The postman always rings twice--

--at least, ours does. He's very friendly and, every time he drops something off, I say something like, "Ehhh, more work?" and he replies, "Yup, more work!"

Today, however, the mail was excellent--it contained:
  • Two hand-written thank-you notes
  • One ARC (yessssss!)
  • One t-shirt and Author-Agent Agreement from a new client.
Let me explain the t-shirt: the writer is, well, pretty awesome. He's an actor, writer, and surfer couture designer. So when I offered him representation over the phone, he said--as is only proper--that he'd speak with the other interested agents and get back to me.

A week later, I get an email: "What's your t-shirt size?"

I reply. And then I ask if he's spoken with the other agents, and--I kid you not--he writes, "LET'S DO THIS!!!"

The shirt is yellow and pretty darn amazing. On the back, it has a big swordfish, and reads, The swordfish: the ocean's ULTIMATE DUELER.

You'd think I'd feel silly going around in a yellow surfer tee (actually, I immediately put it on over my business casual, much to the amusement of my intern) that's so obviously California-style, but I'm quite pleased. Now I just need some Vans, a Roxy bag, and a hoodie--and I'll be hella stylin'.

I sometimes take Kendo (swords) classes. The shirt would be perfect, no? Dueling fish, dueling swords. (My instructor has since offered to fight a swordfish, but not in the ocean, which would be the fish's home turf--er, surf--and therefore an unfair advantage.) Good times.

Mr. Gladwell, Outlier--and the making of bad puns in rejection notes

There's an excellent function of Gmail that has saved me on many an occasion: the Undo (undo-send, that is) button.

I was composing a note to a writer about her style--which was a bit too journalistic. It isn't my preference, I wrote, but, then again, Mr. Gladwell seems to get away with a rather journalistic style just fine. (He is, of course, an Outlier...har har. Many apologies--too much caffeine this morning.) 

I think it reasonably important to appear reasonably professional--I generally refer to those obviously over fifty as Mr./Ms.--and no one wants to be rejected by a maker of bad puns.

That said, I'm continually annoyed when I see that Gladwell's ("Mr." purposely left off) still on the bestseller list. Really? Really? I found Outliers predictable--his conclusions are obvious pages before he makes them--and, though I tossed it out before finishing it, other writers have noted that he doesn't use a single female example of genius.

You'd think I'd have some sympathy for him--after all, he has my hair type, and I generally like those who also have wild curls--but no. Not at all.

Next time I see his name on the bestseller list, I'm going to *blink*, make a smart and quick and predictable decision, and be certain that section of the paper finds its tipping point into the trash bin below.
I'm just going to play :)'s advocate and say that your passive verbs (was/are/were) have risen from 3 in the first example to 10 in the second.

That's 333.33% more, which would be great in one's Raisin Crunchies (if one liked raisins, which I don't) but in an opening page, wouldn't (or mightn't, depending on the personality involved) that make an agent think, "Amateur"?

How can be curb the pronoun party without turning all passive voice-y?

You're completely right: passive voice is not ideal.

That said, not to scare you, but the speed at which we read most manuscripts does not allow for us to think "Now, is that passive or active? How many of those were there? Well, if more than 16.73 percent of verbs are passive, then I'll pass..."--rather, we see what words hit us again and again as they go by. 

It drives me simply nuts when the narrator is so closely following the protagonist that we learn every little movement (which brings on the many uses of name and pronoun). It also drives me nuts when any word is repeated too many times. (How many is too many? No scientific data on that yet.) Also bad--repetitive sentence rhythm, also linked to this problem. 

So. Before I turn into a filbert, Brazil, or almond, I'll state that I'd be far less annoyed by example number two than example number one. Is this subjective? Yes. Is it an opinion likely to be held (ha, passive!) by other agents as well? Yes. 

That said, should you find your prose entirely passive, you *could* put everything in the present, versus past, tense--which makes the passivity a little less obvious. But that opens up a whole new can of organic worms, and Jane would mow those down without a second thought. And, I imagine, they're difficult to get out of Prius tires. 

Gatekeeper's current reading

Believe it or not, as soon as I'm done reading manuscripts for the day and, weather-dependent, being out and about--what does Gatekeeper most crave (if Hulu is not on the menu)? More books.

So, here's what I'm reading now:
  • The Three Weissmanns of Westport: dreadfully sad. Good writing, perhaps not good enough to compensate for aforementioned sadness. That said, I only got about 40 pages in before deciding to re-sell it on Amazon. Maybe it's really super happy after that.
  • 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: I was so excited to read this. I went out and bought the tome almost immediately. Then I started reading it, and realized that there's a reason it reads like a college philosophy textbook--because it's written by someone who writes them. Snore. Re-selling.
  • The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope: I watched the excellent Netflix Watch Instantly version, and promptly picked this up. (It's also, btw, free on Kindle.) The descriptions are excellent, and so much more interesting than the movie version, it feels almost like a different work. Fans of Jane Austen (who don't mind a more cynical outlook) would be fans of Mr. T's. 
  • The Penelopiad: So far, lyrical and sad. But what else do we expect from Ms. Atwood?
  • Avalon High: makes my teeth hurt for sweetness and predictability but, like all of Cabot's works, a lot of fun.
  • I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do): life in a small village in Brittany: Great fun. The perfect beach (or stay-in-on-a-sunny-day-and-pretend-it's summer) read. Sand on your floor, sand castles, flip flops optional. Delicious.
  • Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn: So far, pitch-perfect chick lit. 
  • The Art of Eating In : how I learned to stop spending and love the stove: Really fun, until it gets gimmicky. The cat, Dracula, is overused as an "I may get really hard recipes perfect the first time with a lot of improvisation even though I have zero cooking experience but look, look at me, I'm self-deprecating!" device. To come: a post on the careful art of graceful, pitch-perfect self-deprecation. 

