Fearful Symmetry, Cheap We Trust, Those Not Ashamed of Economy, and 40,000 bubbles per glass

When I travel--as I'm about to today; I'm going to DC to see three of my favorite cousins for New Year's--I like to pack at least one excellent work each of fiction and nonfiction. I fully expect to return tired (there are two delightful, brilliant, but rather energetic children under six involved) but pleased. I miss them, and they're lovely.

Today's choices are Audrey Niffeneger's Her Fearful Symmetry (so far I'm enjoying it very much--plus, I had to see what the 4.5 mil advance was about) and In Cheap We Trust: The Story of A Misunderstood American Virtue. It was purchased by Little, Brown in October 2007--which is a rather long time between the deal and publication. One can guess, therefore, that the author, Lauren Weber, sold it on the basis of a proposal and sample chapters, rather than a full manuscript--as is possible with nonfiction. (Agents generally try to get the work on bookstore shelves as soon as possible, so that the author can get paid sooner.)

But this worked out remarkably well: the book was purchased before the recession--and, now, it's very, very timely.

It's an amusing and thought-provoking read, and I love works that tell me about books I'd never otherwise have known about. This is an excellent example.

My favorite passage has to do with Weber's pages on Lydia Child. At that time, women were moving to the cities to work and, therefore, the practical knowledge they'd normally get from nearby mothers and grandmothers was replaced by books. Child supported herself and her penniless, idealistic husband with her work, The American Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy. It was printed in 1829, and was an instant bestseller, going back to press at least thirty-five times by 1850 (at which point, Weber writes, it fell out of favor because of Child's very public abolitionist leanings).

As much as I complain about Jeff Bezos, this is one example of Amazon Lurve: I've just ordered myself a copy. A reprint--a "quality facsimile of the 1833 Twelfth Edition." But still! (And for $5, I can hardly complain.) That one can log on and find such things so easily! (There's also a Kindle edition, which is weird for many reasons.) There are several from the 1800s, currently residing with everyday Americans--not professional booksellers. I'm tempted to send them questions: How'd you come by having it? (Hoping, of course, it was passed down, grandmother to granddaughter to granddaughter.) Do you know anyone who used it? Where'd the copy originate? (Hoping it'd have resided somewhere in the Great Plains, someplace distinctly American.) What does it smell like? (Flour, honey, maple?)

One forgets that--if composed politely and charmingly--such inquiries may not be entirely unwelcome. In fact, I think the world could stand many more such letters. What is this? Hundreds of authors bravely write me daily, trying to publish their work, and I can't summon the courage to make such inquiries? Courage, Gatekeeper! Coffee, then courage!

I asked for standard shipping--already, I've such a queue!--but I'll let you know how it is.

On another note, Happy 2010, everyone. (And yes--as I learned at the Korbel winery--there really are 40,000 bubbles per glass of champagne.) To revive a recipe from the now-defunct Gourmeta recipe for champagne punch. I rather like the instruction, "serve the drinks as soon as possible to experience the maximum tickle of bubbles."

Best wishes to you and yours.

Page Count for YA/Fantasy

My ever-increasing word count haunts my dreams and sources seem to vary on what exactly is an acceptable word count. So, basically, what are your personal guidelines for that? At what point does a number get so outrageous that you pass immediately, and what would your ideal range be for YA Fantasy? Does the fact that it's Fantasy allow it any worldbuilding leeway that other genres might not get?

I don't generally pass immediately for this reason unless it's an amount that's truly outrageous (700-800 pages, say). Most important to me in this case (oh, here we go again!) is the author's willingness to edit--to cut down to an acceptable amount and/or turn the work into a two-book, three-book, or more-book collection.

However, that's me. I think a lot of agents would get annoyed past 120,000-140,000 words, and rather miffed if you approach 200,000-250,000.

Fantasy does give you a bit of leeway. You have to create a world and make something happen, after all.

But keep in mind that YA's currently one of the genres with--fittingly, given that it's for teens--the fewest rules. And a page is not a page is not a page. Some books (*cough* Twilight) can have 500+ pages but still feel like 200.

Happy Chrismakwanzika, Writers and Starfish

Feeling particularly warm-hearted yesterday (and also having a slower-than-expected day), I took the advice of a poster and enabled my Canned Responses in the account we use for queries. (I still feel like a jerk using something that can be considered a "canned response," but so be it.) There were three rejection notes total, one standard, one encouraging (for works that, in my estimation, have a relatively good chance), one noting good writing + encouragement.

And, this morning, SEVEN incredibly appreciative notes--thanking me for my timely response.

It's easy, as any sort of office professional, to get into "all or nothing" mode: all queries get a response, or none do.

I'm reminded of a story my mom told me when I was little.  She told me that once, a young woman was walking along the sand, tossing starfish back into the waves so that they wouldn't dry out (and, well, die--but you wouldn't want to tell that to a kid, so "dry out" it was). A man came up and said, "But why do you bother? There are so many. You can't possibly save them all." She looked at him, picked up one, and tossed it in.

"Made a difference to that one," she said.

So, will I respond to every one? I can't; it's impossible, and as I've mentioned before, it can't help but be a lower priority than reading and responding to manuscripts and helping the clients already onboard. (See below--not inaccurate, assuming each item sent to us were printed out and ruffled up a bit.)

But I'll do what I can.

Weird Book Awards!

This one's my favorite, as it appears to break one very large rule of the submissions process: ensure that you work has a large audience. Larger than, say, one every lifetime. (Of course this is a humor book, and intended for all those who like to be amused, but still.)

This is part of the Abe Books Weird Book Room, which includes other winners like Jewish Chess Masters on Stamps, Help! A Bear is Eating Me, and Washer Mouth: The Man Who Was a Washing Machine.

