Writer’s Mail 3/22/2010
by Kimberly Simmons
“The secret of becoming a writer is to write, write and keep on writing.” – Ken MacLeod
Clayton – Kathy sent in a suggestion for the reporter in the story. Jerry wanted the reporter to be real – he’s introduced but then nothing happens. Clayton sees an opportunity and there will be more to come in the re-write. Kane wants to know how essential the relationship is between Miker and his father. Clayton is using it to deepen the emotional connection between the reader and Miker. If it’s there to hook us, then Jerry thinks it should have some pretty deep stuff in it. It shouldn’t be a chore for Miker to write. Miker is just an observer here and Pat thinks Gram might really be the main character of the story. Millie suggests Miker’s e-mail needs more pathos. Kim wanted to know why the boats were so loud if there was a fishing derby going on.
Kim – Pat has a question about the temperature, if people are wearing dusters and shivering in the jungle, are there mountains, what kind of climate is it? Jen was unclear about the mental communication. Kane and Jerry noticed Ryoko character breathed through her nose a lot. Pat thought that might be because of the cat connection. Kim wanted to know if the emotion of her character was coming through. Kane picked up on the grief. Clayton was wondering about the connotations of certain names, for instance, Leviathan and Ramses. Jerry’s found a place where a thought just kills the action of a scene. Clayton was surprised Ryoko took the human’s word for how another character died.
Amber – Jen wanted some differentiation of Moira’s thoughts. Italics? Jerry wanted to know where the reaction to the big egg was. Also, if she didn’t want the egg shell to break, where does it get packed. Does the bone get crushed or kicked, which one? What kind of headlamp are we talking about? How bright are those things? Clayton remembers those things washing out color. How would that effect what Moira sees?
Jen – Note to all, cell-phones don’t get dialed, the numbers get punched or keyed in. Pat wondered if it was a script because there was a lot of direction and detail reminding us that, per Stephen King, “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” Kane liked that it moved fast and thought it was similar to a screenplay or teleplay. Kane has brought proof from babynamevoyager.com that no one ever names their kid Biff. Bill thinks sentences with forty-four words in them are a little long. The size of the devamper is unclear. Pat thinks the shooting of Biff at the beginning of the story is uncalled for because he isn’t an imminent threat.
Millie – Shel likes to read the pictures that Millie paints, but the idea of shrimp dip and hot cocoa made him ill. Kane found an inconsistency when Erin fell out of the canoe with Zak. Clayton wondered if the water would be that clear and Pat thought it might be colder. Erin needs to shiver some afterwards. Shel thought that scene went too fast. Clayton thought Erin suffered, but we didn’t get to see any of it. Pat likes Millie’s descriptions and thinks she should write more prose poetry. Bill wanted to know how Millie decided pot had a grassy odor. Kane thought some parts were more Millie than Erin. Shel warns us all that Jerry uses a big, dull drill to make people use the active voice. We’ve been warned.
Shel – Millie likes the title, but liked the sardines about as much as Shel liked her shrimp salad and cocoa. Clayton wanted to hear more about the relationship between Shel and the plant. It was a gift from a neighbor of his. He wanted it willed to him, but when the plant didn’t go with his neighbor’s decorating scheme, she called Shel. Pat liked the personification of the Jade plant. Kane thought the message about the temperature dropping was mixed. Jerry wanted to know of the wheel broke or if it slipped. Clayton thought the parenthesis and brackets could go away as the story is from Shel’s point of view.
Who’s Up Next
March 16: Kim Simmons (chapters 7-8, James Hyde), Clayton Gill (chapter 11, Fishing Derby), Amber Boudreau (chapter 10, YA novel), Jen Wilcher (fan fiction), Millie Mader (chapter 17, Life on Hold), and Shel Ellestad (???).
April 6: Kim Simmons (chapters 9-10, James Hyde), Jerry Peterson (chapter 25, Early’s Winter), Jeff Kalhagen (story), Jen Wilcher (chapter 2, Memories Awakened), Amber Boudreau (chapter 11, YA novel), Alicia Connolly-Lohr (chapter 35, Lawyer Lincoln), and Cathy Riddle (chapter 2, Beer Crimes).
