Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book Review: The Ambler Warning

I just finished reading a "throw-away" thriller novel. Mark, who seems to only read engaging and intellectually fulfilling books would be disappointed, but I have an idea kicking around for a mystery cum thriller, and so, I chalk this up to research.

It wasn't a terrific thriller, but I read the entire story and it had it's moments. By the end I felt enthralled. There were one or two themes and words that caught my eye, among them:

Wet Work - I've heard this term before, used commonly with political assassination, but I didn't realize it had a Russian background. Wetwork or wet work is a euphemism for murder or assassination, alluding to spilling blood. It is popularly attributed to the KGB and their broad euphemism for such activities, mokroye delo (wet job).

Avoirdupois – I’ve heard this, but I always forget the exact definition. I can usually figure it out from the context clues, but the literal translation is goods of weight, but can be used in terms of personal weight or heaviness.

Pelf – never heard it used, but it means money or riches.

Fustian – I’ve never heard of this word but boy it has potential. A strong cotton and linen fabric or a class of cotton fabrics usually having a pile face and twill weave. But can also be used to describe high-flown or affected writing or speech or anything high-flown or affected in style.

Finally, a phrase that was the basis for a theme in the book – Recall the man, of ancient times, who set up a shop in a village selling both a spear he said would penetrate anything and a shield he claimed nothing could penetrate.

On to the next throw-away book . . . I mean bit of research.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Fun First Line

Foot dangling sounds like a great hobby

"I wasn't doing anything that day, just catching up on my foot dangling."

A Raymond Chandler short story

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Will the Apple Tablet be to Books what iTunes was to Music?

I read an article today in the WSJ about the new Apple Tablet and how it could potentially conflict with the toe hold that Amazon is establishing in the ebook market through the Kindle.

Initially, the article (Article Link) sparked the same concern that I as an aspiring author have had for ebooks. I, unlike JA Konrath, and extremely wary of the technology. I'm a conservative, I like paper books, I like having somehting to put on my bookshelf. Mostly though I don't like the idea that the kindle and ebooks are mucking with the price of books. How can I hope to make a living as an author, my dream, if they sell them for little or nothing?

Then, as I read the article, I realized that in truth the Apple tablet might be normalizing the industry. They did it with iTunes. Before iTunes everyone was downloading music higglety-pigglety. All of is was free (read stolen) and no one seemed to be able to get a handle on the methodolgy the industry would follow.

Amazon seemed to be tackling the ebooks introduction, but still it was concerning for me. Concerning I'm sure in much the same way an aspiring musician was concerned by Napster and Limewire in the early 2000's. I think that the Apple Tablet might be the beginning of the end for the cheap ebook. I think, and the WSJ article seems to imply this as well, the Apple Tablet might normalize and create a pricing model in the same way that iTunes did.

The question is, how can I, an aspiring author, take advantage of it, if at all?

Friday, January 22, 2010

First Line

"He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."
 
Scaramouche - Sabatini 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

First Lines

I recieved a new book for Christmas from Lana's uncle Ralph. The first line of the book, Fermin, is about the imporatance of first lines in books . . .therefore this (and following) post of notable first lines:

"The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail."

Peter Benchley, Jaws


New Query Letter


HAving read an article regarding query letters written by Anne Rittenburg (?) for Writers Digest, I have revised my query letter, paying particular attention to brevity.

Dear Ms. XXX,

Wynn Johnston finds his ordered, predictable life as an amature triathlete thrown into turmoil when his business partner, Wheeler, is murdered in the seemingly safe confines of the Seattle airport. As Wynn begins to dig into Wheeler's past he finds out that his best friend was involved in a conspiracy that puts Wynn's life and his friends lives in danger.

Toe the Line is a 73,000 word cozy mystery in a mold similar to Dick Francis or Ellen Crosby, but with a theme that revolves around adventure racing instead of horse racing or wine making. Including a feisty female main character who is the impetus behind the action, scenic settings from the Pacific Northwest, and an insider's look into the life and training of a triathlete, this novel provides an intriguing adventure while opening new worlds to readers.

I have been a technical writer and editor for over ten years and have worked as a fitness consultant and athletic trainer since the mid 90's. I look forward to hearing back from you sending my complete manuscript.

Sincerely,

Dick Hannah


Great Line

I thought this was a particularly delightful line, from a letter to Jay Nordlinger:
 
The first job I ever had was caddying at our local country club. For the life of me, I cannot think of another place or time on earth when a CEO or other master of the universe is likely to turn to a scrawny 13-year-old kid in shorts and T-shirt and ask, in all sincerity, "What do you think I should do here?" 