See more here.
I received a very strange gift this year for my recreational-technology-Luddite self: an iPod. I’ve been using a screenless Shuffle for about a year—I resisted it as long as I could (on the grounds of them being an excuse for people to not pay attention to each other) and now there’s this thing, with a screen (!), occupying my pocket.

Its most exciting element (as far as I’m concerned) is a pedometer. I’ve been threatening to get one for years—I see your gym membership and raise you four miles walked/sprinted to the subway a day! Throw in some really heavy groceries carried, some small dogs dodged, a LOT of stairs, and…”

But it also has a little video camera. I’m tempted to walk around the office (“Here’s our pile of queries today! Here’s what our inbox looks like—see that? Two hundred emails! But look! Aren’t my multicolored email labels pretty? Oh look! Here’s our tea collection—rather sizable—and a gorgeous cup of coffee! See now nicely the milk foamer foams?”)

I doubt my boss would be thrilled. But, like I said, tempted. 

The New (Very Old) Sexy Librarian

Just learned this from The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World: Casanova spent his later years as—wait for it!—a librarian. 

You Must Be This Nice To Comment On This Blog (and/or ride The Agent Blog Polar Express)

As I type this, I’m somewhere over the snowy Midwest, so I’m about to return—from the land of the nicest people on the planet (that I’ve met—those sweet, soft, small-town Californians!) to the land of those with the worst kindness reputation I’ve heard. (Much of this is misunderstood, but that’s a topic for another time. See footnote.)

That said, it’s my personal belief that people can and should be polite regardless of situation. There are wonderful examples of this: men in duals treating their opponents as gentlemen (not quite “Thank you, sir, for the opportunity to kill you,” but a certain respect and honor code); women in incredibly awkward situations still being as kind as they can manage.

I don’t want you to censor yourselves: I’d very much like you to feel comfortable to ask any questions you like, with one caveat: please assume that 1) I’m a nice person, 2) I care a lot about writers, their well-being and feelings, and 3) I work very, very hard to help as many writers as I can, whether through constructive feedback, kindly detailed responses, and/or suggestions about what where to send their work (if I have a good idea) and what to do next.

I know that the fact that I reject hundreds of authors a month does not exactly set me up for the kindest inbox in the world. I know I’m hurting large numbers of people who, if they were visitors or people with whom I had a coffee date, I’d probably like a great deal. Oh, believe you me, it’s sometimes sucktastic (and gut-wrenching) from this perspective, too.

But knowing that I’m in a position to make something happen that otherwise wouldn’t—to take on a book every other agent rejected, to say Yes where others have said no, to bring a perspective that just hasn’t found understanding yet, into the world—to know I have this power makes me excited enough about the future books to, well, sleep at night. Which I do. I love sleep.

So. I was a bit disheartened by some of the posts that assumed none of those things. I won’t publish them; I don’t see any reason to do so. But do know that, even if (as a group) we’ve caused pain, the vast, vast majority of agents are nice people who really really love books (in fact, I’d say all do) and writers. I’ve attended a number of conferences; I’ve probably personally met about fifty. I’ve only taken a dislike to three—and taken a great like to many. In fact, I’d totally be BFFs with some of them (ten or fifteen), had we met in other circumstances.

The few I dislike think of books more in terms of (sometimes ruthless) business than art, which I find grating. It’s another approach, but not mine. And I very much doubt any of them blog: they’d probably be too busy leaping into the office (as I saw once), declaring that they’ve just made a million-dollar deal.

Also, should it interest you, I’ve gotten rejections for my work, too. Some from people younger than me, which I find doubly frustrating. (Who do they think they are?! I howled. They’re only a year out of college!) I’m still not exactly sending them Christmas cards, doing “the mature thing”--nor would I, were there a one-click, free method.

So, I do understand.

Footnote on NY:

As I explained to the interested Californians, who’d so warmly made time to see me, strolled with me through the small streets I’d known since I was five—New Yorkers won’t stop for you if you cross mid-block or against the light; they won’t smile at you if they don’t know you, won’t speak to you (unless they’re crazy or need something specific), won’t say more than “Hi, how are you”—but as a formality, a question that’s never answered, when they get you on the phone; they won’t give you right-of-way to be nice, and certainly think nothing of openly glaring if you commit a faux pas and/or slipping into the last seat at a bar or coffee shop even if you’ve been eyeing it for ten minutes but they happen to be closer.

But they will happily give you directions—they’ll good-naturedly argue with each other if they overhear, to ensure that the visitor take the best route possible. It’s not uncommon for three people to advise one tourist. They’ll tell you about restaurants, things to do, places to go. They’ll share their enthusiasms for their great city, and tell you about how it’s changed—keep in mind that most of them were, at one time, new; they remember being lost and don’t want anyone to be. They’ll walk with you up the stairs and down again to point you to the correct train if you can point to and gesture with a map but can’t speak English. They’ll make room for you if there is any way you can squeeze onto a subway bench seat. They’ll tell you about weather, transit, and event advisories.

Mostly, they're just in a rush. As long as you don't get in their way or impede the flow of traffic or talk loudly on the train, nine times out of ten, you're good.

In other words, because they spend so much time in the company of so many people—because they have so many micro-interactions in one day—they’re very, very good with efficient politeness, at making one feel, with few words and a few seconds, good. A lot of politeness, Emily Post wrote, is consideration for others’ feelings, and because these skills become so polished—in addition to counting my steps with my new pedometer, I’d like to count my human interactions in a typical day. Yes. Next quantitative post.