April 20: Kim Simmons (chapters 11-12, James Hyde), Jerry Peterson (chapter 26, Early’s Winter), Amber Boudreau (chapter 12, YA novel), Pat Edwards (poems), Clayton Gill (chapter 12, Fishing Derby), and Jen Wilcher (chapter 3, Memories Awakened).
May 4: Kim Simmons (chapters 14-15, James Hyde).
See you at the Fifth . . .
Fifth Tuesday, when both our groups gather together fun, food, and fellowship . . . March 30, 7 p.m., at Booked for Murder (Madison’s independent mystery bookstore).
Bring your favorite dish to pass or something from the Cubb deli. Yes, it’s potluck. And please make your reservations with Shel Ellestad. Spouses, friends, and favorite children welcome.
The Trends in Fiction by Chip MacGregor.com
Cecily wrote to ask, “Can you tell us the latest trends you’re seeing in fiction?”
Happy to. This is coming straight from my experience, so another agent, or an editor at a particular house, may be seeing different trends. My thoughts…
–The continued growth of romance — particularly historical romance. Let’s face it, last year the publisher who saw the biggest growth was Harlequin, and they did it in a down year for most publishers. The fact is clear: readers in a bad economy like to escape by reading romance novels. You can roll your eyes if you want to, but it’s the truth. (And yes, I’m happy to say I represent some excellent romance novelists.)
—Thrillers aren’t selling like they used to. They’re far from dead, but the whole CIA/24/CSI thing has been fading. James Patterson and other bestselling novelists can still move large quantities, but once you move away from the bestselling authors, it’s much slower (and, frankly, much harder to place a new novelist).
–There is a renewed interest in Americana, particularly during sunnier days. We’re seeing interest in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, for example (um… assuming it’s fair to use British terms for American history). That seems to be a trend away from seeing so many wartime sagas — perhaps a reflection on our fatigue with the never-ending war in Iraq.
–We’ve seen a lot of growth with fiction that surrounds historical events. Not a retelling of the events, but of stories that touch on history. So, for example, we’re not seeing novels that re-tell the assassination of President Lincoln, but we ARE seeing novels that have to do with people who were in the vicinity, or who knew John Wilkes Booth, or who were at Ford’s Theater, or who were part of the chase to catch the conspirators, etc. Again, not so much focused on the event itself, but on characters who were influenced by the event.
—Literary fiction is definitely a growth category in American publishing. Take a look at any bestseller list, and you’ll see a lot of literary fiction. Not only that, but many of the books have a clear spiritual thread — something I don’t see many people recognizing or reporting on.
–One of the most-reported growth trends has been in paranormal fiction. And while we see a lot of YA titles (Stephanie Meyer et al), much of the growth in adult paranormal novels has been of the “erotic” stripe.
–If you separate paranormal from fantasy & speculative fiction… well, for all the talk about the huge growth we’re going to see in fantasy titles, I’m still not seeing publishers buy or sell much spec fiction. I know that pains all the fantasy writers, but the fact is it’s still a fairly narrow niche. Speculative readers are devoted, and there are more than there used to be, but overall the industry isn’t viewing this as the next big thing.
–I see mixed signals in the horror category. Some think it’s up; others think it has run its course. I don’t have a firm opinion one way or the other.
–Of course there has been huge growth in the Christian/inspirational category over the past 7 or 8 years. The incredible growth has slowed, making some think religious fiction is hurting, but that’s just not true. Christian fiction is still a HUGE category, and there is still growing interest from those houses who were late to jump on board during the heyday. So while, yes, we’re not seeing the big growth in titles that we did a couple years ago, compare the number of titles and the number of genres and sub-genres to what we saw just three years ago.
—One of the most visible areas of growth in the inspirational category has been Amish fiction (or “bonnet novels”). Some people have said that it’s going to fade out, but I don’t believe it. I think it has established itself as its own sub-genre. What Bev Lewis started and Cindy Woodsmall followed has turned into its own category of fiction. That sort of thing happens sometimes — consider Louis L’Amour creating the giant interest in westerns, or Edgar Allan Poe basically establishing horror fiction. People are still buying it, so it has clearly found its audience.
