Also the result of some of the PublishAmerica disasters: if you are offered a publication contract, get it reviewed by a publication attorney. Not any attorney. Not your sister-in-law the real estate attorney or your cousin the divorce attorney. You need an attorney who knows publishing. Because there is a difference, a ginormous difference, between a contract that is legal and a contract that is good. Publication attorneys may not come cheap, but you should look for a bargain here about as much as you want to look for a bargain neurosurgeon. This is your career.
With my contract, I engaged the services of the excellent and patient Greg Victoroff of Rohde & Victoroff:
And I will do so again, with luck.
Please do not risk your novel on a contract that your sister-in-law thinks "looks okay."
Well, thirty-five hours later I have finished listening to the audiobook of Roberto Bolaño's 2666. The book started with a group of literary critics searching for an author who did not want to be found by a group of literary critics. Then that section ended and we got into a couple of parts about the serial killings of women in northern Mexico. Then the last sections had to do with the author, his sister, and her son.
And then it ended.
Good writing, and all that. And lots of it. The book is nine-hundred pages in print. And a great reputation. Lots of folks raved about this book.
Why, oh, why?
It was well written. The literary critics' part was a lot of fun, for folks who find that world amusing. The serial killing part was a grim recitation of the real-life events going on in Mexico. The last part had a bunch of well-researched WWII information. Put it all together and you get...
Well-reviewed literary fiction. Which I read and mostly like. I'm trying to read the best that's out there. I want to understand why some books are celebrated and others are pulped. And this one was the talk of the town. But when it ended, I must have had the same look on my face that a dog gets when it hears a high-pitched noise. Wait, what?
My favorite single part of the book was the eight-minute-long afterward. I was told that the title referred to the year 2666, which lay in the future for each of the five sections of the novel. This, I was told, leant each section perspective.
Whatever. I was also told that the unusual ending, which came along as though mid-sentence, was exactly what Bolaño had in mind. No, he wrapped up 2666 just before his early demise, but it is what he wanted. It's over, finished, done. If you think it sounds cut off, it's because you are an inexperienced reader and unworthy. Go read his The Savage Detectives. You'll see.
Which was excellent, because I happen to know that Bolaño's family recently found a sixth section of 2666. How finished does that sucker sound now, o critics? Put that in your postmodern not-a-pipe and smoke it.
I've downloaded The Savage Detectives for my next listen. Sigh.
Yes, they have announced the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes. And the fiction prize goes to... Um... Folks, they are really giving the Nobel Prize for Literature a run for its money. I would have thought the Pulitzer folks would try rubbing the Nobel people's collective noses in it and start awarding their prize to America's best-known and most widely-lauded writers. And every few years they do award a Cormac McCarthy or a Philip Roth. The rest of the time they seem to be racing the Scandinavians for the title of "most lauded novel you've never even seen in a bookstore."
I get only the most minute credit this year. I have one of the finalist's novels on my coffee table, in the to-read pile. That's Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Great title, by the way. In any case, I do prefer it to the other finalist title, Love in Infant Monkeys, by Lydia Millet. That comes surely from that old study that found baby monkeys would rather cling to a soft, warm artificial mother than to a cold, hard phony mom that offered food. This is for the same reason that I don't sit on the kitchen floor next to the refrigerator. Well, not all the time, anyway.
On to the winner! Dang, I had to look it up again. Congratulations to Paul Harding, for his novel Tinkers. I like this title a lot, mostly because I once had a cat named Tinker. But this book is not about a cat. It is about three generations of men, grandfather, father, and son, and their quiet lives in New England.
The sound you hear is John Irving kicking himself in the head.
There is a rumor afloat on various agent blogs that the love affair with supernatural romance may be ending. Is it possible? Are we moving away from the teenage girl and the vampire, werewolf, demon, angel, fey, ghost– I'm running out of critters here, and so are a lot of writers who make up their own whatevers. That quiet young man in the back of the class, with the unusual features and really interesting manner of dress, who in a moment of crisis saves the heroine or her little brother and thus begins the Great Romantic Adventure.