But, best of all, New Yorkers often assume that, because you’re there and surviving in the sometimes-Darwinian city, you’re likely interesting, intelligent, and someone they’ll need to know someday. Put on a bit of black, get yourself into a dinner party, and learn the different rhythms, know better when to jump in. New Yorkers use fewer words but many—many—though hurried—are kindly meant and come across as such. 

Post-Holiday Quantitative Data

"So, how many queries do you think you'll have when you get back?" my dad asked me as he drove down one of four main stretches of our town--which has a speed limit of a whopping 35 mph. (Yes, it's one of those towns where you go to the Safeway and run into three people you know.)

"Oh, probably a thousand," I said.

I'm pleasantly surprised.

Upon returning to New York, I found:

My personal work email: 271 messages
E-Manuscripts: 136--worked super hard to keep them organized before I left
E-Queries: 132 (nice!)
Paper manuscripts/queries: 19.3 inches.
Happy holidays, everyone.
And what do you do if there's only one agent interested and you're not groovin' on his/her suggestions?

Email to set up a phone meeting. It could be as simple as:

Dear [first name of agent],
I'd like to discuss more ideas for editing my manuscript. When would be a good time to talk?

All best,
[Your name]

And yes, phone meetings are always much better than simply calling and hoping for the best.

I certainly agree that you shouldn't implement comments that don't feel right for your vision of the work. This won't be a problem in securing an agent, so long as you present yourself as willing to work. Again, it's not about agreeing with the edits--it's about finding a method that works for everyone and then being willing to do what needs to be done.

Come up with good reasons for why you don't want to make the changes. Print out the email of the agent's suggestions and annotate it with your responses. Make a few bullet points of reasons you don't want to make each change. It's not like it's our edits or the querying highway--our loyalty is, always is, to the book. We don't care if you use our methods. We just want it to work.

Be polite, but present yourself as someone with an alternate, but very valid, vision. Come up with other possible methods to achieve the same ends. Let's say we think one character is stereotypical, so we say to give him something to do, like running an Etsy store. (Again, just as an example.) What if you say, "Oh! But I HATE crafts! I don't see him knitting! NO!" but then supply, "How about, instead, we give him a membership to the American Wine Federation but--oh no!--he secretly hates all grapes/likes everything screw-top/is personally responsible for the cork shortage?"

Convince us you're working in service to the book, that you're willing to do what it takes to make it better, and that you have a viable vision--and most agents are more than willing to meet you (often more than) halfway.

I got blog comment about this that said, "If a writer says to GK, 'I'm going with Snarky because he says it doesn't need any changes and he offered me alcohol whereas you think it needs a complete rewrite and all you sent me is some regifted querylicious tea' then that strikes me as a laziness issue, too. (Besides, who doesn't like tea?)"

Commentator ":)"--I can't tell you how close that is to some of the emails I've received. Agents don't generally offer bribes in beverage form (or bribes at all), and I've never asked anyone to do a complete rewrite, but the rest is remarkably accurate.

I've only come into contact with writers like this twice, but I was annoyed enough to think, "Well! I don't want to work with you, either!"

(Incidentally, I haven't seen either of those manuscripts on the Publishers Marketplace deals pages.)

We're thinking of your career long-term here. We don't want your work to get rejected for being "almost but not quite" and are doing our best to protect you. Enough rejections of that sort and editors are going to be super un-thrilled to read your work. It's like building a bad track before you've even had your work published. Very much ungood.  
"...to assume that a writer is lazy and/or difficult just because they don't agree with your suggested changes really is quite a leap and an opinion I hope you'll reconsider."

That's not quite what I meant: of course these things are subjective, and the reason we don't take work on that doesn't feel just-right for us is that we want to know, intuitively, what to do with it--if the work resonates with us on all the right levels, it's much more likely that we will just know.

So, next time you hear an agent say it's just not quite the right fit, do know s/he's probably just not getting that intuitive rush of ideas, inspiration, and feeling of knowing. I'm not sure I feel it's responsible to take on a work without it. 

But we--or I, anyway--don't offer these suggestions to prospective authors without a note of, "This is your book, and you have to do what feels right with it. But I do think that if you do the following, you'll have a much stronger book."

It's not so much to determine laziness (though--if you were the one reading my correspondence, I believe you'd come to the same conclusion about some of the authors who refuse to make changes) but, again, to determine fit.

But yes, there really are writers out there who will refuse to make a single change simply because they just don't want to work any more. Some even say so. I find it quite amazing: Really? You're willing to write a book for years but aren't willing to spend a few days doing the last .01 percent? 

If my edits and vision for the book don't jive with the author's, we simply shouldn't be working together. It's kind of like giving a better picture of who I'd be as an agent before signing anything. Some agents refuse to do so, stating that they'd hate to give away all of their suggestions before signing an Author-Agent Agreement, for fear of the author taking them and running. This does happen occasionally to everyone; it's a valid fear. But I'm adamant that one must always envision the best-case scenario, and play to that, rather than act out of the fear of what might happen. I've gotten a lot of pleasant surprises over the years.

But in terms of offering edits before signing--and giving, therefore, a better picture of what working together would be like--I can't help but think that's a service to everyone.

Twitter via Fax: "Celery"

I find this a bit sad, actually--anyone else?

"It's given me communication with my family," the featured woman says, "which I didn't really have before."

I'd argue that technology often replaces real communication with communication of the junk food variety--but, of course, the world is different now. Many of my friends are far-flung; surely many families are, too.

Is that a werewolf on the subway, or are you just happy to read me?

One more Shiver comment--it deals with scent in a really interesting way.