Robert B. Parker

I hated Spenser for Hire. It was young when it was a popular TV show, but I didn't care for it. I particularly didn't care for Robert Urich, the actor who played Spenser. It wouldn't be until just a couple years ago that I read a novel by the author who invented the Spenser series, Robert B. Parker. He passed away, and I'm sorry about that. I loved his books. Never ready (yet) a Spenser novel, but I have enjoyed the novels I have read. The first was called Hugger Mugger. It was about a race horse with that name. My grandfather saw the title and quickly quipped, "sounds like a prostitute's name."

Nevertheless, I read about Parker in the WSJ. Apparently he never edited his work. Just boom, first draft to final draft. I guess when you've written 40 books and have a following you can do that.

These are from the WSJ regarding Parker:
But Mr. Parker—whose oeuvre also included series with a small-town sheriff, Jesse Stone, and a woman P.I. named Sunny Randall, as well as a handful of westerns and other novels—of course had a very real job, working five days a week turning out five pages a day. "It's like running a small business," he told fellow writer Stuart Kaminsky, adding: "'Writer's block? That's just another word for 'lazy.'"
"I like to make things," the fictional Spenser told a fictional interviewer in 2007. "I know how to do it." He had good carpentry skills, he said, and could build a house—as could (and had) Mr. Parker. No surprise then that the Spenser books were well-constructed, functional, and comfortable to spend time in.

And from an interview:
WSJ: You wrote your Ph.D. thesis on the American hero, and included authors Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald in it. Do you think any of them will be read in 50 years?

Mr. Parker: I don't think Ross Macdonald will be read. The other two, yes. Dashiell Hammett because of "The Maltese Falcon," which is an excellent novel, and Raymond Chandler because he was a master of the language. I don't know many who wrote better than he did. It seems to me that Macdonald became one note, one theme. I never found the wit there that I was hoping for. He was almost, but not quite.

WSJ: What does that say about the genre novel, then? In theory, only literary works survive.

Mr. Parker: I don't think of myself as a genre novelist. I think of myself as a person writing novels about people involved with crime. I go through the same process that Updike went through, but he may have gone through it a little better. It's all about the limits of your imagination and the limit of your skill.
WSJ: You'll publish three books this year. What's your daily schedule like?

Mr. Parker: I write five days a week unless there is something I have to do instead. I normally write seven to 10 pages a day, which means I generally finish a new book every three months. It comes easily, and I don't revise because I don't get better by writing a new draft. Indeed, I sometimes get worse. When you reread, you never like it as well, which means I won't like the second draft either. So I don't do it… If I were single and childless, I'd probably write fewer books and venture off to more exotic fields. But I'm content. It's not a grind.
I look forward now to reading my first Spenser Novel, and perhaps to one day have a following like Parker's.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Update


So, here is a quick update.

Toe the Line
I'm still sending out requests for representation to agents. I recieved to negatives yesterday. I am working at a pace of one request per week and easily have enough prospects to last the rest of the year.
Lana read Toe the Line and was quite enthusiastic about it. She had some edits, but she loved the last few lines the most. Almost gushed.
A friend of mine also read the manuscript, she too liked it.
JA Konrath spent nine years sending out requests before finally getting a positive . . . I'm not through with year one yet.

Muzzie's Memoirs
Muzzie is exceedingly frustrated and frustrating. I can't tell how she wants to proceed. We're about 50K words into her manuscript and she is talking about starting over. She says she doesn't find it worth reading or exciting. I bite my tongue when I want to reply with "well, it's your life."
One of her favorite things to write is: "There was much hugging and kissing, and love all around." She never says this, but she writes it alot. Pehaps the title should be "Love all around" or "Love all Around Me."
I completely deleted the paragraph long description and explanation regarding her episiotomy. I'll save the rest of the family that particular horror and bare the burden myself.
Nevertheless, I plan on finished the first draft edit and sending it to her in paper format by the end of the week. Needless to say this has slowed down my editing of Running on the Edge.


Running on the Edge
I wrote this three years ago. It's about an adventure race in Big Bend. I'm rewriting/editing it and boy it's a ton better following the rewrite. Much better characters, new twists, new plots. I plan on being done by August so I can get ready for NaNoWriMo next year.
My hope is that when I run out of agents for Toe the Line, I'll be ready to start again with Running on the Edge.

So that's how things are going.


