Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Publishing that First Book

J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was rejected by twelve publishers, the story goes.

Ouch. How wrong they were, we think.

But were they?

Common publishing practice recommends querying agents and editors by sending a 250-word letter introducing the novel (like back cover copy--the intent is to entice, not to give away the ending) and the first chapter.  I have no idea what Rowling's query letter looked like.  Writing engaging query letters is a different skill from writing good novels.

The world Rowling built in the Harry Potter books is wonderful, amazing, magical.  That's really hard to demonstrate in 250 words.  And that first chapter . . .


My eldest daughter is 14 years old.  She has Down syndrome and isn't an especially strong reader.  As we're heading to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter later this summer, Ellie is reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone aloud to me.  This is a laborious process for both of us.  We stop after every paragraph to discuss and make sure she's "getting" it.

I've read Chapter One at least four times before, but never like this.  And I've gotta be honest--it breaks all the rules.  It's sloooooooow.  It's really more of a prologue than a first chapter.  We start with a not-very-interesting minor character (Vernon Dursley) and follow him through an entire day.  I get why Rowling starts this way.  She's introducing the world of magic through the eyes of someone very much outside that world.

 For a fast reader, someone already invested in the story, or someone willing to give a book longer than one chapter to get interesting, this works great.  But let's be honest.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone really picks up in Diagon Alley.  That's Chapter 5.

So if publishers were wrong to reject Harry Potter (and financially, obviously, they were) it's perhaps because of the early decision model as much as any individual business decision.  It's a tricky thing to allow for a potential break-out success that breaks the rules.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Following Through

These days, authors often talk about how fun writing is.  I read dust jackets and learn that, for many authors, writing is about spending time with their imaginary friends, more like play than work.  After reading quite a few authors talk about their processes in this way, I began to despair.  Writing is hard, sometimes tedious work for me; does this mean that I am not real writer? A few years ago, I stumbled upon Nick Hornby's description of his frustrating writing process.  For him writing can be horrible, irritating, grim, and dull.  Relief!

Today I stumbled upon another writing process gem.  I'm reading Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor: A century of wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger.  As a child, Alice was friends with Franz Kafka.  "Alice would beg him to tell her the stories over and over again.  But she always wanted to know the ending - and that he could not answer.  He simply could not complete his work.  Later on, he would write, 'I am familiar with indecision, there's nothing I know so well, but whenever something summons me, I fall flat, worn out by half-hearted inclinations and hesitations over a thousand earlier trivialities.'"

Aha!  Another glimpse of my truth.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you." - Ira Glass

"I love this quote. In fact, I've shared it on social media before. The idea of the gap is really helpful because it's hopeful. It tells you that you have good taste--which is a prerequisite for making good art. Thus, the very fact you're making crap art but you know it's crap gives you a hint that you can someday make good art. I love that. Usually, this time is really frustrating for a young artist, because all she makes is crap. And, of course, we've all seen artists who don't have good taste; they believe everything they make is wonderful, and that poorly trained taste keeps them from improving past a certain point. I was lucky to get early encouragement, where other people thought what I was doing was better than I thought it was. I also was lucky to hunt down some people who made a living writing who told me frankly, Kid, you can do this." - Brent Weeks

Oh, hello, hope. It's lovely to see you 'round these parts again. Lovely. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

Three Is Greater Than Two

"Three is greater than two," I say apologetically when people ask me about my writing.  In other words: I'm not writing.  I . . . underestimated . . . the difference it would make in my life to move to three children from two.  Misunderestimated.  I love being a mom and I am besotted with these unique, amazing little (not so little!) people I'm getting to raise.  But I've yet to find space for myself in all the physical, temporal, and mental chaos of my life, so I'm not writing.

That's true and also incomplete.  I can write anecdotes and passionate arguments on Facebook all day.  But I'm not writing creatively.  The difference between a Facebook post and a blog post highlights the other reason I'm not writing.  The Big reason.  The Real Reason.  A Facebook update can be quick, funny, incomplete, utterly lacking in context.  It can simply be a picture.  It can be a short conversation.  It's a snapshot of a moment.  The way I blog, on the other hand, tends to be to collect anecdotes for a few hours or days or weeks or years, then assemble them into something that makes a sort of narrative or point, even if it's a very short or simple one.  Blogging - let alone writing memoir or fiction - requires perspective for me.