Actually, when I read the part near the end, when the protagonist swears she can smell wolf, I was sitting on the subway and suddenly swearing I could smell dog. Wintery dog, with snow-dampened fur. I sniffed, looked up, and from my vantage point, couldn't see any. It was unlikely, anyway, given that 1) it was rush hour (any dog would have a very hard time squeezing in), and 2) the subway has very strict rules about how dogs must be transported--usually involving a carrier, dog clothing and/or muzzle.

But this is the best method I've seen so far:

That's my friend Josh, who recently linked me to this
great article about slush--and his pup, China.

In other words, in the unlikely event of a canine on the subway, their scent is not likely to travel.

So, this is one thing the author did very well.

If a writer can make me experience olifactory hallucinations, she's done something right.

Thoughts on Shiver

Okay. So several of you have commented on this (one Anon in particular) :) and--I must say--there are major problems with the work, but I still like it.

Had this come in through my slushpile, I'd have 1) read the whole thing 2) shown it to my interns and others in the office, who probably wouldn't like it--for the reasons Anon mentioned, and 3) sent a long email detailing edits I would request. Then I'd see how she'd react.

See, this is a sneaky agent trick. If we're on the fence--not just on the fence, but loving some things and hating others--we'll sometimes send edits and see how the author responds.

It's a risk: we know there may be other agents hovering nearby, and sometimes authors will simply go with the agent who first says, "Hi! It's perfect! I'm going to make you the next bestselling author! You'll have a gold-plated private jet, an international tour (starting in Paris), and a big enough advance to buy a castle! How does that sound?"

Okay, I'm exaggerating. (It'd be a mansion, not a castle.) But really. Some authors will go with whatever agent suggests the least amount of work. Their books may be marvelous rough diamonds, but do I really want a writer who doesn't want to work? Over the long term, it's likely to cause problems. I can't say to an editor--assuming the as-is version sells--"That's right, you bought it as-is, and no, you *can't* change that comma on page 203. Nope. Nope. Sorry. Uh-uh. It's incorrect? Splice giving you a headache? Walk it off."

See, there's a little thing in publishing contracts called Acceptance. You don't just get paid when you deliver a manuscript (as per your payout), you get paid when the manuscript is delivered and accepted (approved of) by the house.

So an author who simply refuses to edit, or who doesn't take direction well, may find his/her work suddenly not accepted. Realistically, this usually means that there's an unfortunate back-and-forth between the editor, the agent, and the author, and eventually something's turned in that's accepted. Not always, though. In the worst case, it's possible to get a great big "NEVER MIND" from the publisher. That's never happened to me, thankfreakinggoodness.

Anyway, I digress. Had this been in my slush, I would have sent a long email detailing the following, which I see as problems with the work:
  • First and foremost, this work doesn't follow the traditional dramatic structure (intro, development, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) in the way that I'd hoped. I felt, instead, like there were several rising actions, climaxes, and falling actions--technically, I suppose, we could consider the injection to be the climax, but by that point, I was already adrenaline-fatigued by the earlier "Oh goodness! Look out! Oh my goodness is that...? IS THAT? Oh NO! Oh wait--oh, okay, it's fine again" moments. 
  • Though it's mostly likely unintentional, probably subconscious, the protagonist suffers from a major case of [word that needs to be invented that means "throwing aside everything of importance and/or stability and/or self-interest/self-preservation in order to pursue a young man who is a remarkably bad bet psychologically/emotionally"] -itis. Dude. Seriously. She's going to suddenly not care about school (she'd been doing quite well), her friends (isn't that a major sign of being in an unhealthy relationship?), her previous dreams, and her life (she wants, at one point, to be a wolf too) to go after someone who's only available a half a year, who's made her no promises, who does little other than look cute and get her into bad situations? REALLY? I know, you're going to say it's just fiction. No. There's no "just." Books you read at that age help form your image of the way the world works. It's a hefty authorial responsibility.
Now, for what Anon brought up:

yea her parents were absentee parents, but these days, what parents are 100%? everything else in her life was fine. she had no excuse to be a jerk.

I think her parents were worse than normal parents--they barely noticed her and were out until 3 a.m. regularly. I'd say many parents at least manage to be 80 percent--hers were more like 50 or 60. And not everything was fine. She had friends, yes, but she felt alone and as if she wasn't connecting with them.

it seemed to me that the author was trying to make her female protagonist "strong" by making her rude and cold and sterile, devoid of emotion or interest in creative thought. 

Given the somewhat un-PC and antifeminist sentiment mentioned earlier, I doubt it. I think it's just that's how she came through to the author. I agree she could be more multifaceted.


Um, I did. Cooking's cool, yo. Besides, they needed an at-home activity to keep them busy so they could ask Isabela what they needed to and keep her busy at the same time.

Pardon my inability to jump from 'hello, how are you' to 'would you like to sleep in my bed and fall in love with me for no reason except that we have an Unexplainable Attraction To One Another, even though we have Nothing In Common'

True dat. I love their romantic schedule: nothing, nothing, nothing (for good reason; he's a wolf); he saves her life; he becomes human and that same day sleeps in her bed--and does so regularly for months yet they never do more than kiss--and then, BAM! They "make love." Once. In the whole book. What? At the risk of making rude inferences about the author's love life...

and not mind at ALL that he used to check her out butt-nekkid as a wolf

Yeah, that's creepy. I *really* hope this doesn't mean that young women reading this will think--as the protagonist seemed to--that it's cute if men stalk you. Seriously, it was mentioned three times like, "Aww, yes, wasn't that romantic that you were looking through my bedroom window while in the body of a deadly creature?" And where were her curtains?? Geez.

oh, but they eventually fixed his (already inherently stupid and weakly supported) problem :SPOILER ALERT: with meningitis? REALLY? Really Maggie Stiefvater??? 