Long Article that Did Little to Inspire Me

The Death of the Slush Pile

Even in the Web era, getting in the door is tougher than ever

In 1991, a book editor at Random House pulled from the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts a novel about a murder that roils a Baltimore suburb. Written by a first-time author and mother named Mary Cahill, "Carpool" was published to fanfare. Ms. Cahill was interviewed on the "Today" show. "Carpool" was a best seller.

That was the last time Random House, the largest publisher in the U.S., remembers publishing anything found in a slush pile. Today, Random House and most of its major counterparts refuse to accept unsolicited material.

Getting plucked from the slush pile was always a long shot—in large part, editors and Hollywood development executives say, because most unsolicited material has gone unsolicited for good reason. But it did happen for some: Philip Roth, Anne Frank, Judith Guest. And so to legions of would-be novelists, journalists and screenwriters—not to mention "D-girls" and "manuscripts girls" from Hollywood to New York who held the hope that finding a gem might catapult them from entry level to expense account—the slush pile represented The Dream.

Now, slush is dead, or close to extinction. Film and television producers won't read anything not certified by an agent because producers are afraid of being accused of stealing ideas and material. Most book publishers have stopped accepting book proposals that are not submitted by agents. Magazines say they can scarcely afford the manpower to cull through the piles looking for the Next Big Thing.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Web was supposed to be a great democratizer of media. Anyone with a Flip and Final Cut Pro could be a filmmaker; anyone with a blog a memoirist. But rather than empowering unknown artists, the Web is often considered by talent-seeking executives to be an unnavigable morass.

It used to be that you could bang out a screenplay on your typewriter, then mail it in to a studio with a self-addressed stamped envelope and a prayer. Studios already were reluctant to read because of plagiarism concerns, but they became even more skittish in 1990 when humorist Art Buchwald sued Paramount, alleging that the studio stole an idea from him and turned it into the Eddie Murphy vehicle, "Coming to America." (Mr. Buchwald received an undisclosed settlement from Paramount.)

Today, you can't even send an e-mail to a studio. When visitors to the Universal Pictures Web site select the "contact us" option, they must agree to a waiver that frees Universal and its affiliates from liability related to accusations of plagiarism. "While we are always happy to hear from you," the Web notice says, "it is Universal's policy not to accept or consider creative materials, ideas, or suggestions other than those we specifically request. This is to avoid any misunderstandings if your ideas are similar to those we have developed independently."

"It does create an incredibly difficult Catch-22 on both sides, particularly for new writers wanting to get their work seen," says Hannah Minghella, president of production for Sony Pictures Animation.

Fending off plagiarism lawsuits has become an increasing headache for publishers and studios. "It's become the cultural version of malpractice," says Kurt Andersen, the novelist and host of public radio's "Studio 360."

Some producers make it easy: They just refuse to deal with new writers at all. Mike Clements, president of Good Humor, the production company founded by Tom Werner ("The Cosby Show"), has a personal policy against reading any sample or script that is not sent to him by an agent. "I make the occasional exception for a friend, or for my aunt," he says. "I just make them sign a release first."

As writers try to find an agent—a feat harder than ever to accomplish in the wake of agency consolidations and layoffs—the slush pile has been transferred from the floor of the editor's office to the attaché cases of representatives who can broker introductions to publishing, TV and film executives. The result is a shift in taste-making power onto such agents, managers and attorneys. Theirs are now often the first eyes to make a call on what material will land on bookshelves, television sets and movie screen.

Still, discoveries do happen at agencies, including the biggest publishing franchise since "Harry Potter"—even though it basically took a mistake to come together. In 2003, an unknown writer named Stephenie Meyer sent a letter to the Writers House agency asking if someone might be interested in reading a 130,000-word manuscript about teenage vampires. The letter should have been thrown out: an assistant whose job, in part, was to weed through the more than 100 such letters each month, didn't realize that agents mostly expected young adult fiction to weigh in at 40,000 to 60,000 words. She contacted Ms. Meyer and ultimately asked that she send her manuscript.

The manuscript was passed on to an agent, Jodi Reamer. She liked what she read, a novel called "Twilight." She signed Ms. Meyer, and sold the book to Little, Brown. The most recent sequel in the series, "Breaking Dawn," sold 1.3 million copies the day it went on sale in August 2008. The latest film grossed more than $288 million in the U.S.