–A trend among CBA houses seems to be a pulling back — moving away from some of the edgy themes in order to focus on the safer, tried-and-true CBA story. This is possibly due to the economy and our desire for security and simpler times, or it could be the normal ebb-and-flow of publishing interests among readers.
–And a very strong trend is the growth of small presses, including those who only provide e-book versions of novels. Publishing is going through a huge transition, and with change comes new opportunity. Some new, smaller houses can be more nimble, and they are rushing to create books that are aimed at the new technology. Some of them will survive, some will no doubt see great success and become large corporations (that are perhaps no longer as nimble), and some won’t make it through next month. At the same time, we’re seeing large publishing houses make a commitment to the new technologies — even if it may not be as quick or as complete as some writers would like. But the sprouting up of new companies is a good thing for writers.
–And any discussion of trends wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the growth of e-books and the shifting desires of readers to see books in other formats. I don’t think ink-and-paper books are going away any time soon — most every reader still loves printed books. But I’ve got three kids in their 20’s, and all of them are comfortable reading a book on a screen — even an iPhone screen. That tells me when their generation is in charge, the e-book will be a core business, not a side business. It will be a major part of every publishing decision, not simply a sub-rights discussion.
Words for Thought, from Word Spy:
n. A fake or misleading news story designed to further a hidden agenda. [Blend of information and propaganda.]
That is the conclusion of a fascinating new book, “Why America Fights,” which traces America’s involvement in a number of wars. It introduces a new word: infoganda. This being the masquerading of propaganda to go to war as information; Donald Rumsfeld called it “perception management.” When you watch the military flyovers here each July 3, that is really and sadly part of that infoganda campaign, which has gotten costly and almost sacrilegious if you oppose it.
—John Frievalds, “Government ‘infoganda‘ has turned defense spending into a sacred cow,” Telegraph Herald, March 14, 2010
Back at Comedy Central, Jon Stewart was ambivalent about the government’s foray into his own specialty, musing aloud about whether he should be outraged or flattered. One of his faux correspondents, though, was outright faux despondent. “They created a whole new category of fake news — infoganda,” Rob Corddry said. “We’ll never be able to keep up!” But Mr. Corddry’s joke is not really a joke. The more real journalism declines, the easier it is for such government infoganda to fill the vacuum.
—Frank Rich, “Operation Iraqi Infoganda,” The New York Times, March 28, 2004
Continue analects — probably not for posterity, but then, in an age of propagation/infoganda, posterity may be just around the corner.
—”Et cetera, Volume 36,” International Society for General Semantics, January 1, 1979 (approx)
Free eBook of the Day: Martin Eden
By Craig Morgan Teicher on Mar 15, 2010 04:07 PM
We’re inaugurating a new feature here at eBookNewser, the Free eBook of the Day, where, a few times a week, we’ll point you in the direction of a highly worthy electronic read that you can download for $0. First up, Martin Eden by Jack London, available as an EPub or PDF download from Google Books.
Martin Eden was published in 1909. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about its author’s own struggle to attain literary fame. Martin is a gruff sailor-type who falls in love with a beautiful society girl. To win her over, he begins a prolonged course of self-improvement, which eventually leads him to fiction writing, years of rejection, sudden fame, and despondence. If it sounds like the average first novel by any MFA’er, don’t be fooled–it’s not. It’s amazing. And, it’s free, so what have you got to lose.
If you know of a free eBook that might be worth featuring, let us know using the anonymous tips box above (though be warned, we’re unlikely to take you up on the suggestion if it’s your own self-published eBook). www.mediabistro.com
Take This Job and Write It, by Jennifer Schuessler
Published March 11, 2010
Joblessness may be hovering around 10 percent, with some 29 million Americans out of work or searching for full-time employment, but there’s one group of people whose persistent alienation from regular employment has emerged as a particularly serious problem. I refer, of course, to novelists.