I know. I'm not a fan, either. There are so many things wrong with this. First, curing a supernatural condition with a human disease? Great, let's inject some vamps with AIDS/another blood-transmitted disease and see how that goes. Grrrr. So many bad lessons for the kiddies reading. Also, while I believe that Isabela's mother could do some charity work at the clinic, I have a very hard time believing Isabela could manage to 1) dress up as a nurse 2) sneak in unnoticed by her mother or others 3) draw blood from patients without them realizing she's not a nurse 4) store it in the fridge without anyone noticing 5) sneak everyone back into the clinic (um, don't they have security?) and 6) convince everyone to go along with it. Geeez. No no no. 

and then just when you think things Might Actually Go Somewhere -- BAM. The book ends. Time for another FOUR sequels, perhaps????

Well, so far, just one. I just checked Publishers Marketplace, and it was sold as two-book, "significant" deal, at auction. Audio rights have sold for Shiver and a second (called Linger), and movie rights have sold for Shiver.

Sam was a total and complete WUSS. He likes to cry and read Rilke in GERMAN.

I didn't think he was necessarily a wuss, and I liked his reading habits. Unfortunately, emo (but still insensitive) seems to be the new YA male standard.

[He] comes up with the CHEESIEST song lyrics every time Grace does, well, nothing memorable, but somehow seems ravishing to him and his non-beastly/self-contained/sexually-repressed/i-don't-want-to-be-a-monster (Sound familiar, anyone?)/i'm-so-EMO ways

I was okay with the song lyrics. They're delightfully bad--amusing, like finding poems you wrote in high school. But they weren't *all* bad. I think this aspect was actually done quite well--injecting just a bit of teen angst and showing how deeply they feel for each other.

So, yes. I do think it's worth reading--but probably not worth buying in hardcover. For me, it was "read it in three days but only on the subway" good.

And yes, the cover is ridiculously pretty.

Agent Giddiness

In answer to some of your comments--yes, of course, of course we care deeply about the work we take on--and react with intense happiness when it sells.

It's just that some of us are more subdued about it than others. Those who have been in the business twenty, thirty, forty or more years--they probably don't get as bouncy as often, but still, on occasion, do. I hope. It's the glee of these moments that makes the few meh days, when nothing inspires in the slush and the coffee isn't working and I'm out of chocolate and cheese, fade into the background of an otherwise lovely stretch.

I even found myself answering friends--friends who know that I'm a writer, too--who ask things like, "But don't you feel jealous? Don't you wish it was your work? Can you be that close to success and not wish it was yours?" with--Oh, but I do feel like it's mine. It's terrible--it's probably quite dangerous for my writing future, and if ever an old, too-encouraging professor reads this, I'm sure to be in deep trouble, but: it feels, since I love the writing so much, feel it so akin to the vision of what I'd like my writing to, someday, be--it feels like I've brought a book into the world without the enormous work of writing it.

Dangerous indeed.

But then I whip out my dog-eared, now very soft Dorothy Parker and feel inspired again. 

Here's a great post by a new agent writing about all of her feelings on editing and submitting her first project. I think it's a very good portrait. We worry, we work, we love. That's just how it is.

Because I just can't help myself, here's a little video on Dorothy Parker's Roundtable's location--The Algonquin Hotel. My very first visit to New York, my father and I happened to walk by--now that I know the city, I know the incredible unlikeliness of this--and I stopped in the street. "Is that THE Algonquin?" I asked, out of breath. "We're in New York," he said. "Everything is THE everything." We went inside, and I delivered a breathy, very high school, I love Dorothy Parker I can't believe I'm here really really she was here? REALLY? And the very kind concierge showed me the round table (still there! Sturdy 1920s wood) and sent me home with postcards. Which I still have. Sweet.

More Parker stuff--even recordings of her reading her work--here.

Her Morning Elegance

Just saw this--and love it.

Just wait. Twenty seconds in, you'll see why it's so awesome.

Found it on the unusually lovely artsy blog, www.lemonpencil.com

I love notes like this.

That was the nicest rejection I've ever received. :-D Thanks so much for your consideration.

I will definitely implement your advice.

Happy holidays!!

Heart = Warm. 

Awesomesauce. Two-book deal for Delightful Author. Squeeeeeeee!

We've been holding back, Delightful Author and I. The publisher, of course, wanted everything ironed out and official first. Knowing she was probably just bursting (I mean, wouldn't you be, with such news?) I decided to not publicly announce anything--even anonymously--until she could.

But. We just got the go-ahead from the publisher to shout it from the rooftops: we just sold two books! 

(I say "we" because, of course, the writing was a considerable amount of the work!)

This is terribly exciting. Don't tell our other clients--I love all the books I work on--but this work is a favorite of mine. It's a Young Adult paranormal romance, and it made me feel like I was fourteen again--that imagination-captured, cynicism-not-yet-in-place, dizzied with gorgeous images--that kind of reading.

And the author's not bad, either. :) From the first moment I spoke with her, I knew we had a rapport--she's smart, darkly funny, and a positive delight. I mean, how many clients will let you punctuate your official agent correspondence, your surprise at the latest turn of events, with "O-M-G"?

So, Delightful Author and I were busy last week (when I was busy not being run over by holiday-clad firetrucks)  finalizing everything. It was a week of phone calls, flurries of emails, and--of course--drama, drama, drama.

It was a curious day in the office, at the end of it--my boss and I were both waiting to hear back from editors who'd promised us each offers, and we--anxious, tired of waiting for the phone to ring, and thinking of our upcoming office holiday party--put on some music, took the cordless into the kitchen, and cooked. One of our cookbook authors has a delightful recipe for a Mediterranean spread that can be made with either red or green peppers--and we made both. With bell peppers sizzling and popping in the oil, a gorgeous CD of arias blasting,  and the radiator exhaling sweet puffs of warmth, I found myself feeling very, very thankful.