The Help

It's delightful when works surprise me.

The Help is a combination of many things I generally don't like:

  • multiple perspectives 
  • writing that often does not conform to standard spelling (so as to match the characters' voices)
  • a page count well over 400
  • and--because I'm a contrarian--a #1 position on the NY Times bestseller list.
Guess what? I love it.
Just a reminder about the Pitch Pride & Prejudice, Get Zombies contest--deadline for your breezy query is April 5.

Prize is a signed copy of bestselling writer Carrie Ryan's newest book, The Dead-Tossed Waves. 

An alternative to the overutilization of protagonist names and pronouns--but keep the cupcakes.

Several of you have asked what the alternative is to using pronouns, names, and other things that quickly weigh down the text and make your sentences too predictable.

So, here's Jane, take two. Scroll down to see the original version.

I'm not saying you need to take them all of the pronoun calories out. But go for lowfat milk, versus cream.

That said, you have a few things to rely on: statements ("it was tempting in situations like this" and "they were, indisputably, the most important");  careful use of passive voice (again, not too much!); making other entities active ("the homeowners' association would not be pleased"), and descriptions that imply the same thing ("the buckles fastened easily" instead of "she put on her shoes").

Surely there are more--what techniques have you found?

Here you go.
  • Mondays were dreadful. 
  • Jane rolled off her bed, and noticed that all the cereal was gone.
  • The shower was filled with terrible, unlikable mold.
  • Toweling off, she put on her shoes. 
  • They were, indisputably, the most important part of an outfit. 
  • Today, gladiator pumps are the shoe of choice. The buckles fastened easily; the blisters would come later. 
  • After work, there was one pleasant spot in the day: meeting Geoffrey, the ideal boyfriend, who strongly resembled a Ken doll. 
  • After turning off the light, she picked up her bag, and left the house.
  • She got into her Prius, gunned the engine, and promptly flattened a squirrel.
  • Squirrels are terrible. 
  • The homeowners' association would not be pleased about scraping squirrel off the asphalt. 
  • The beauty magazines advised against frowning; that said, it was tempting in situations such as these. 
  • She reapplied her lipstick and screeched over the center dividing island--after all, what else was four-wheel drive for?--and pulled into the best parking space. 
So, that's five, instead of fourteen. 

This is a reduction of 64.28 percent. So, to be mathematical about it, you are now entitled to cupcakes that are 64.28 percent larger.

Like this one:

(It takes up a whole cake stand! OMG.)


The overutilization of protagonist names and pronouns--and cupcakes

A common, first-manuscript-page mistake: referring to what your protagonist is doing so much that your first page soon reads like (if you have a female protagonist named Jane):
  • Jane didn't like Mondays.
  • She rolled off her bed.
  • She had already eaten all of the cereal.
  • Because it always had mold, she disliked her shower.
  • She toweled off and put on her shoes.
  • She thought shoes were the most important part of an outfit. 
  • Today, Jane wore gladiator pumps. 
  • She was looking forward to meeting her boyfriend. 
  • After turning off the light, she picked up her bag, and left her house.
  • She got into her Prius, gunned the engine, and promptly flattened a squirrel.
  • She disliked squirrels.   
  • That said, the homeowners' association, of which Jane was a member, would not be pleased about scraping squirrel off the asphalt. 
  • She frowned. 
  • Reapplying her lipstick, Jane screeched over the center dividing island--after all, what else was four-wheel drive for?--and pulled into her favorite parking space. 
It's not even that so many sentences begin the same way--or that many are of similar length and rhythm, which is another thing to avoid--it's that your fictional world will automatically be fuller if you describe things without always attaching them to the protagonist. (That is, without doing the fiction equivalent of writing "I think" before every statement in an essay.) No bueno. 

Use your handy-dandy CTRL-F button (or Apple-F on a Mac--that button is called "Apple," yes?) and count how many "she/he"s and protagonist names there are in your first page. Give yourself a point for each (ideally, you'd have the smallest number possible), plus a mini-cupcake. (I would say a shot, but that will not help.)

Then eat said mini-cupcakes as you find new ways of describing your fictional world. 

Today's submission? 14 points. Ouch. More than a dozen. My teeth hurt.

The Agent and The Board Room

Check out the room they chose for my pitch sessions! This, combined with the weather, the pool, and the deliciousness of grits, means I heart Florida.

Plus, everyone is so nice--and so calm!

Not to worry. As writers enter, they'll see my giant teacup, a mess of mini-muffins, and a paper plate field of catered strawberries. If that doesn't take the edge off the room, I don't know what would.

Gators: 0
Flying roaches: 0
Grits: Yummy.

The Middle Way: A new method of timing your queries

As those of you who've been reading awhile know, I'm a big proponent of big, "get everyone you'd like to represent you at once" submissions--this way, if even one agent expresses interest, you can go back to all of the others with this tantalizing information and drum up interest elsewhere.

But there is, of course, a caveat: if you're a writer who's never written a query letter before--never been a writer-for-hire, never interacted with agents or read pitch letter books and/or feel, for perhaps good reason, unsure of your letter--if you submit to all of your top-choice agents at once, and they all say no, you're out of luck until you write another book. (At which point you can query your second book and, if they take it on, discuss your first project.)

Here's a middle way: collect a pool of agents for your work and send your query to either 5-7 agents or 1/3 of your total--depending, of course, on how many agents might be a good fit. (Women's fiction will have many more than spec fic.) Now, when you choose these agents for your experiment, choose those who are somewhere in the middle--not your very favorites, not the ones who are on the list just-because.

Note the reactions: if no one asks to see more or offers anything more than a form letter, assume your query is not quite there yet--and seriously consider revamping.