Perspective and some sort of connection to emotion.  But emotion is painful, y'all.  I feel like I barely get through my days doing the things that I need to do.  Children dressed and off to their appropriate places with their appropriate things (snacks, water bottles, lunches, signed permission forms, money for this that and everything else, dance gear, gymnastics apparal, instruments, music, themed hats).  Weekly schedules created and maintained.  Meals planned, shopped for, and prepared.  I've given up on cleaning up altogether.  Committees worked.  Summers planned down to the minute.  These classes, these camps, these vacations, these meals, these structured free times.  We don't do so well with unstructured time.

And as for me, I find a sense of accomplishment in managing and balancing all of this.  I call it My Life.  I also have something to pour into the space where I used to keep writing and dealing with emotions and exercising and tidying my house and whatnot.  That something is food.  I look forward to what I get to eat next.  Predictable results, etc.  But doing My Life and then eating and reading or watching TV or playing Nintendo or whatever else I do after the children are in bed and before I turn into a pumpkin (more committees) - in the space I used to use for writing or running or both (in addition to reading - there's always reading, for better and for worse) all of that allows me to mute my feelings.

And muting my feelings is a relief.  As a teenager I felt so much, so acutely, it was unbearable.  I filled notebooks with scrawls of rage and pain, pages warped by tears.  Becoming an adult - and this happened gradually in my early-to-mid-twenties - was a relief.  I could feel it happening.  I sought it out.  I called it perspective, I called it a mature ability to organize my thoughts logically, to present arguments rationally, to exist in a world with lots of pointy edges.

When I'm feeling a lot of pain, I can distract myself with TV or books or games or busyness and try to think about the pain as little as possible until a skin forms over the gaping wound, until I can examine it from afar without pressing too hard on the tender spot.  This is a coping mechanism, and it works - to an extent - but it's not conducive to good writing because to write, I have to feel.  I'm not sure I even remember how to turn that back on, anymore.

It's not that anything so bad has ever happened to me.  I've lived a pretty charmed life.  But it's cumulative, you know?  I was a kid, and I was hurt by things I'd shrug off, now.  I've had friend drama (and loss), relationship drama (and loss), family drama (and loss).  I have a child with disabilities.  She's great, but it's a lot to manage, sometimes.  I have children, and that really is sort of like letting your heart walk around out in the world unprotected.  I lost my dad too soon.  It's easier to just . . . mute that a little.  Let the skin grow closed, just a thin layer, so that light gets through but not too much.  A manageable amount.  That's how I'm living my life these days: in manageable amounts.  Later, I'm sure, there will be more writing.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Radio Silence

Hello, fellow readers!  I blogged regularly from 2004 to 2011 (here and elsewhere) and then sporadically for another year or so after that.  But lately . . . not so much.  I'm still reading and writing, but I've fallen out of the habit of blogging-for-fun.  I post my book reviews at Goodreads and my cute kid anecdotes on Facebook.  I imagine that I'll be back here regularly again someday, perhaps when Child #3 starts preschool in the fall and I free up a bit more creative bandwidth from endlessly hilarious games of make believe.  Until then, thanks for stopping by and happy reading!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Zametkin Hobson

Have you read Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Zametkin Hobson No? Well, you should read it! Everyone should read it! Once upon a time, lots of people did - it spent five months at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List after it published in 1947 - but it has since fallen out of favor. I'd never heard of it until a friend picked it for our book club's February selection, spurring probably the best discussion we've ever had.

The novel's current lack of visibility might be due in part to its Amazon blurb: The plot of GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT concerns the experiences of a young Gentile writer who poses as a Jew in order to secure material on anti-Semitism for a series of magazine articles. A thesis novel concerning the social and economic aspects of anti-Semitism in American life.

No, really, it's good! I wrote all over my copy of the book, and then typed up my notes. And, yet, it was fun.

It's a quick read, easy, but not shallow (except a little right at the end). And it's non-threatening, too, for a book with such a point. The main character is an ally (not prone to some of the major prejudices of his day) which casts the reader into the same role and allows us to hear hard truths and appreciate them while thinking ourselves exempt or hidden.

This is one of those books that has stuck with me and I find myself using some of its figures of speech in my everyday life weeks after completing the read. Flick, tap.