It couldn't have possibly worked out any better.

We ended up with a two-book deal (sweet!) with an editor who gets the book more than I could have ever hoped. She's a Joss Whedon fan, an editorial genius, really funny, and kind. There was some drama because there were several editors interested--after all, agents do toss out work hoping that someone will fall in love with it; when that happens with multiple people, it's never easy--and also, of course, these are people we like and want to keep happy, as it's quite possible we'll be sending them books for the next forty years--but after so much thinking, I wholeheartedly believe Delightful Author and I made the right choice.

The books will be published by Penguin in 2011.
Jamie brought up an interesting point in the Shiver post comments: we almost see "being HAWT" as a superpower.

Could someone take that idea and run with it? Pretty, pretty please? Jamie gets right of first refusal. After that, just have a draft on my desk first thing...next year. Yes.
Lovely post from Jim at Dystel & Goderich on Random House and digital rights.

Seems like good cause for evil laughter. Heh, heh, heh. I love that publishers have the gumption to slow down digital releases (so as to keep the prices from dropping to $9.99--take that, Bezos!) and that agents have very good reason to believe that contracts drawn up before the days when digital rights were explicitly mentioned keep the rights with the author.

Shiver, dessert sushi, and L train cheer

I'm rather liking Shiver, actually--I would have said yes to it, though I still think it needs some edits. (Perhaps this could be a running thing--how I analyze books that anyone can find, so you can get a sense of my super-duper high-speed agent analysis process.) More soon.

Things have gone from busy to (eggnog-scented) warp speed! Party every day before I hop a plane to CA and see as many people as I possibly can in ten days. While munching cookies.

I made these little guys for a hipster (Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based) party this Saturday:

That's rice krispie treat rolled around a gummy worm, sliced, then dipped in dark chocolate tinted green to look like nori. The ones in the center have frosting and chopped red gummi worms to look like roe. I used Hershey's Dark chips. Temper them in the microwave by nuking 30 seconds on high, stirring, then another 30 seconds. You can see a way awesomer version (but whoa, time-consuming) here. And more practical but still cute, here.

The hipsters (who make a habit of eating sushi for most of their meals) were impressed--including some who saw me carry these on the train. "What is that?" I heard a guy say behind me. "They're dessert sushi," his girlfriend said. I turned around, grinning. "Yes, they are!" We all laughed. Ah, holiday cheer. Has the New Yorkers being pleasant to strangers before pouncing on the last seat on the L train.

Hope you're well and enjoying your holiday season.

Natalie Portman to produce and star in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies movie


I figured out why I like Love And Other Natural Disasters so much: all of the relationships, except those  between the protagonist and her children, are ambiguous--and much of the book is spent sorting them out. 

Also, pages 300-308? Um...wow. Don't read that in a public place. Unless you're, you know, one of those people capable of affecting a bored expression no matter what. I was on the train when I read it--I'm sure I was blushing--but was I about to stop reading when he--and then she--and then they--and then he said...?

Goodness, no.

Love And Other Natural Disasters

There's something terribly comforting, for me, about women's fiction. These works--dealing with how women feel and interpret the world, usually featuring relationships--are just distracting enough (Can't look away, oh no, what's going to happen?!) without making me worry about blood, guts, gore, or (usually) death. The settings are usually familiar, the characters sympathetic--and there's often some element of vicarious thrill (the protagonist has an amazing job/lots of glamor/the most romantic man ever/great clothes/anything one would enjoy having and reading about).

I'm reading Love And Other Natural Disasters (another impulse-borrow from the library), and loving how unabashedly it deals with--well, with feelings, and their nuances. (It may help that the author is a relationship therapist--and, quite amusingly, she makes fun of other therapists in the work.) It creates an entire world that many male readers simply wouldn't understand--but it just doesn't care. Brava, Ms. Shumas. The sentences aren't Oh, my, that was so eloquent, I'll read it again and again and quote it on my Facebook status! beautiful, but I hardly notice them, in favor of getting further in the story--another sort of great writing. I feel like I should have little half-book icons for this purpose, but: I found it "read half of it in a day" good.

So if, to you, women's fiction is the literary equivalent of hot cocoa and well-worn bunny slippers--it's a book to consider. Check out its concept first--you can guess a fair amount from that. The author also offers (I imagine it depends on distance/her timing/other circumstances) to visit your book club (!) if you feature her work.
An addendum: I suppose what I meant is that there are rarely superpowers/supernatural qualities to female protagonists that make them less...pretty.

Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater

Just picked this up at the library today--an "impulse borrow" that emphasizes the total awesomeness of the NYPL.

Aside from the cover design (gorgeous) and its publisher (Scholastic, who seems to have a knack for putting out books that capture my imagination and make me feel like a wonder-filled kid reader again), the concept is really, really neat.

Each chapter comes with the temperature of the day described, and it would appear (obviously I could look it up, but I don't want to ruin the surprise--and nothing's worse than trying to force the work, as you read it, into how you pictured it from the summary) to be about a werewolf and a human. Don't quote me on that. I'm, like, ten pages in.

One question--why is it that, in paranormal romances, the young woman involved (that's another thing--they're often heteronormative) is often the human, and the young man is often the one with powers/gross manifestations of being non-human? When YA female characters have special powers, they add to her appeal--make her more powerful, but certainly, also, more dignified. I've yet to see a female protag that, you know, oozes alien goo.