If you get personalized feedback from 1-2 agents, seriously consider what it suggests. There's often a lot of meaning hidden in 1-2 jotted lines. (Stephen King has an excellent example of this in his On Writing.) Get your girl friends--the ones who brilliantly analyze male voice mails (voicemale!)--and a trusted critique partner to go over them with you. Note both what they say and what they don't say. Sometimes--but not always!--complimenting one aspect of your work is the same as telling you another aspect isn't quite there yet.

If you get a request to see your manuscript, send it off, and see how that goes. Especially if you get more than one request--or an enthusiastic, personalized request--you can assume your query is most likely just fine, and ready for the rest of the agents.

The minute any agent offers you representation, if you haven't done so already, make sure all of the agents on your list have your query. If you've just sent the queries to a number of agents, wait 24 hours (or, to make it seem more organic, 22 or 26) and send them an email to let them know you have an offer of representation (be sure to put this in the subject line--Offer of representation for [name of work]).

Et voila--you get both the agent feedback test and the benefits of having interest to breed more interest--which really, if it's truthful--trust me, we'll know if you're lying--does get our attention.

I'm off to the land of (as I picture it) alligators, flying roaches, and men in pink golf shirts--for a conference.

Now, why in the world do agents attend conferences when there are such threats?

Well. In addition to all of the productive reasons--looking for new clients, meeting editors--we like meeting writers, we like talking with them about their work and their friends' work and what it's like to be a writer in another location, where the profession is quite likely to be somewhat less mainstream. (But, then again, most writers still find a way to adopt the outsider's/observer's perspective, so I imagine this is only increased.) There's something about being surrounded by creative people--I always take my laptop and, as if it were a wifi connection, feel as though I tap into the smart writer vibes gathered in that one location.

I enjoy just hanging out and hearing about lives in different parts of the country. One conference had me seated at a table of gun-toting (not at the conference, but) Texans who had serious, kindly discussions about when was the right time to trust a child with a deadly weapon. They were very nice--and very funny.

I've heard stories of incredible, rare, dangerous diseases--and surviving them; I've met poets who firmly believe in words being the means of saving our world from certain destruction--and met friends who I invited up to New York for a "New York is so awesome" tour.  There are young writers who are incredibly savvy and older writers who are just beginning. Some are hopeful, some are angry, some consume two bottles of wine at dinner and then park themselves next to me. I've been invited to wild writer parties (I always feel I must decline--though I've been tempted), questioned on my political views at a table of loudly political doctor-writers, munched hors d'Ĺ“uvres seaside, learned all about carbalicious cooking in other locales, begged people to go golfing--and to let me drive the golf cart, sat in on writing workshops, jotted pages and pages of notes.

There have been exhausting days--days of ten-minute pitch sessions for eight hours; days where the writers literally run in, on whistle-command, shake hands, and talk very quickly--hoping I'll say yes or no within three minutes. Their shoulders were up to their ears; I heard reports of near-panic attacks in the waiting hallways--as if they were about to audition for the show of a lifetime.

There have been late planes, late trains, late pick-ups, lots of running in heels. Business professional seems meant for 2-3 hours, the length of an editor lunch--not 8; pencil skirts and their "hide the seam between tucked in button-down and skirt" belts bite into skin. (Most publishing offices are "anything but jeans" and I think, like exercise, such clothes must be gotten used to.) But it's also fun--part of the pageantry, so to speak. To be "on" for three days is, in some ways, thrilling.

So, yes. Gatekeeper and a stack of business cards--plus a little rolling office/suitcase--are on the road this weekend. If you don't hear from me next week you can, I suppose, assume the alligators got me--and my business professional, too.

Forthcoming Julia Child work: As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto.
From agent Joshua Bilmes:
"I’ve been in the business 25 years, it’s been dying for that entire time, and it’s many years ago that I started telling people that if that’s what it was really doing it would need to have actually died by now."
See more here and here.

Seven Types of Bad Writing

Seven Types of Bad Writing |

Small Press Database...

...from Poets & Writers, here:*

Hints for the Pitch Pride & Prejudice, Get Zombies Contest--and queries in general

Extra credit for the Pitch Pride & Prejudice, Get Zombies pitch contest, and queries in real life:

  1. Do research. You could go looking in the Jeff Herman for an agent who, you think, would be interested in the story--look, perhaps, for women's fiction and historical fiction agents.
  2. Come up with publications that would prove a writer of P&P would be a good writer. That is, Field & Stream credits would not be as interesting as, say, a piece on dating for a women's magazine.
  3. Come up with some great lines to launch into your pitch--some of the best queries read like book jacket copy.
  4. Check out some standard-issue query formats: see my post on Sample Query Format.

Best. Zombie. Reading. Ever.

You know I had mixed feelings about the hopelessness of Forest of Hands and Teeth--the deaths, the ending, the zombies.

But after meeting Carrie Ryan--one of those authors who exudes effortless friendliness, wit, warmth and writerliness--I'm won over. (Plus, The Wind-Tossed Waves sounds more sophisticated and very nifty. Her reading was pleasing; she described the zombies and their bloodshed in a manner almost cute.)

Ryan spent much of her life terrified of horror films, and never thought of FOHaT as horror--just a book that happented to be scary.

She was in law school--or, perhaps at that point, working as a lawyer--writing women's fiction and feeling stuck. (But, looking back, her early works involved a good dose of darkness.)

She had a sentence appear in her mind--the sentence that begins FOHaT, about a mother telling a story of the ocean--whipped out her blackberry, and sent it to herself. Within a matter of weeks, she had 20,000 words.

She always--when dragged to horror films--wondered about the characters that--after the initial three weeks or so--still have the energy to keep fighting to stay alive, even if the world, as they knew it, was over. You could burrow into an attached home, perhaps, hope your neighbors had been hoarders--but what do you do when you're out of canned tuna?