In normal times, they tap away in their “offices” at Starbucks, thanking their lucky stars for the book contracts that allowed them to give up their day jobs. But in recent months a cry has gone out for fiction writers to get up from behind their laptops and get back to work, real work — or at least to start writing about it again.
Enough with the cozy stay-at-home dramas and urban picaresques featuring young slackers with no identifiable paycheck! The literary novel needs more tinkers and tailors, the argument goes. (The best-seller list seems to take care of the soldiers and spies.) In a video introduction to the latest issue of Granta, dedicated to the theme of “Work,” John Freeman, the magazine’s editor, lamented the literary “invisibility” of daily toil. The essayist Alain de Botton, writing in The Boston Globe, recently called for a new literature “that can proclaim the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the workplace.”
And in The Telegraph of London, John Lanchester, who took a break from novel-writing to research “I.O.U.,” his new primer on the financial crisis, asked why fiction tended to “break down” in the face of the complex modern economy. Work has become central to many people’s self-conception, Lanchester noted. So why, in novels, does it tend to be “as much a marginal detail of a character’s life as her hair color”?
It’s tempting to see all this as nostalgia for the time when most people worked with their hands and a whaling ship or a military ambulance or a migrant workers’ camp could be an aspiring novelist’s Harvard and Yale. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, American writers weren’t afraid to talk shop, whether the work in question was making money, as in William Dean Howells’s tales of young Gilded Age strivers, or making sausage, as in Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle.”
In the 1930s, as the Depression deepened, work became a particularly urgent subject for novelists, precisely because so many people didn’t have any. In John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” work, any kind of work, was a fragile bulwark against starvation. In the so-called proletarian novels of the period, with their evil bosses, downtrodden workers and heroic organizers, labor acquired a kind of romance — not because the actual tasks were ennobling, but because unions held the key to broader social redemption, generally along doctrinaire socialist lines. (Which didn’t necessarily imply aesthetic progress: the proletarian novel, the journalist Murray Kempton later wrote, was “rooted in the American tradition of bad literature.”) In his “U.S.A.” trilogy, John Dos Passos, like many literary men and women from privileged backgrounds, connected with the rising misery around him by describing the lives of the working, or workless, class. Other politically minded novelists, of authentically modest origins, made fiction the means for documenting the lives they had only barely escaped. As Morris Dickstein writes in “Dancing in the Dark,” his recent cultural history of the 1930s, the roughneck hero of James T. Farrell’s “Studs Lonigan,” a house painter turned small-time thug, is “what the author himself might have become had he not left home and become a writer.”
With the arrival of postwar prosperity, the literature of working-class struggle gave way to the literature of middle-class disillusion. In novels like Sloan Wilson’s “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road,” work isn’t a tool of social redemption but a graveyard of individual dreams — often, as in the case of Yates’s Frank Wheeler, the dream of being an artist. It’s a theme the literary novel hasn’t been able to shake. Blue-collar misery has continued to inspire powerful fiction, whether Raymond Carver’s stories about laconically depressed waitresses and mechanics or Russell Banks’s portraits of violently self-destructive millworkers and snowplow drivers. But these days, it seems, the really unhappy people are working in offices.
Take, for example, the characters in Joshua Ferris’s dark satire “Then We Came to the End” (2007), set in a Chicago advertising agency caught in the throes of layoffs and water-cooler paranoia, and Ed Park’s “Personal Days” (2008), which unfolds in a similarly depopulating Manhattan cubicle farm. In reality, these satires of late-capitalist office life have less to say about actual work than about the bureaucratic rituals and distractions surrounding it: the joke PowerPoint presentations, the endless forwarding of stupid YouTube videos, the proliferation of Orwellian corporate jargon. In this vision, a job may provide a kind of grim life-boat camaraderie, along with a paycheck, but the work itself is meaningless unto mendacious: a metaphor for the lies and illusions that underlie our economy, if not our civilization. In Ferris’s novel, the agency’s big last-minute assignment — to create a humorous campaign for a shadowy breast-cancer awareness group — is itself a joke. In Park’s novel, the company’s actual business isn’t worth specifying at all.