I imagine it's based on a deep assumption that female readers want to be able to identify, on some level, with the women in the story--and that it's somewhat difficult if they're, well, supernaturally gross. (Unless they had supernatural make-up...ooh, now what would that involve?) I don't think it's just the age level--I've yet to see sticky/slimy/yucky older female protagonists, too. But perhaps I am forgetting them.

Hypotheses, anyone?

Or supernatural make-up you'd invent for your characters?
Where've I been? Did I get mowed down by an adorably holiday-clad firetruck? Happily, no--though they are awfully cute, what with their tree lights and wreaths and bows.

Things are very busy in agent-land. I've been in touch with a bunch of editors (surmise as you will--I'll never tell!) lately, and have come only to appreciate them more.

Now, a quick quiz:

What do editors have the least of, compared to their needs, and therefore consider most valuable?

Is it A) Work?

Um. No.

B) Money?

Better guess--no one goes into the industry to get rich.

C) Time?


Just so you know, these brilliant creatures are logging ridiculous hours (much more ridiculous than mine--though I've been known to send emails to writers at 11 pm), and ridiculously low pay (often without overtime), to work on their labors of love.

So, next time you hear someone complain about how publishing works, ask them the last time they worked from 8am to 8pm, at a very low rate, without overtime, perhaps without a decent lunch, under an enormous amount of pressure from all sides, fully planning to take a few hours of work home with them, all while spouting brilliance and kindness and thoughtfulness on demand several times a day--and considered it a normal day at work.

Yeah. Consider that, angry authors. (And here I mean, of course, the writers who do no research whatsoever and then consider the industry and everyone in it evil when their submission goes badly--anyone reading this does not fit into that camp)

Why do editors do it? Because they hate you and hate books and are devoid of all etiquette and would trample on all authors and take all their money if given the chance?

No. Because they love books, have a limited amount of time, and are going to do their darndest to bring their very favorites into the world.

If anything, this week has renewed my faith in the editing few. They jumped through enormous hoops, geographical, financial, logistical, educational, intern-able, connection-al, luck-able, brilliance-prove-able--to be where they are today. They're the best of the best.

Hats off to you, eds. And mittens, scarves, and earmuffs, too.

The Hunger Games & Catching Fire

I hereby propose a series of comments--yes, the ones that are hidden and only visible by clicking below--to discuss The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. I'm about 2/3 through the latter, and my! It sure would be nice to exclaim about them with someone. So! I'll start us off:

Isn't Peeta's unorthodox cooking technique adorable and terrifying?

And did anyone else almost cry (in public) when the man whistled R's tune from the arena?

Subconscious Sorting

I like my brain, particularly the workings of it that I can't directly experience.

So when, like today, I wake up thinking of a manuscript I started reading last week--one that needs a lot of work (well, a medium amount of work, as edits go), but that creates an amazingly vivid mood--I know it's a good idea to get back on that, and soon.

We had our first snow flurries last night. I had friends over, and each brought something to make a lasagna. I'd spent the day making strange colors and shapes and pinwheels out of sugar cookie dough and food coloring (and now there are neon color sets! So strange).

With Stash's "White Christmas" (white tea, green tea, and mint) tea and some cuddly pillows, I read on.
Ugggggh. As if I haven't given enough of my hours to the electrical devices. Now--rather unfortunately--a writer has a very good point: "Why You Should Be On Twitter If You’re a Writer (or literary agent, editor, publisher, book publicist)."

Can't I just, I don't know, go back to paper mail and candles for light? Please? Pretty pretty candlelit please?

I will placate myself with a few lines on wax seals.

I had a kit in high school, and used it to seal all of the invites to the poetry club I was forming. (I called it "Algonquin Junior"--we wanted a writers' roundtable but were hardly ready for some of the extracurriculars of Dorothy Parker and friends.) I learned a few very important lessons that, should you get a kit, no one will tell you beforehand:

  1. The wax is very hot, and very very sticky. Should you get it on your hand, unless you have a glass of cold water nearby, you'll have a blister for a week. 
  2. You need more wax than you think to keep it sealed.
  3. Unless you moisten the stamp before you push it into the wax, it'll stick. I suppose you could get an envelope moistener, but a quick lick will do.
Okay. I'm off to my (not candlelit; it's bad for the eyes), all-devices-off reading. One does need a break sometimes.

The comments are going crazy! Check it out. Anger, hostility, snark, brilliance, technology, and lots of "that just doesn't work" stuff.

I am hereby putting on my "stop flying tomatoes aimed at the Gatekeeper" shield. Unless they're salted and covered in mozzarella. Then I will reach around said shield and eat them. Yum.

Here's one particularly insightful comment:
"There's no way to win with rejections."
True DAT.

On the Agent-Editor Lunch, OR: "I'm a big fan of the caffeinated beverage!"

Perhaps you've heard about this time-honored tradition which has, even in the recession, held firm: editors invite agents to lunch and, over carefully munched breads and butters and pastas and salads and (rarely) drinks, we chat about ourselves, our books, the business--and then branch off and go from there.

It's a bit of an intimidating proposition--it means an hour with someone you've never met whose opinion of you could change your career. I always seem to picture the editors as fifty-plus, six feet tall, wearing heels that could kill someone and a glare that says, "You, young lady, have not been around enough to know anything. And you used the wrong fork."

It's never like this, of course, and I'm pretty good with forks, but I have a vivid, catastrophic imagination.

I knew I liked the editor I met with this week from her very first email. She was kind, and when I had to reschedule due to illness, made (appropriate) jokes about H1N1. I agreed to any restaurant on the West Side (crosstown buses are not my friend) with a vegetarian option, and she suggested an entirely veggie restaurant in the West Village near a major subway hub. I liked her even more.