I never ask questions at these things, but I coudn't help it: I asked about finding the enery to keep writing, after the initial three weeks or so, what to do after the (tuna or) chocolate-covered espresso beans are gone.

She gave a really good answer: five years out of college, one of her friends got dream book deal--the quit your job and stay home and write deal. And all she could think was--if she'd been writing instead of studying law--could she have be at that point in her career, too? She simply didn't want to waste five more years.

But when she finished FOHaT, she was convinced it was just too weird--that no one would ever want a book about zombies, ever.

So, convinced no one would want a book about zombies--and this is an excellent point: when you are writing something at the very beginning of a trend, you won't see any evidence that you're on the right track, as the other books on the topic won't be out yet--Ryan sent her manuscript to the only agent she knew of that had a zombie book. And, luckily, it worked out.

She had the contract, and her boss at her law job--she was working on high-end estates and trusts, exactly what she would want to do, if she wasn't writing--told her to either give up her book contract, or she was fired.
(She enjoys the fact that he's most likely aware that she was on the NY Times bestseller list.)

Anyway, this--just after taking this leap--was her period of canned tuna (and frozen dinners). Happily, she had a great fiance who was, as she put it, great with a vacuum--while she was too engrossed in her writing to notice the enormity of the dust bunnies.

But it wasn't always easy. She spent--it sounded like weeks--unsure of what twith her characters when they were seemingly safe in their treehouse. She went out and sat on her stoop one day, and just thought: what is the worst thing that could happen in a treehouse? And then she thought of it: fire!

So, in other words, power through.
"And [since we aren't in the middle of a zombie apocalypse,] there are more chocolate espresso beans at Whole Foods," she finished. Hee.

--From Gatekeeper Mobile

Best Staff Rec Ever.

From Word Books, naturally.

The Weather-Tossed Gatekeeper

Through monsoon wind and rain and--worse--the G train, Gatekeeper has safely arrived at Word Books in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Carrie Ryan just got here, with her entourage and in high spirits: "Lovely weather we're having!" she quipped.

New Contest: Pitch Pride and Prejudice, Get Zombies

The skinny: write a pitch letter for Pride and Prejudice and, if yours wins, receive a print of a Jane Austen letter to her cousin, and a signed copy of Carrie Ryan's The Dead-Tossed Waves.


With congratulations to commentator :), I will anounce his Austen contest in modified form: Write a query for Pride and Prejudice as if it were something you'd just written--and that you're pitching to today's agents. Note that your pitch need not be full-length--250 breezy words will do.

And you don't have to write truthfully--go ahead and make up publications, names of "your" previous works, and even change the plot, if you like. You may, for example, pretend P&P is set in the present--with all that goes along with it. (Darcy could have a Manhattan townhouse, for example.)

The contest is about writing elegant queries--not about facts.

Leave your submission as comments to this post. Anonymous submissions preferred--just copy your submission into an email to after posting, so I'll know who wrote what (though I won't match name to query until after I've evaluated them).

Write the best P&P query, and you'll not only get a postcard-sized (suitable for framing) print of one of Jane Austen's letters, but also--if it is at all possible to get it without my being horribly pushy--a signed copy of Carrie Ryan's The Dead Tossed WavesI've just ordered the copy from The Strand, and I make no guarantees about its condition. If I can't get it signed, I'll just send you the book.

Submissions are due by Monday, April 5.

Photo by Theo Westenberg.

Why that due date?
April 5, 1809, Jane Austen wrote an angry missive to publisher Benjamin Crosby. Crosby claimed that no timeline had been set for publication of her novel (then titled Susan, later titled Northanger Abby) after he'd purchased the rights for £10 in 1803. In other words, Austen could have used an agent. She eventually bought the rights back, but not until she'd dealt with Crosby with panache. This letter was written under the psuedonym "Mrs. Ashton Dennis"--thus allowing her to end the letter with, "I am, Gentlemen, MAD."
Yay! The power's back on.
I can't help but wonder how technology will change future museum exhibits in honor of famous writers. Somehow "And this is the printed, bound galley of the collected emails of Jane Austen...and this was Jane Austen's smart phone in elegant, pearlescent navy blue..." wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

Publishing is going to be just fine.

Construction on the street has knocked out power for the office (awesome!) but, between technological rediscoveries (corded phones, teapots that heat on match-ignited stoves), I'll give you an update about last night's shindig. A brief one, since this is typed on cell phone keys.

First of all, even if they weren't of the literary persuasion, upon meeting these women (and one token guy), I'd be fully confident that they are about to rule the world someday--and I'd be okay with that.

If this group is any indication--and I think it should be, as there were six agencies represented and three imprints--publishing is going to be just fine.

Average age: late twenties.

Genres best represented: Paranormal YA, Sci Fi, women's fiction, narrative nonfiction.

Most popular drink: Blue Moon, with an orange. Second-most: some stemmed martini-like drink called a Pink Lemonade. It was neither pink nor lemonade-flavored. One agent braved the house red.

Most popular living location: Brooklyn (second-tier neighborhoods: nowhere dangerous, but no Brooklyn Heights, either), followed by Astoria, Queens.

Most popular educational background: most have a BA or BLA from Vassar, NYU, or a liberal arts college.

Average level of success placing/purchasing titles: ridiculous. One said her entire company looked forward to living off the royalties for a book she just sold well into their retirements.

Opinion of Twitter: One agent called it somethibg like (I must have blocked it out!) An Agent's Lifesaver. One agent said her writers made friends via Twitter and started a literary magazine. A third agent says she made the mistake of mentioning that she bought cupcakes at her favorite bakery and FOUR separate writers called the place and had cupcakes delivered. Her whole office was in a sugar coma.

