Friday, December 17, 2010

As Stephen Fry Says...

In one of his estimable books, the title of which escapes me as I have just finished too quickly the delightful onion at the bottom of a gin gibson: "Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once!"

I've remembered, that's from The Liar.

Anyway, go at once to the nearest bookstore and read the first 10 1/2 pages of Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question. If you do not then walk out with the book— paid for, one hopes— you are questionable indeed.

That, folks, is how you do it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hooks & Tags.

Sewing? No. Today I'm talking about query letters and a not-so-fine distinction many new novel writers don't quite see: the difference between a hook and a tag line. The reason fiction writers often miss the difference is that the phrase "tag line" comes from the evil world of screenwriting, and the tag line has contaminated everything.

I'm taking parts of this from a post I made on a thread on AbsoluteWrite. The writer of the original post had a query letter that wasn't getting a good response. They posted the hook from their letter. The problem? Their hook was actually a tag line. I won't use that writer's tag line, but here's something similar:

"Is it worth pursuing your dreams if the search only brings you pain?"

Okay, so maybe it wasn't that bad, but you get the idea. A tag line is something a marketing department comes up with to put on a one sheet (movie poster). It is not the sort of thing that makes anyone want to see the movie (or request a partial) because it doesn't mean anything. It could apply to a thousand different books or movies or TV shows.

What is a hook? In screenwriting land, a hook is a log line. It is your incredibly interesting, infinitely-marketable, audience-ready plot. It is hopefully high-concept. A hook is the one line that makes your would-be reader or viewer or agent say "that's interesting, I haven't seen that before, I have to know how that story turns out." Here are some examples, poorly written by yours truly:

-A young boy discovers he's a wizard and is sent to a secret wizarding school.

-A girl returns to her family home to find a cure for a curse that is causing her feet to turn to glass.

-A five-year-old boy raised in a single room must escape from the man who has held him and his mother captive.

-A young woman falls in love with a man who travels through time.

All are novels, obviously, and most literary fiction. It can be done. A hook is what is driving your book, the underlying question that must be solved. At their best, they give the reader an idea of a unique problem that is big enough to drive an entire plot and get them started thinking about how they would handle the same issue.

As a side note, it's not necessary to have a high-concept hook. In a novel they can be much softer:

-A young man rides his horse away from his troubled family and tries to build a new life in Mexico.

-A man tries to reclaim the love of his youth, having waited sixty years for his beloved's husband to die.

Note that these softer plots may be of less interest from a beginning writer. An agent reading your query letter might not trust that an unknown writer will have the chops to pull those two stories off as well as Cormac McCarthy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In short, a good hook makes an agent think your book can be marketed, has a target audience, and will sell. It is the heart of your query letter. There's no room in a query letter for a tag line.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I'm a Bigot.

I'll admit it. I am a fiction bigot. I am prejudiced when it comes to what I read. I am on a quest to read the best fiction I can find. So in my prejudice I scour the book reviews and the fiction awards. I'm one of those annoying people at the writers conference standing in the corner with the group leaders arguing the merits or lack thereof of this year's Pulitzer or Man Booker winner. In short, I'm a snot.

I fear I'm prejudiced against books that are— I confess it here— fun to read. The kind of book you can blast through on one rainy day. Granted, some of these books— some of them bestsellers— are, well, rather poorly written. But certainly not all are. There are certainly sufficient books out there that are both well-written and fun. Dare I say— exciting. But when I read them why do I turn into a Puritan trapped in the appurtenances of sin?


The confession is prompted by a quote I read today:

There's a hunger for stories in all of us, adults too. We need stories so much that we're even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won't supply them. - Phillip Pullman.

Have I been fleeing from good stories for fear of reading bad books? My mother never allows my father to tell dirty jokes in her presence, saying she doesn't want that sort of thing in her head. Am I doing the same, with a self-installed warning system that goes off if I'm enjoying myself too much? How did story become the enemy of good writing?

I've mentioned a friend who forgave and enjoyed some truly bad movies (trust me) by saying "it's just a good yarn!" Well, I was looking at the stack of books I read last month that have not yet made it upstairs to the fiction shelves. There are a couple in there that were both literary fiction, both well-written, critically well-received and, well, high-concept. They have a central plot idea that can be stated in a short sentence. They are Emma Donoghue's Room and Ali Shaw's The Girl with Glass Feet. I enjoyed both. And felt guilty.

But turn this on its head. Let us consider Tana French. Wonderful writer of mysteries. Fantastic way with the English language. And her books are as packed with high-concept story as anyone could want. And I feel no guilt reading her books. Is it because they are firmly planted in a genre?

Much as I hate to do it, let me paraphrase George Bush. Or rather, one of his speechwriters, who was writing about the school system with the phrase "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Maybe that's what I have. I pick up the occasional genre novel and am so delighted if the writing is good that it becomes a memorable book. While waves of literary novels pass through to my "already read" pile with little notice and I applaud myself for getting through another award winner.