At William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, Adriana Alberghetti only reads scripts sent to her by producers, managers and lawyers whose taste she knows and trusts. The agent says she receives 30 unsolicited e-mails a day from writers and people she doesn't know who are pushing unknown writers, and she hits "delete" without opening. These days, she is taking on few "baby writers," she says, adding that risks she would have taken five years ago she won't today. "I'll take very few shots on a new voice. It's tough out there right now," she says.

Book publishers say it is now too expensive to pay employees to read slush that rarely is worthy of publication. At Simon & Schuster, an automated telephone greeting instructs aspiring writers: "Simon & Schuster requires submissions to come to us via a literary agent due to the large volume of submissions we receive each day. Agents are listed in 'Literary Marketplace,' a reference work published by R.R. Bowker that can be found in most libraries." Company spokesman Adam Rothberg says the death of the publisher's slush pile accelerated after the terror attacks of 9/11 by fear of anthrax in the mail room.

A primary aim of the slush pile used to be to discover unpublished voices. But today, writing talent isn't necessarily enough. It helps to have a big-media affiliation, or be effective on TV. "We are being more selective in taking on clients because the publishers are demanding much more from the authors than ever before," says Laurence J. Kirshbaum, former CEO of Time Warner Book Group and now an agent. "From a publisher's standpoint, the marketing considerations, especially on non-fiction, now often outweigh the editorial ones."

Getting an opportunity in Hollywood as a writer once required little more than affiliation with elite institutions like the Harvard Lampoon, the humor magazine which spawned writers for "The Simpsons" and a host of others. The Web was supposed to dismantle such barriers. And to be sure, the Web has provided a path for some writers who use it well.

Scott Belsky, a 29-year-old Web entrepreneur whose sites include "The 99 Percent," wanted to write a book on how to succeed in the creative industries. To secure representation, he approached agents with data on his Web traffic, samples of reader comments posted on the site, and the number of times various posts had been blogged about, tweeted and retweeted on social-networking site Twitter. This data convinced Jim Levine at Levine Greenberg Literary Agency to take on Mr. Belsky as a client. Mr. Levine used the information to land him a book deal. "Making Ideas Happen" will be published in April by Portfolio, a division of Penguin Group.

"These days, you need to deliver not just the manuscript but the audience," says Mr. Levine. "More and more, the mantra in publishing is 'Ask not what your publisher can do for you, ask what you can do for your publisher.'"

But relationships still trump everything. Consider the path of one television series, "Sons of Tucson," set to debut on Fox in March. The show, a sitcom about kids who hire a ne'er-do-well to stand in as their father after their real dad is sent to prison, was created and co-written by neophytes—a rare event.

Tommy Dewey and Greg Bratman worked hard to get their big break, but because Mr. Dewey had done some acting, he was able to sign with a manager. The manager introduced them to a producer, Harvey Myman, who helped them develop a pilot script and got them a meeting with Fox, which ordered a pilot, then the series.

"Sons of Tucson" shows that unknowns can still make it—if they make some connections. "You really do rely on other people to be the arbiters of what may and may not work," says Marcus Wiley, a Fox TV executive. "If I was an agent submitting to an executive, I'm going to be calling that executive next week for something else. So the chances of me claiming plagiarism are slim," he adds. "This keeps both sides honest."

Despite the refrain that most everything sent to the slush pile is garbage, publishing executives confess to a nagging insecurity of missing something big. "Harry Potter" was submitted to 12 publishers (by an agent), all of whom rejected it. A year later, Bloomsbury published it in the U.K.

In 2008. HarperCollins launched Authonomy.com, a Web slush pile. Writers can upload their manuscripts, readers vote for their favorites, and HarperCollins editors read the five highest-rated manuscripts each month. About 10,000 manuscripts have been loaded so far and HarperCollins has bought four.

The first, "The Reaper," came out in July and sold moderately well. Last November, the publisher released another Authonomy offering, a young adult book called "Fairytale of New York," which has sold over 100,000 copies and is a best seller in Britain. HarperCollins also launched a similar platform for teen writers called "InkPop."

One slush stalwart—the Paris Review— has college interns and graduate students in the magazine's Tribeca loft-office read the 1,000 unsolicited works submitted each month. Each short story is read by at least two people. If one likes it and the other doesn't, it is read by a third. Any submission that receives two "Ps" for "pass" as opposed to "R" for "reject" is read by an editor.

"We take the democratic ideal represented by the slush pile seriously," says managing editor Caitlin Roper.

The literary journal publishes one piece from the slush pile each year. That leaves each unsolicited submission a .008% chance of rising to the top of the pile.

Write to Katherine Rosman at katherine.rosman@wsj.com