read. And because they don’t read, their literary worlds are often shallow, limited, and unremarkable.

An example I’ve used in the past is the author who queried me years ago with his lawyer fiction. I commented to him that his story was eerily reminiscent of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. Now I don’t if he was yanking my chain, but he wrote back: “John who?”

Gah.

If I hadn’t seen this time and time again, I’d think he was having a bit of fun with me. But the truth is that many writers don’t appear to be in touch with their own competition and they submit works that have been done a thousand times over. So from that perspective, I can see Tin House’s point, which is, “for the sake of all that’s holy, buy a damn book!”

But being the capitalist pig that I am, I bristle at the notion of having self-serving stipulations put on me. So given that, I’d avoid this company like the beagle avoids gin because they strike me as arbitrary and illogical. Given the idiocy that often embraces this industry, I’m not looking to expand or support the advance of illogical ideas.

Agent Kristin Nelson rhetorically asks if agents had this policy whether it would reduce the queries they receive. It’s all said in jest, but it does foster a nagging question that plagues agents and editors [who allow unagented queries], and that is the irritant that many writers can be – shall we say – a bit tight with their book purchases.

You can’t be an island

Over the years, I’ve noticed there are a couple subgroups of writers – those who get out and know their competition and are well read, and those who are islands.

We see a lot of islanders. They make up a huge percentage of our rejections. These are the folks who thought of an idea for a book, sat down, and wrote it. They’re not well read and have little clue as to their competition. Maybe they read a cool book back in their senior year in high school, but very little beyond that. This means they are out of touch with plot development, character development, pacing, flow, etc.

Literary tastes change as the years roll by. The big hits of yesteryear might not see the light of day in our current literary world. The islander doesn’t know this. And what happens with the literary islander is the same as with physical islanders  – nothing gets on or off that island. Hello, Mr. Rejection Letter.

So while I appreciate the finger-in-the-eye approach Tin House is  making with their ransom note, I think a deviation into social engineering is pure folly.

If anything, I think it would be lovely if more writers woke up and concluded that this writing bug they seemed to have caught needs to be nurtured – and the best way to do that is to fraking READ!!! There is simply no better teacher than the books sitting on those shelves. Where else can you get a feel for dialog, character development, plot, endings, syntax, voice? Learn from those who came right before you.

So, laugh at Tin House if you like, but consider the message and do yourself and your writing the biggest favor of all…go out and buy a damn book. Heck, buy three.

[shameless plug time] I can think of any number of great books sitting right on our website


The $20,000 typo – Spellchecker isn’t always your friend

April 20, 2010

Oboy, fears of suffering stuff like this makes me awaken in a cold sweat, screaming like a banshee. Penguin Group Australia has to eat and reprint 7,000 units of a cookbook that has a very regrettable typo; a recipe that calls for “salt and freshly ground black people” – instead of pepper – to be added to the tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto.

Oh. Dear. God. Good thing they can afford it.

But what surprises me is head of publishing Bob Sessions’ attitude. Not only is he not recalling the bad books, but he’s scratching his head over why some people are offended by the slip-up. Um. Hello?

Were that me, and I thank The Cosmic Muffin that it’s not, I couldn’t recall those books fast enough. And any normal thinking publisher would feel the same way. So not only has Spellcheck sabotaged his editor’s best efforts, forcing him to spend oodles of money, but he’s created a nice PR nightmare.

Dude. Way to go.

EDITED TO ADD:

Penguin has issued an apology. Finally. Given Bob Sessions’ earlier remarks, I have a sneaky feeling he was wrestled to the ground by his PR folks. Or his wife. Either way, they have explained the situation and have pulped the remaining books in their warehouse. Still, it would have been nice if they’d grabbed the ones still out on the marketplace. Yes, it’s achingly hard to do and a royal PITA, but it’s also the right thing to do.

The article does explain something that plagues all publishers, and that is the invariable typo(s) that sneak through the editing process. I’ve seen many people rip publishers apart for their lack of catching them before going to print. I cringe just like everyone else if I catch a missed typo in any of our books as well. But the facts are this: we’re human. Even though we read through the finished product numerous times, shit happens. And it happens to every single publisher on the planet.

How one handles that HUGE typo is, to me, a show of character. Or lack thereof.


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