Hard to imagine anyone growing tired of reading that over and over, isn't it? Well, apparently the appeal is beginning to dim for many agents. Now if readers still clamor for these stories editors will keep buying them, and agents will have to keep looking for them. But folks, they are growing weary. The same-old-same-old? Isn't going to work much longer. I know I've been atop this particular hobby horse before, but I keep reading not-good query letters on review sites, and I want to offer another instance of what goes wrong for would be twinkly-vampire-romance authors.
Query: Heroine of Supernatural Romance Novel is much sought-after by two different supernatural young men. Yes, two! Oh, has that happened before? Moving on... Something Terrible happens to Our Heroine. Some third supernatural party harms her. Our Heroine, presumably recovering from her injuries, stays home while Superswains One and Two go out to track down the bad guy and wreak revenge.
Problem? Our Heroine stays home. Not okay. Protip for the day: whatever happens in your book, write your query letter in such a way that your main character, Our Heroine, is not only active throughout, but is driving the story.
I once had a class at UCLA from Jodie Foster's former producing partner. She had a rule: if your main character could get on a bus and head off to Mexico at any point during the story, you do not have a story.
Our Heroine might as well have gone to Cabo to recuperate while her erstwhile supernatural boyfriends ran the plot. That is not the way to attract the attention of a reader, or of an agent suffering from a bad case of vampire poisoning.
A wonderful sentiment, a brilliant piece of writing, and as usual I'm talking about something else. Something simpler, which makes a change.
You are the writer.
You are not the publisher.
Yes, this post is the result of another snarl with PublishAmerica defenders. I've been talking to a few writers who insist that PA's business model is much smarter and that PA is more likely to prosper than is any given commercial publishing house. Well, yeah, they're selling books back to their writers at exorbitant prices, jacking up shipping costs, eliminating editing, using clipart covers, and even forcing their writers to call a 900-number to place orders. This is to say nothing of the "we'll send your book to fill-in-the-blank for only x-hundreds of dollars!" Of course they're making money. They "published" 234 books last week. If I kept selling you the Brooklyn Bridge I might be rolling in dough, too. And if you kept buying it, well, you haven't researched my activities very thoroughly, have you?
My publisher went bankrupt at the end of 2008, in the thick of the economic meltdown. They lost a lot of money trying to publish books the right way. And they did everything right. It ended badly, and I feel sorry for them. But I had a great time. I got paid, my book is beautiful, any mistakes in it are mine alone because they edited and copyedited the bejeezus out of it. I got to go on a great book tour. I've walked into bookstores and found my book on endcaps. Good times.
If my publisher had spent less on my book (they spent $25,000) and those of the other writers they published, they might still be in business. PublishAmerica spends about $300 per book, according to one calculation. Should that be celebrated? No, folks, it should be shut down. The one thing that absolutely should not happen is that PA writers should defend PublishAmerica.
You are a writer. Your job is to preserve, protect, and promote your writing and your career. Not to do the same for your publisher at the cost of your work. Publishing is a business relationship, not friendship, and not family. You may not even have the same publisher next time. Heck, I know I won't!
A small observation of an under-appreciated story technique: the misunderstanding. Because it is something I see quite frequently in excellent novels and not so much in, well, less-than-excellent novels. I used it myself once to create a relationship-, soul-, and happiness-shattering moment in a screenplay. Someone said something about a rock and someone else thought the person was talking about him and, well, seventy years later it ended badly.
So just a thought for a late Sunday. Make sure your characters are not only not always right, not just mostly wrong all the time, but that occasionally they mishear something, misunderstand something, or make a mistake or three. I was lucky when I was young to read Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, which centers on the main character making a mistaken assumption. Read it. Then go mess with your characters.
Writers are over-thinkers. We knew that. What they most over-think is publishing. I've been talking to a few folks who opted for (or were tricked into) self-publishing their books. Now they explain their choice (or fate), and it always goes along the lines of the impossibility of getting an agent or an editor to look at their work. Of the Vast Conspiracy that surely exists to keep unknown writers from being published.
Let me say it simply: all you need to get published is a book that someone in the publishing world thinks will sell to the public. You don't need to be a celebrity. You just need a book that will sell. Yes, it is surprisingly hard to do that. It is hard to write well. Harder than most people think. It takes time to find the person who will believe in your book. But that's all there is to it. There isn't a magic code word to get past the gates. There are no gates.
Write. Don't waste time and energy believing in conspiracies that don't exist. Don't spread them around the Internet and mislead other writers.