But then how much do we really want to read about what goes on at the office? Don’t most of us spend far too much time there already? The specifics of modern-day labor are, in many cases, utterly dull, as one of Mary Gaitskill’s night-shift clerks could probably tell you as readily as the bankers in “Union Atlantic,” Adam Haslett’s well-reviewed new novel about the financial crisis. Those now calling for an updated literature of the workplace probably don’t have in mind books like “Franz Kafka: The Office Writings,” a recent anthology of neglected gems like “Fixed-Rate Insurance Premiums for Small Farms Using Machinery,” which Kafka wrote while employed in a Prague insurance agency.
The systems most white-collar employees are embedded in have gotten only more complicated since Kafka’s office days. And sometimes fact is more boring than fiction. Even when a profession seems promisingly rich with human implication, the full details can be awfully hard to explain. As John Lanchester argued in The Telegraph, television can get away with a “cartoon version” of a profession, but a novel cannot. “You can’t explain in fiction,” he wrote, at least “not at the necessary length” to convey the complexity of “modern working lives.”
Or at least you can’t in so-called literary fiction, if you want it to stay “literary.” As the novelist and critic David Gates writes in his introduction to “Labor Days” (2004), an anthology of fiction about work, getting one’s hands too dirty with the details of auto assembly or defense procurement or insurance underwriting carries an existential threat to the artist: “What if it rubbed off on you? What if you got too interested in this stuff and ended up like Tom Clancy, with a best-selling fixation on military hardware?” (On the other hand, Gates recalls that his father, a master mechanic, spoiled “The Grapes of Wrath” for him by pointing out that Steinbeck really had no idea how to fix a jalopy.)
As our hard times grind on, more notebook-clutching novelists may in fact begin returning to the office and the factory floor, if only to find that the workers are mostly speaking Chinese. But any fiction that comes out of it will be judged less by the authors’ mastery of computer manufacturing and capital flows than by their insights into human minds and human motives. As Gates puts it: “Would you rather read a bad novel about a factory worker or a bad novel about a writer? The only answer is neither.”
To which one might be tempted to add that the work of just being a novelist is a lot harder than it looks.
Jennifer Schuessler is an editor at the Book Review.
Kashmira’s Book Signing
Kashmira introduced her new hard copy, Boys Without Names, to a large
gathering of family, fans and friends at Barnes & Noble this evening. I sat
with Tuesdays first and third Clayton Gill, John Schneller and Cathy Riddle.
We were joined by Carol Hornung from second and fourth. Kashmira had
originally attended Tuesdays first and third group meetings, but since
becoming a prolific published author, with a husband and two daughters, she
is hard pressed for time. Much of her writing is done at night, and this is
her fifth novel, plus a beautifully illustrated childrens’ book. She
introduced her “two” mothers tonight. Her maternal mother is always in
attendance, but this evening her mother-in-law was visiting from India, for
the first time in twenty-two years. Kashmira spoke with poise and humor,
explaining how she had researched this book on a visit to India. She
listened to many tales of struggle, some leading to ultimate survival. She
made it a point to pay careful attention to those who willingly chose to
talk. One intelligent eleven year old boy, raised by a loving but poor
family, captured her imagination. He became her protagonist, and she wove
her tale of intense child labor around this young man and his unique
abilities for survival.
Kashmira answered questions from the crowd, and one in particular gave
pause to everyone. Since Hindi is her native language, and she is skilled in
several others, how difficult was it to write her stories in English. She
explained that it is very thought provoking, and added that she has included
a glossary at the back of the book. I am anxious to start reading. – from Millie Mader
Spring In New Hampshire by, Claude McKay
Too green the springing April grass,
Too blue the silver-speckled sky,
For me to linger here, alas,
While happy winds go laughing by,
Wasting the golden hours indoors,
Washing windows and scrubbing floors.
Too wonderful the April night,
Too faintly sweet the first May flowers,
The stars too gloriously bright,
For me to spend the evening hours,
When fields are fresh and streams are leaping,
Wearied, exhausted, dully sleeping.
The Last Word…
“Story is the vehicle we use to make sense of our lives in a world that often defies logic.” – Jim Trelease