The novel is about a California-based widower and writer who gets a job with a major weekly magazine in New York City and relocates his family. The first people he meets are his new editor - who gives him the assignment of writing a series on antisemitism - and the editor's niece - who inspired the idea for the assignment and becomes the love interest/second main character. The writer gets the idea that in order to write convincingly and interestingly about antisemitism, he must experience it first-hand. So he introduces himself to everyone he meets as a Jew and undergoes a rapid transformation.

The novel deals not only with antisemitism but also with other forms of prejudice, including racism and sexism. I especially enjoyed some of the nascent feminism, as the author gently drew us along with contemporary lines like, "I'm having people over tonight. A couple of girls and people." How great is that? The role of women's work in the running of a household provides an interesting background, as do the the characters' remarks about "womanish softness" of thought and "a vague resentment that it's a man's world."

But the parts that really stuck with me were about antisemitism and are equally relevant today, with our own various -isms. Prejudice comes in little "flicks" and "taps." “Rarely was the circumstance so arranged that you could fight back.” "They gave you at once the wound and the burden of proper behavior toward it.” There's a lot of discussion about “the complacence of essentially decent people about prejudice” and the question of whether it's gauche or required to make a scene and speak out against prejudice whenever you encounter it (even if it's at a formal dinner party with an important client).

All this unfolds as part of a love story between the writer and his editor's niece. She inspired the assignment and is passionately antisemitic . . . but perhaps she
has a different understanding of what antisemitism is and means and how best to respond. What brought the couple together eventually drives a wedge between them.

If you read - or have read - this one, please let me know; I'd love to discuss it with you! And if it doesn't sound like something you're willing to read, the novel inspired a movie by the same name, starring Gregory Peck.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits by Jack Murnighan

It took me more than two years to read this book, but don't let that scare you away. I think you should read it, too!

I loved this book. I didn't agree with the author about everything, but I did agree with him about a lot of things and I loved his passion for literature alongside his irreverent take towards it. This month, for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm discussing Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits by Jack Murnighan.

Murnighan "has a Ph.D. in medieval and renaissance literature from Duke University. He is the author of The Naughty Bits and Classic Nasty and has written for Esquire, Glamour, and Nerve. He lives in New York City and teaches creative nonfiction at the University of the Arts."

I don't hold all that against him, though. He writes like a hip professor who really really wants to pass along not the IMPORTANT SYMBOLISM or CRITICAL HISTORICAL CONTEXT of classic literature but rather a love of reading great books along with an understanding of how to read "tough" books and why the effort is worthwhile.

The publisher's blurb:
Did anyone tell you that Anna Karenina is a beach read, that Dickens is hilarious, that the Iliad’s battle scenes rival Hollywood’s for gore, or that Joyce is at his best when he’s talking about booze, sex, or organ meats?

Writer and professor Jack Murnighan says it’s time to give literature another look, but this time you’ll enjoy yourself. With a little help, you’ll see just how great the great books are: how they can make you laugh, moisten your eyes, turn you on, and leave you awestruck and deeply moved. Beowulf on the Beach is your field guide–erudite, witty, and fun-loving–for helping you read and relish fifty of the biggest (and most skipped) classics of all time. For each book, Murnighan reveals how to get the most out of your reading and provides a crib sheet that includes the Buzz, the Best Line, What’s Sexy, and What to Skip.

I found that if I tried to read the book straight through, the chapters and various classics began to bleed together. So I used it as my palate cleanser, reading a chapter or two between other books as I finished them.

And now I intend to start all over, using Beowulf on the Beach as a to-do list to fill in the gaps in my reading of the classics. I'm especially loving the "what to skip" bits, some of which confirm that a book that's supposed to be "great" but I have no interest in might not actually be so wonderful after all. (Murnighan has a theory that people like sets of three and sometimes an author or books is tossed in with two other, far greater works to make a complete set.)

My favorite part of the book is that Murnighan is so completely un-snobby about literature. He tells you everything you need to know about each book in order not to embarrass yourself at a literary cocktail party. And he also tells you what questions to ask to poke holes in the blowhard who quotes famous lines from books he probably hasn't read.

(Fourth Monday Book Club, this book is why we're reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude this month. I hear it's "the greatest novel of our era." And who can resist that?)

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@Barrie Summy