General mood: optimistic. These are the savviest cats on the block, though, so whatever happens, I think they'll adapt.

Synchronicity: met the editorial assistant for the editor who bought my most recent project. Immediately texted author.
Happy International Day of Awesomeness, everyone!

Gossip (Publishing) Girl

What does Gatekeeper do on a Wednesday night?

Meet with other young agents/editors, nibble the orange slices in half-priced hefeweizens (and curly fries), and hear the latest gossip about the industry, of course.

Our preferred hangout. Yes, that's a painting of the last supper, featuring Van Morrison and Madonna; yes, that's exposed brick--and yes, the place is lit almost entirely by candles (the little glass oil lamps the size of tea lights). Note the fuzzy velvet couches. Comfy.

Is there any gossip you especially want to know about? Ask the Gatekeeper by 5pm, and I'll see what I can do.


Molto Gusto: Easy Italian Cooking at Home

Ally's comment on gnocchi made me think of this podcast, which I listened to last night: Mario Batali on his new work, Molto Gusto: Easy Italian Cooking at Home

It was just beautiful last night, and I couldn't make myself get into the subway: I kept thinking, "Okay, but if I walk just twelve more blocks in this direction--then I'll only have to take one train--oh, but I really should keep walking to the express--oh, but there's another express stop just a few blocks further..." I just wanted to be out at night, breathing. It's one of the rare pleasures of the city: on warm nights, street life continues as if daytime; the parks are lit by 19th century-style lamps (with electricity, though); horses pull carriages, families play soccer, and teenagers walk barefoot over newest lawn.

I was craving a dinner on a rooftop or, almost as good, an open-air cafe. (It's my personal hypothesis that food and drink have a chemical reaction to the air of the first night of spring--resulting in many health benefits, not yet cataloged. Vitamin S, spring--yes, quite.) But this podcast is simply delicious. Audible food porn. And the book features things you can make yourself, without fancy equipment or weird ingredients--rather, this is all about what Italians eat daily.


Does anyone have this book yet? What's your favorite easy Italian recipe?
Just, you know, FYI--it makes us sad, too, when we say no to people we like.

I've been slumped in my chair, chin to palm, lunch munched much too quickly as I stare into the screen. I've gone a bit ridiculous with the carbs, for comfort. (Did you know you could add potatoes to pasta? And then add a little cream to the tomato sauce to make it pink? Kind of like Salsa Rosa from Alone in the Kitchen With An Eggplant, which Gatekeeper highly recommends.)

We have a new intern applicant here today, and as she reads, I try to minimize my disgruntled-ness--I worry she's started making tally marks on a secret notepad for each of my sighs. (I confess to doing something similar, once: counting "disdainful looks" and sharing them with my boss after one of our visitors left. Number: 6.)

In that vein, new lists:

Number of women plugging Williams-Sonoma products from the audience during a souffle class on Sunday: 7 ("Should we use the Himalayan sea salt or the Fleur de Sel? Are you sure it'll work? What about my Spring Bunny Ramekins...?")

Um, try Morton's. I'm fully intend to add (excuse me, "fold in") six whipped egg yolks to a Betty Crocker chocolate cake mix. And throw in half a bag of Nestle chips in the center before baking. Take that, Upper East Side!

Number of yarmulkes on Saturday, between Second Avenue (and 85th) and Fifth Ave/Central park: 13.

Number of Oscar-guesses Gatekeeper got right: 5. No prizes here.

Number of eggplants eaten in the past day: .5.

Number of authors rejected: too many.

Snarky Agent Man and I are in B&N, killing time before an Oscars party--we've just been offered samples of cinnmon dulce lattes, to which, of course, we replied "Yes please!"--and Snarky, noting my overcaffeinated state, reading this blog on his phone, noted, "I love how you have like ten sentences in just one." Well, yes. It's what writing workshoppers complained most about--long sentences that, they said, left them breathless.

Snarky, you may be reading this from the YA section where I left you, and workshoppers, well, you're probably off somewhere with tea and ferns and Brooklyn cats and yellow light, writing sentences brilliant and succinct.

But here is my reply: consider this literary aerobics, save a ton on jazzercize and gym memberships and leg warmers (new and dug out of closets maintained since the eighties), and you'll be just fine.

For the record, it's probably unwise to craft a query, or the first page of your novel, with one long, snaking sentence. But if you can punctuate properly--exhilerate without exhausting (like any choice in these materials, if you execute it brilliantly, you'll be forgiven), I think most agents--and I, as a reader with an excellent inner-reader aerobic heart rate-- would be down with that.

Happy Oscars, everyone!

BookSwim, DIY-style

I'm sure most of you have heard about Oprah-endorsed (well, then it must be good!--and expensive) book Netflix program. See, I'd been saying for years that there should be a book Netflix. Unfortunately, books are heavy, media mail is slow, and the prices--$9.95 to read one book (and not even keep it) a month, $23 to read three--aren't exactly inspiring me to, er, dive in.

Have any of you used this service?

That said, there is another option: buy your books online (comparing prices, of course--I was standing in a fancy grocery store today, one of the ones that adds an "Add a dollar to the price because you had the priviledge of buying it in our store" stores, and my friend introduced me to the concept of "frugal fatigue"--if there isn't a book on this yet, there should be!), read them, and sell them online again.

That is, Book Swim DIY-style. Who doesn't like DIY? I'm about to DIY with regard to:

1) chocolate lava cakes (add a square of fancy chocolate into the centers of your favorite chocolate cake batter, place in muffin tins or ramekins. If you want it to be fancier, add whipped egg whites and fold into batter like it's a souffle. And yes, I totally took a free Williams-Sonoma souffle class today).

2) a set of faux frame molds (see and stencils. Who doesn't like hammering pretty things into the wall?