It was on one of those side streets that can still support hobby stores: there were three tiny chess shops just on that block. Sweet. Economy still chugging. I'm sporting heels, pencil skirt, fancy but difficult-to-keep-arranged cowl-neck sweater, earrings I purchased for the occasion, and an updo that, I hope, keeps my curls in place (must have used about thirty bobby pins).

She comes in in a messenger bag and flats. I'm overdressed, but I don't care. (Better than being under-dressed.) Turns out we have lots in common: she's from the same state, and from a mid-sized city where my grandparents live; we both spent  years in the theatre; we both think people in publishing are lovely and we have many of the same friends, and live in adjacent Brooklyn neighborhoods. We both attended school near NYC and have lots to say about the cultures of each coast, and--most interesting, because so few people will discuss it--very similar positions on women and society. (And relatives who'd love us to focus more on dating.)  "I'm going to just say it," she said, "forgive me, but feminism"--and I nod knowingly; somehow discussing these things is just fine before the F word comes up--"is in a sorry state, but no one knows quite how to articulate it." We agreed that a re-branding is necessary. Say this to the wrong person and you'll get a funny look and, perhaps, a drink in the face (or, in my friend's case, pink razors in the mail). Bravery on her part. Further awesomness.

I ordered nifty dumplings and soba noodles; she got these totally amazing, avocado-filled enchiladas.

And we started to discuss outside activities. She has a number of other projects going, and is wonderfully multifaceted. And she, too, occasionally teaches classes. I'm just thinking that she'd be great at teaching when she says, "Yes, I can see you as a teacher; you're very personable."

I hold onto my tea a little tighter. "Well," I say, smiling, "I'm a big fan of the caffeinated beverage."

So, yes. Why would publishers pay for editors and agents to eat lunch? Because it's connections like these that mean so much more than a listing: "Hi, I'm ______, and I like ______________ genres" means very little.

Now, for the next thirty or forty or so years we're in the business, she's filed as a person in my mental, intuition-searchable catalog, and if I have a project that seems the right feel for her, she'll be included on the list. Intuition always works better than logic in these matters. In fact, it would seem a lot of editors buy by feel rather than by genre, anyway.

Math, Anger, Pie--and the freedom to say Yes more often

I found this recently as a comment on a post about whether or not one should query during the holidays. (Big lesson: it's not optimal. The blog is good, though.)
"I realize agents are busy, but if you send a equery, it would take them no time at all to actually send a rejection. We writers are required to stand on our heads for agents and publishers, so to speak, but they often can’t even bother to invoke an auto rejection which could take just a few seconds. Guess I need to write a book on how not to be rude in business."
Actually, that's not, strictly, true.

Let's say I have 200 queries in a day--for those of you who've been following my various posts about the numbers of queries and manuscripts I have, this is a pretty fair guess--especially after a conference, interview, or event--or a Monday, if they've been collecting all weekend.

Okay. So let's say I'm staring down 200 e-queries. Forgetting the time it takes to read, evaluate and/or discuss them ("Hey, do you want a book on alien skateboards? Okay..."), assuming it takes 10 seconds just to copy, paste, send, and get to the next query (it'd take more, but for the sake of argument, ten seconds), that's:
  • 2,000 seconds, or 33.3 minutes every single day--or: 
  • 2.775 hours a week 
  • 11.1 hours a month, and 
  • 133.2 hours (3.3 work weeks!) a year. 
Assuming I work 40 hours a week, that's nearly 7 (actually  6.925) percent of my total time just rejecting queries. Copy, paste, copy, paste. That's 7 percent less time I can spend reading manuscripts, saying yes, giving thoughtful responses, and focusing on the work that might have a chance. I know it doesn't sound like much, but we cram as much as we can into our days--seven percent is a lot.

And, I know authors think that we get to sit and read all day (I wish!), but it's actually less than half the day. We also help out our current authors, meet with editors, put out fires, and do all of the other things that keep a business running.

So if this is evenly distributed over all five days (it isn't, but again, for the sake of argument), I spend a third of the day (probably most accurate) reading queries and manuscripts, then that 7 percent of the total day spent copying and pasting is really 21 percent of my total reading/responding time.

We instituted a new system, months ago, in which we give authors a time frame (via an automatic response that confirms receipt) in which we will either say Yes--or a No is to be assumed. A lot of agents have started doing this. It just has a computer do the copy-paste for us, and yes, it's probably agony waiting. But it's still the same response time, if not less, than you'd have at another agency.

Does it really matter whether one physically, individually sends you a form letter? I imagine it's a little better. But.

One of the nice side effects of this is that suddenly I find myself saying Yes more often--because I have more time. Seven percent more (often)? I'm not sure. I haven't checked. But it's probably around there.

Some agents say that they do not give anything but form rejections to manuscripts because it frees them up to read more manuscripts.

I've chosen automated rejections to queries so that I have more time to give thoughtful responses to the work I resonate with and know well. (I'd also like to think my skills have a better use than getting better acquainted with the CTRL, C, and V buttons.) Should I spend time personally form-rejecting the unsolicited masses or compile all those seconds to spend writing back to authors when I have good, solid suggestions, helpful feedback, and a nuanced sense of what the work is and what its goals are?

I think it's time better spent.

On a lighter note (whew, I'm getting all worked up!...and feeling like a jerk), I'll end with something sweet.

I love this pie:

Evil Author Prevails (sort of)

So, he called, as promised, asked the result of our taking a look at his work. (Uggh. To expect an answer the same day--and to call to get it!)

He came by the next day (the day after he dropped off his work!) and was, surprisingly, actually rather nice. He got his quick NO (no no no no no no no never); we got the proposal out of the office, and no one was killed by a freshly rejected author. With a forcibly administered paper cut. To the eye.

Could have been lots worse!