The entire fault, then, is not in genre. It's perfectly possible to find good and even great writing in genres. What is letting me down is literary fiction. Because in that same stack of books that I finished last month are a couple of books I either shut early or wish I had. They were— I admit it here— boring. One was a recent Pulitzer winner. And the writing— my reason for buying it in the first place— was all very nice and clean, but you know what it wasn't? Good. Great. It was all perfectly functional, but it was bland. Another book I just finished on audio read like a 600-page excuse to insert a couple of dozen of the author's most closely held political views. Views I agreed with and enjoyed and found very clever and worthy, but the other 575 pages? Oy. Stick a fork in it, already.

So I'm sorry, award committees out there in the Land of the Literary, you fail. You are failing miserably. Not just the Nobel committee that says it will never again hand the literary prize to an American, but all y'all. You are suffering from the same narrow-minded bigotry I am. You're awarding too many boring books. Story is not the enemy!

I shall take baby steps to recover. I shall not buy award winners by reflex. I shall trust reviews more than awards, and seek out more reviews from more sources. I shall eagerly await Tana French and Ali Shaw and Emma Donoghue's next books. Heck, I was going to do that anyway.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

p.s. I have the latest Man Booker winner here in my to-read piles: Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question. It is supposed to be *gasp* funny. Heaven forfend! Man Booker committee, I hereby issue you a temporary reprieve.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Know What Makes You Cry.

When I was a kid, I thought actors were actors because they alone knew how to cry on cue. When you get older, you find things that will make you cry, even when you think about them years later. I have two, one negative, on positive.

1985. I'm doing the tour of Europe. Old-school, I know, but we're doing it on the cheap. Bus tours. A few days in Germany. Two days in Munich. A day at Dachau. It's not out in the woods. Not where nobody could see. It's in the suburbs ten miles outside the city.

Concrete and stone pads showing where the bunkhouses were. I wished they hadn't torn down so much, but I suppose they had to. It looked clean, which is what is wrong.

In the museum. A picture. A mother in a winter coat over a dress, leading her two little girls by the hand. All in their good clothes, hair done, black and white. I stepped closer. The caption? "On the Way to the Gas Chamber."

So that was one time.

2002. May, I think. Walking home from the corner market to my apartment, carrying the New York Times. On the cover, Masai warriors standing on a grass plain, a dozen cows grazing. A son of this village, a student now at Stanford, had carried home the news of the attack on the World Trade Center. And his village elders had voted to give a dozen or so of their most valued cows to the people of the United States, to help them in their time of need. The U.S. Ambassador had arrived to accept the donation.

So that was another.

The thing about this kind of spontaneous emotion is precisely that it is not expected. Or expected, as you would at Dachau— if never in the street outside your apartment— but sudden. Not from memory, from history, but from a picture. Of a mother and two little girls. Or yes, in the street, of warriors and cows.

That's what I want you to know, you writers, you humans. That sometimes, the things that hit us the hardest are the things we did not expect.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Big Man.

I just heard a story on NPR about Hawaii's own Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. The wonderful Iz. The tragically dead Iz, who passed away— as had every member of his immediate family— from the consequences of obesity. Iz is famed for his singing and ukulele playing, and is increasingly famous world-wide for his version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

The NPR story was about the recording of that song. Iz showed up at three in the morning at a recording studio that he'd booked over the phone. Nobody there knew him, and were startled by this enormous man who showed up with a battered ukulele. Iz then proceeded to change the lyrics and the music, and the recording that resulted— the first take— ended up sitting on a shelf in the studio for five years. When it finally came off the shelf, it became a huge hit.

The point is that nobody involved in the creation of that song knew what would happen to it. Nobody knew it would be rocketing up the charts in Germany fifteen years later. Nobody knew it would long survive Iz.

The thought here is that we need to take chances. Create without expectation. And to know that anything might happen. Nobody knows what song or what book might succeed, either artistically or commercially. Try. And be good to yourself along the way. We lost Iz at thirty-eight. The whole world will miss him.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Poor Oprah.

She's picked her latest book club selections— two from Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. She must be pretty burned from some of her previous selections. Heck, she helped make one writer famous when he rejected the invitation. Then there were the memoirs-that-weren't. So now she is playing it safe with a writer who is Really Most Sincerely Dead.

I'm guessing she had her staff check to make sure.

Friday, December 3, 2010

There is a Syndrome!

Everything must have a syndrome, yes? If only for insurance purposes. Here I am listening to Oliver Sacks, today's guest on Talk of the Nation Science Friday on NPR, and he mentioned an aphasic syndrome that leaves a patient unable to read but still able to write. Eureka! An explanation for all those would-be novelists who never seem to get around to reading books. It is called Dejerine syndrome or "alexia without agraphia." Apparently we are seeing a wave of undiagnosed infarcts of the posterior cerebral artery. Shocking!

Test yourself. Go read a book. For your health.