All images from the awesome Tossed & Found book.
It's kind of DIY for fans of the Urban Outfitters aesthetic.
And really fun to leave on your coffee table.

But back to the books.

Here's how it goes. You'll have to go through Amazon, sometimes, but it is cheap.

The Three Weissmans of Westport --$14.62
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction--$18.45

14.62 + 18.45 + 2.39 tax = $36 even. Free Super Saver Shipping.

But I can sell them on Amazon for:

$13.99 (lowest current price for 36 Arguments) and $14.39 (Three Weissmans) + around $8 for shipping for them both, minus $6 for Amazon commission = 30.38

$36 - 30.38 = $5.62 to have two books delivered for my reading pleasure.

All this (postcard) could be yours!

So, strolling through the Jane Austen exhibit--an experience that had me staring closely, intently, fingers warm and leaving marks on protective glass, all museum etiquette forgotten--I felt as if I was detangling sentences from the past that, because of their ornate penmanship, hadn't been translated from curves and flourishes into meaning in centuries. Of course this wasn't the case; there were "translations" in which many of the sentences were typed up beneath their folded, time-vanilla-ed pages. I went with my dear friend, M., who was in my 18th Century Literature class nearly eight years ago. Of all people to not mind my staring--to, even, slowly decipher the pretty word as we read mundane meanings, a sentence, something like: "I cannot take ---'s shoes, as my trunk, after the journey, will be quite full." There was also a letter written by Jane's sister, an account--in a similar, but larger hand--of Jane's death. Big exhale.

The pages still held many of their folds, and I delighted in seeing how the letters had once been folded and sealed. There were black, pale blue, and pinkish-red remnants of wax seals, but none of the symbols remained.

We weren't allowed to take pictures, and the guards were very strict. And, unfortunately, the gift shop offered only two prints of her letters, and in postcard size--I'd actually dragged M. downstairs quite soon, unable to bear waiting longer to go buy the poster-sized prints of her letters that, I assumed, would be there. Alas: no.

But I have two postcard-sized prints, suitable for framing, of a letter Miss Austen wrote her niece, Cassandra, in 1817. It's written backwards, as were many of the letters between them, but the flourishes--the curves under and over letters, are in place.

And so, a contest, in two parts: the winner of each part will receive a postcard.

Part One: devise a contest. Relevance to subject matter (contests like "write a ____ in the style of Jane Austen") get extra points.

Part Two: win it.

On your mark--get set--write!

What does one wear to meet Ms. Austen?

Purple. A sweater. It may be 43 degrees, but it's still knitwear weather inside.

That said, I am, at this very moment, standing in the Morgan Library and Museum lobby. A violinist and cellist are playing, and about thirty excited-looking New Yorkers--most over 45, most dressed in down and fur--stand behind a greeter, who promises that, in five minutes, we're welcome to storm the galleries.

I can't wait.

On Book Cover Promises

You've heard about the narrative arc, most likely, since English 101, high school honors, or--in some strange cases--about the time you were reading Roald Dahl, considering whether your teacher is toeless and spits blue. (Frankly, given the acceleration of some parts of education today, I'm surprised no one's decided to make a plush version--aww, five points of plot, squeeze! What a cuddly denouement! Now, Teddy, stop chewing on the rising action...!)

In this chart, I'd say the Book Cover Promise is between Initiation and Complication.

In this chart, Book Cover Promise would be Complication. 

But here's the thing. Gatekeeper, being of curious quantitative mind (when it suits--I can calculate 15 percent with the best of 'em, but don't ask me to do your kid's algebra) started counting.

I've always been rather sensitive to the promises a book cover makes. Suppose you know that something dreadful is going to happen to a character because, in B&N, you snuck in a long look at the book jacket before you were shooed to the cash register/the exit.

Would you go to the trouble of bonding with a character you know would meet a terrible arboreal death in the same way a reader, diving in synopsis- and book jacket-innocent, would? No. Thus, you've limited your experience of the work by looking ahead, injecting your own, Wait! No! Look out for that falling tree...! commentary.

Obviously we need the book cover promise--or the query letter promise--to pique the interest of the reader. But when should these promises, well, deliver?

In an informal study of the YA works I have on hand, here are some numbers.

I Am The Wallpaper by Mark Peter Hughes
  • Book cover promise: p. 43, when Flooey insists she will be a different person, rise above the family life (and romantic) adversity she faces--and there are very strong hints that her diary has been posted online without her knowledge. Confirmation comes a few pages later. This happens 16.7 percent through the narrative; confirmation is page 50-something. (Sorry--it went back to the library, or I'd check.)
  • 256 total pages. 
Carpe Diem by Autumn Cornwell
  • BCP p. 54, when overachieving Vassar Spore leaves to travel with her wild aunt, who blackmailed her parents into letting her take the summer off to travel. (14.67 percent) 
  • In side note, I found this painfully, well, tiring--it's hard to watch a protagonist spend so many pages so stressed and overworked and not feel that way oneself. After finding the BCP, I returned this, too. 
  • 368 pages. 
Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith
  • Girl working at (and trying to keep alive) her family's vampire-themed Italian restaurant falls for guy who just might be (gasp!) a vampire. No garlic for him. 
  • Meets him page 67. Pretty obvious he's the guy in the BCP. (19 percent)
  • Total: 336 pages. 
Possessions by Nancy Holder
  • The BCP: girl goes to private boarding school that is (whoa! Never saw it coming!) haunted.
  • First confirmed ghostly activity, p. 47. At that point, the dynamics have been set. (14.6 percent)
  • 320 pages
Days of Little Texas by R. A. Nelson
  • BCP: Lucy, who the protagonist faith-healed along his speaking/performing/inspirational tour, reappears as if following him--and he can't stop thinking about her. Her reappearance is on p 73  (18.9 percent), which leads us to believe she will play a part in his future dealings. 
  • Before this, we're entertained by Little Texas and his rather unusual traveling revival-tent lifestyle (and his rather unusual guardians), and his massive crush on Lucy, who he meets page 35. 
  • Total pages: 386
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
  • BCP: young Moose's family moves to Alcatraz so his dad can take a job as a security guard and his sister can attend a special school in San Francisco. When he meets Piper, the daughter of the warden, he knows she's trouble--while he just wants to be good. 
  • BCP p. 47--Piper hatches their plan for using the prison laundry service and selling it to kids at school. 21 percent. 
  • Total pages: 215. 
All-American Girl by Meg Cabot
  • BCP: protagonist tackles guy about to shoot the president. p. 77. (18.5 percent)
  • Total pages: 416
  • Note that there are two strong sub-plots to keep us entertained until page 77--1) a cutie in the protagonist's art class, who turns out to be the president's son, and 2) the constant comparison between the protagonist and her seemingly perfect older sister. 
Zel by Donna Jo Napoli
  • BCP: protagonist Zel (short for Rapunzel)'s mother hatches a plan to keep Zel from the prince forever. p. 62. (27 percent)
  • Total pages, 227. 
  • Note that a great deal happened before page 62: it's established that Zel's mother has magical powers with regard to plants, and Zel meets her love interest, and his horse. Zel, Mother and the Prince have perspectives (their own chapters), which keeps us more than entertained. 
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • Book cover promises that the protagonist, Lee, will experience "an all-consuming preoccupation with classmate who is less a boyfriend and more than a crush--coalesce into a singular portrait of the universal pains and thrills of adolescence." 
  • Page 50: Lee faints while getting her ears pierced, and when she recovers, sees that Cross, the love interest, is next to her. They hang out. Romance seems a possibility. 12.4 percent. 
  • Total pages: 403. 
Look for Me by Moonlight by Mary Downing Hahn
  • Cynda, the daughter of an innkeeper in a remote Maine location, becomes enamored of a mysterious, handsome guest. We learn that his car lurked creepily by the inn a few days before he officially appeared and announced himself (p 56) (28 percent) and that he saw her in the window watching it (p. 62). She dreams of him telling her that they are queen and king of darkness (p. 55) and he delivers the line, "I know how it is to be an outsider, alone and unhappy, misunderstood." Um, creepy. (p. 64). By page 66, we know that the strange ice figure is, without a doubt, creeping closer to the door and will, in a few days, be inside. All of these combine to deliver the book cover promise--that Cynda will not only love him, but that he's frightening, and she mustn't fall under his spell. 
  • Total pages: 181. 


Okay. Anyone notice the pattern?

The Book Cover Promise--or what would be the Query Letter Promise--is fulfilled, in all of these works, either around page 50, or around 19 percent through the work. 

Why is this important? Well. 

As you may know, one of the most popular agent complaints is "More needs to happen sooner." If we were to make check-box correspondence (that is, with a list of ten likely suggestions), this would most certainly be one of them. 

If, like Days of Little Texas or All-American Girl, you wish to have this one major BCP plot explosion later than page 50, you'll need two strong sub-plots--most often dealing with family conflict and romantic interest/conflict.

There are exceptions, of course. You may remember a work called Summer of My German Soldier, which originally released in the 1960s--and we've all heard those, "Kids today! Just can't wait for anything!" arguments, which may have something to do with the fact that the book cover promise isn't fully fulfilled until page 84, or 35 percent. (Though the protagonist, Patty, a young Jewish American in WWII, meets and falls in love with the man she eventually hides on p. 41.) That said, because we're so entertained by family conflict (Patty and her mother have many spats) and Patty wanting to spend more time with Anton, we're hardly bored. Also note that some works are very vague in their promises, and some spread them out over many, many pages.

This also, of course, depends on how much you decide to reveal. Some writers don't even disclose the ending in their five-pages synopses; some give away everything in the first paragraph of their query. You want your reader excited to read more--to keep reading in order to do so. But, like with an amuse-bouche, appetites are whet with a taste. You can just say, "Um, so, cool stuff will happen"--give us solid examples, or a feel of what to expect. 

Your BCP placement creates tension and momentum. If you put your BCP fulfillment on page 30, we'll get adrenaline fatigue--and keep expecting more and more and more, which will be VERY difficult to deliver. If I'm reading a work and nothing happens by page 60, I go back to the query and make sure that something will--this is the point at which I get impatient. I've rejected works because the BCP isn't fulfilled until page 120--which was, as you can imagine, somewhat frustrating. I think most editors would have stopped reading long before that point. 

Have you noticed this patterns in books you've read? How does it compare to the BCP fulfillment (BCPF, I suppose) in your own work? 

If you have any more YA works in your possession, and feel so inclined, go ahead and post where the BCPF comes in, what page, what percentage of the way through the work it is, and whether you think this is well-timed, too early, or too late. 

Meet Carrie Ryan, author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth

From the Facebook page (thanks Snarky!):

YA Not? with Carrie Ryan at WORD
Reading from THE DEAD-TOSSED WAVES + zombie donuts!

Saturday, March 13, 2010
3:00pm - 4:00pm
126 Franklin Street
Brooklyn, NY

We're excited that "Forest of Hands and Teeth" author CARRIE RYAN will be visiting us from Charlotte, North Carolina to read from and discuss her latest book, "The Dead-Tossed Waves".

YA Not? is a literary salon for not-so-young- adults who love reading and discussion YA literature. Join us for the conversation. There will be zombie donuts to snack on, and books to buy and have signed by the author!

Learn more about the author at

Dear Haroun: It's not you, it's me.

So. I was reading Haroun. I was totally into it this morning, excepting the things I mentioned earlier: probably difficult to sell, kind of slow, of that aesthetic of books for young readers that would make newer, more cynical, post-Twilight young adults scoff.

Then, well, I was cranky from the subway (it was one of those, "Okay, fine, I'll perch on the edge of the seat because you're taking up a seat and a half with your posture" [this was not a large person, mind you] "and there's a wall on the other side so there's nowhere else to go" rides) and the fanciful worlds of Haroun just felt, well, not applicable. I knew it was cynicism that would, eventually, if this were a submission from an unknown writer, kill it. Cynicism + grumpiness + bad weather = Gatekeeper wants to switch to another work.

I had the office Kindle with me, so I started reading another submission, which is rather good.

Were Haroun in my submissions pile (or e-pile), I'd most likely set it down, wait a week or more to make sure I couldn't pick it up and feel the magic again, and then send a really nice note. (I really liked the scene with the fixing of the pipe of ocean being like plumbing--six inches above the faucet!--and the wrench with veins--and the fact that the driver/flying bird was telepathic.) I'd say that there are probably a lot of agents who'd love this, but that it just wasn't quite right for me.

That said, Days of Little Texas wins the book race! I believe it was you, jmartinlibrary, who suggested it--will you send me a mailing address so I can send you your prize, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters? Send an email to

Book Race Update

So, Haroun and I went on a subway (and magic bird) ride this morning. My first thought: Oh geez, if I got this in my submissions, I'd have to put it on the Kindle immediately. Why? Because it's a little hard to believe (excepting the author's track) that this would be easy to sell. The Kindle would make it look more like a legit book, which would increase my faith in that regard.

It's very fanciful. And a little slow. And not edgy in the same way books are now--more soft, fluid, multicultural than fast, exciting, scary, sexy. It's the sleepy violet evening versus the sprint to work or the last school bell on a Friday.

But...I like it. (It has some things in common with Days of Little Texas, actually.) And I'm going to read more.

Note that, if I would have said no if this were another writer--that is, if it had been written by Joe Writer versus Salman Rushdie--Texas wins.

The pretty desk versus the useful desk

I had extra time yesterday and, in strolling to work in the gorgeous 41-degree weather, I stopped in Crate & Barrel. There's something about stepping into an almost-set--it's fun to imagine your life there. ("Come live with me in a page of the Crate & Barrel/Pottery Barn/West Elm catalog," I've said on multiple occasions, after a rough day that could really benefit from all the restful blues, beiges and crisp whites.)

And then I started sitting at all the desks. Some are obviously meant for those with apartments large enough to have their own libraries; some are sturdy enough that I could stand on them and tap dance; some are more practical, some vanity-like, pretty, white with tiny drawers and the desk equivalent of fancy-pants crown molding.

I was sitting at one--tempted, as I was, to pull out my notepad and make notes, perch in the padded plush chair a little longer and pretend all that was mine--and then I realized: I could never have a desk like this. Why? Because I'd spill an Amy's pot pie on it within hours of its assembly.

So what does one do? Choose pretty, inspiring, functional, whatever's available, whatever's near enough that you can put it in a wagon and steer it home and up the stairs and through tiny doorways and around roommates and cats?

How do you choose the furniture that holds you as you write?

A Joke from Snarky Agent Man

How many agents does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Agent 1: Sorry, we're not accepting screw in light bulbs anymore. Bayonets only, and we only get them from the store.

Agent 2: We considered your light bulb but it's a bit too modern. Have you tried turning it into a candle?

Agent 3: Loved your light bulb. Great light. Lots of illumination. Unfortunately, the agency's decided to remain in the dark indefinitely.

Macmillan CEO John Sargent on the agency model, availability and price


So, a very well-known agency sent out a document to hundreds of agents this week.

And, in fourteen-point font, this well-known, quite good agency used an apostrophe-S--to pluralize.

That is, the document reads, "The book the best writer's use to..."

In a printed document! Not even an email!

My eyes! My soul! This hurts.
Two good points from my correspondence this morning:

1. Some publishing professionals insist that your work must neatly fit into one genre/subgenre. ("Or how will Barnes & Noble know where to shelve it?" they always ask.) Pish posh. It helps, yes. But if an agent loves your work, an agent loves your work.

2. This from a very bright writer--so long as you keep writing, there are always more chances.

Gatekeeper and the Spy Mike

I snuck my little recording device--okay, an iPod with a video camera that I'd like to think I'm smooth enough to use like a spy--into the Colson Whitehead reading.

Turns out I'm not that smooth.

I turned it on when Mr. Whitehead was saying brilliant, hilarious things about his submission process--and his rejections. It was in my purse, so as to minimize the likelihood of my getting thrown out (cause really, he was quite funny--and I've been wanting to join the Center for Fiction since I heard about it), so--it afforded a great view of...solid black. Okay, whatevs. Then, as I listened to the clips, I realized that--just as it got hilarious--I got all nervous. Is this thing on? Terrible noise as I pick it up and mess with it. Okay, it's on. Wait, is it really? An awful screech as the mike hits something in my bag. Is it getting all this? Should I point the mike at--SCREEEEEEECH.

So, I'm in the market for inexpensive (ie, free) software that edits sort-of stolen video-minus-the-visual-part clips of public events. Any suggestions? I suppose, if all else fails, I could warn you the second and minute of the screeches and you could hover over your mute button.

Incidentally, if any of you are interested in the spy experience, DC's International Spy Museum may just be my favorite museum in the entire world. I tried out the Operation Spy program, which has you racing around this amazing set, trying to look for clues without displacing documents--so the bad guys won't know you've been there--deciphering clues, and rushing about in an "escape truck" which is really a room that shakes. Totally awesome. The museum itself could take all day, it's that full of cool stuff.

Get Ready to Board the Glee Express!